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Oklahoma Prairie Country

~Oklahoma Native Americans~

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     Osage Cosmology

The Osage - Original Tallgrass Prairie Caretakers
   The Osages are one of the Dhegiha Siouan tribes, a linguistic grouping of peoples that also includes the Omahas, Kaws, Poncas, and Quapaws.

   The Osage tribe first encountered Europeans in 1673. The Osage villages were located along the Osage River in southwestern Missouri. They lived in villages of mat-covered wigwams along rivers and streams. They depended upon horticulture and foraging. Women grew corn, beans, and squash; men hunted bison, elk, deer, and small game. Depending upon the season, they collected roots, berries, fruit, nuts, and tubers. The most important foods were water lily roots and persimmons. It was not until the eighteenth century, after they acquired horses, that the Osage began making long summer and fall treks to the Great Plains in search of bison.

   Contact with the Europeans brought great strife to the Plains tribes. Diseases, such as malaria, smallpox, measles, and cholera swept the region during the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. Osages, located away from the major rivers, such as the Missouri, Mississippi, and Ohio, were better able to maintain their population and actually prospered during the first century of European contact. They became the most powerful tribe in what was then Spanish Louisiana.

   European settlers eventually evicted most of the tribes from their territories, the richest farmlands of North America, and pushed them west onto the plains.

(Material obtained from the book "The Osage and the Invisible World - From the Works of Francis La Flesche," edited by Garrick A. Bailey)

Osage Cosmology

   The Osage people, from early times, considered knowledge to be necessary to human survival. They believed that knowledge could only come through observation and perception, but they also believed that humans would never come to a complete understanding of the cosmos.

   The concept of "god" was that of a supreme life force who inhabited all things. The name given this force was Wa-kon'-da or Wah-kon'-tah. Other tribes, whose language developed from a common source, had the same name for the supreme force, but they put the accent on the last syllable (Wa-kon-da') and some on the first syllable (Wa'-kon-da). The Osages believed that to secure Wa-kon-da's blessings, they had to show their respect and reverence constantly. To call a majestic tree Wa-kon-da was not an act of idolatry, but simply indicated their understanding that Wa-kon-da resided in everything.

"The Osages believed they were the children of the "middle waters" --the universe of sky, earth, land, and water. Wah'Kon-Tah, the spiritual force creating and guiding the tribe, ended ga-ni-tha, or chaos, by separating the middle waters into the separate elements: air, earth, and water. The tribespeople were divided between the Tzi-sho, Sky People, who descended to earth from above, and the Hunkah, Earth People. Ancestry was traced to one of these two divisions, which were subdivided into twenty-four clans.  Leadership resided in a dual-chief system, the Sky People's leader responsible for matters of peace, the Earth People's chief leading in war."(a)
   Individual observation was not enough, so they would gather together to exchange ideas concerning the action of the sun, moon, and stars. Sky and earth are the two main divisions of the cosmos. Life is conceived in the sky and descends to earth to take material form. Thus, they called the sky father and the earth mother.

"All the ceremonies and prayers of the Osages reflect the principle of the simultaneous duality and unity of all existence. Prayers commonly begin with an address to the Wakonda Above and the Wakonda Below (manifested in Sky and Earth, respectively), the two great fructifying forces of the universe. This principle is mirrored in the architectural structure of Osage towns and in the marriage customs of the people. Each Osage town was divided by an east-west road into two "grand divisions" representing Sky and Earth. Just as Osages perceived the necessity of these two forces coming together in order for life to be sustained, so too they saw the two grand divisions of the people as sustaining the life of the whole. To insure that the principle of spiritual and political unity in this duality would be maintained, Osages were mandated by social custom to marry someone from the other grand division." (a)
   Humans and all living things existed on the surface of the earth, the space between sky and earth. They called this space ho'-e-ga, or snare of life. The Osages further recognized that the earth portion of the cosmos was divided into land and water, each containing certain forms of life.

   Unending cycles appeared everywhere. There was birth, maturity, old age, and death; there was the birth of light, light, and darkness in the sky and it seemed to proceed from east to west. So the Osage began to describe the four major divisions of the universe as sky and earth, and day and night.

   The Osage understanding of the cosmos continued to develop. The direction of the sky was up, and formed the symbolic "left side" of the universe. The sky was a masculine force that for some unexplained reason was associated with the number six. The direction of the earth was down and formed the symbolic "right side" of the universe. The earth was a feminine force that for some reason was associated with the number seven. The light of day was associated with the east, the direction of the sunrise, and with red, the color of the rising sun. The night and the moon were seen as the most powerful forces of death. Night was associated with the west, the direction of the setting sun, and with black, the color of the night. The cycle of day and night repeated itself as the sun traveled from east to west across the surface of the earth.

   The Osage tribe set up residency in Osage County in 1870-71. There were 24 clans and each clan was a social and religious unit. Each clan had a special "life symbol." These symbols included animals, plants, celestial bodies, and natural occurrences such as storms and thunder. Any one of these symbols was not the exclusive property of one clan. The relationship between these symbols and clan members was symbolic. Some myths speak of these symbols as ancestors or grandmother or grandfather.

   Just as the cosmos was divided between sky and earth, so the clans were divided into two groups. There were nine clans of the Sky People and fifteen clans of the Earth People. So all twenty-four clans symbolically represented all of the forces of the earth. To complicate matters, each clan was divided into subclans, each with their own "life symbol."

   The Osages were an extraordinarily religious people. Even members of closely related tribes were frequently surprised by the overtly religious nature of the Osages.

"Ironically the colonizers who first came to North America to escape religious persecution routinely violated the religious freedom of the continent's native people. This practice devastated Native American communities, whose strong religious beliefs underlay all aspects of their lives and cultures. The denial of Indian religious liberty arose from the clash of European and Native American worldviews. Christian colonizers evaluated Indian religions from the perspective of their own particular faiths. They searched for sacred texts, written histories, and church institutions in Indian societies, and were appalled when tribal religions did not display these characteristics. " (a)
  UP: Sky, right, six, male
  DOWN: Earth, land, water, left, seven, female
  EAST: Day, sun, life, birth, red, male
  WEST: Night, moon, destruction, death, black, female

(Material taken from The Osage and the Invisible World, From the Works of Francis La Flesche, edited by Garrick A. Bailey)

(a)Encyclopedia of North American Indians, Frederick E. Hoxxie, ed.

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