Lately, there's been a lot of material in the media about "Killers of the Flower Moon," and how it's to be adapted to the big screen. But for citizens of the Osage Nation, the story still tears at the fabric of the hearts. It is the tale of how their families were murdered by white people who pretended to be "caretakers," but who were grabbing mineral rights.
Local residents will remember Louis and Jim Gray. My husband and I were in college at the same time as Jim, who distinguished himself on campus among the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity and other student groups. Later, I worked with the brothers at the Press. The Grays are deeply tied to the Osage saga, because their grandfather, Henry Roan Horse (after whom Jim named his eldest son), was among the victims. But while the Osage have endured horrors like other tribes, they also celebrate joy, love, and a keen sense of family. I got a glimpse of this as I was privileged to attend last weekend the "I'n-Lon-Schka," Osage ceremonial dance.
My husband works for Osage Nation casino, so he's been learning about the culture. Every June, the Osages set aside Thursday through Sunday most weeks for a celebration of dance, food, and family. There are three "districts" - Pawhuska, Hominy and Grayhorse - and one weekend is home base for each district. The last weekend of the month was for Pawhuska, the district to which my husband's boss and the Grays belong.
Chris' boss is a young Osage, Bruce Cass, who has worked for the tribe almost since the first days when the government was "renewed." In fact, he worked for Jim when Jim was Osage chief, and Jim described him to me in glowing terms. Last year, Chris was invited by Bruce to the dances, though I was otherwise occupied. Chris came home with a beautiful Pendleton blanket Bruce had presented to him in front of his family. Chris cherishes it far more than even his power tools, and I found out why this year.
I met Bruce for the first time, and knew immediately Jim's assessment of him as a great guy was spot-on. He was so polite and welcoming, as were members of his family. Because of my job, I'm not a trusting person, but Bruce, his girlfriend Morgan, and the rest of the people milling about his aunt's yard made us feel like their own. Bruce introduced his adorable young boys one by one, and they dutifully shook our hands, and later, Morgan brought her two around. They went out of their way to make us feel welcome and important, ensuring we and another handful of guests went through the food line first. The "servers" treated us graciously, and we had to do little but pick up a spoon - what the Osage traditionally use for an eating utensil.
Bruce explained that in each of the three districts, there are clans, plus other groups. He is in the bear clan, and the Grays, the deer clan. Bruce said he wasn't brought up strictly in tribal ways as a lad, but as he grew into adulthood, he learned from the "elders." He's one of two "whipmen" for the district, which means he makes sure all the dancers are in their proper places, and that no one breaks the rules. One infraction he deals with is the taking of photos. Although guests may photograph the dancers in their ceremonial attire, they cannot do so inside the arbor. This is an open pavilion, representative of an "arbor" of yesteryear, with branches and vines growing overhead to form an arch, and a dirt "floor" for the dancing.
We arrived in time for the last afternoon dance, then had dinner and conversation. At around 8, the evening dance commenced, and the dancers wore different apparel. It was muggy, and as we watched Bruce prepare for this segment, he joked about how hot he would be in the clothing. There are many pieces to the attire, and Morgan helped him assemble much of it as we looked on. Most striking was a sparkling turquoise shirt - and I don't know the names of the pieces nor their significance, so I won't try to explain, except to say every layer added another pallette of beauty and color.
Chris and I got to sit on Bruce's "bench," for us a place of honor. Many families, including the Grays, have their own benches around the arbor. By the time we returned from dinner, Bruce and his fellow whipman had begun to seat each of the dancers - probably 300, and more later. He had told us that before the evening dances began, he would have taken more steps than the dancers themselves would the entire evening - and he was dancing, too.
Bruce at one time was "drumkeeper," so he would have been part of the small cluster at the center of the arbor. There were women and men in the group, and all raised their voices when the songs began at the drumbeat. Then the dancers moved forward to the dirt "floor," which had to be intermittently watered to keep it firm but not muddy. The dancers moved counterclockwise, the men in the center, and on the outer edge, the women in their "shawl dance"; they'd move forward, pause; move forward, pause. The men, meanwhile, proffered the vigorous staggered skip-step. When the drums and song stopped, the dancers returned to their seats, but within a few seconds, they rose and continued their procession. While each man wore an eagle feather atop his head, the rest of the attire, though similar in style, presented every hue on the rainbow, and every pattern imaginable. The shawls were gorgeous, some handed down through generations. The Osage don't have "fancy" dancers," just "straight" ones, but fancy dancers from other tribes were allowed on the periphery as guests. The series of dances lasted about 30 minutes, then the "waterboys" would bring out bowls and ladels, and after a brief respite, the process would begin anew.
Other business kept Jim from being there all night, but he showed up for a little while, and I joined him behind his bench. He said, "This is the most straight dancers you will ever see under one arbor on one night." He explained it was the story of a hunt: "When you hear the drums pound three times, and see their upper bodies dip, that means they've picked up a track." I was surprised; I hadn't noticed bowing, but he said that was because so many dancers were crowded onto the field.
I told Jim - and told Bruce earlier - that I had not felt out of place, but I felt a little sad. Both men expressed surprise and asked why; I explained it was because as someone of European descent, I did not feel secure in that keen sense of "family" that is so prevalent among the Osage. Both Bruce and Jim acknowledged they, too, have their share of family issues, but could usually set them aside for the dances. I observed that most families I knew couldn't even do that much - especially with today's political climate.
Before Jim had to depart, I said I felt a welling of anger, thinking of the Osage murders and how the Native population had been treated. I said I sometimes felt ashamed to be "white." He said, "Don't you ever apologize for what other white people have done in the past, or are doing today. You just keep on doing what YOU are doing."
Last weekend, without a notebook or pen, and as a mere observer, I saw a most lovely celebration of life and love, even with the memory of oppression tucked into the back of the Osage psyche. I saw a culture that will never die, because its people will never let that happen. There were no politics, no family feuds, only immersion into what is and what shall ever be. I'll never forget it, nor will I ever cease being grateful I was allowed to be part of it.