By Jeanette Swindell
Visit the Land of the Osages—
Discover a Proud People’s Past in a Vast, Beautiful Land of Prairies, Vistas, Shimmering Lakes and Historic Parks
The Osage Nation comprises Osage County, the largest county in the state. Here the Osages, originally named Wa-zha ‘zhe, bought their reservation land in Indian Territory and began a trek in the 1870s from Kansas. The walk was plagued by smallpox, cholera, tuberculosis and other diseases. It is thought that fifty percent of its members perished.
The Osages established five districts: Pawhuska, Gray Horse, Hominy, Strike Axe and Big Heart. Strike Axe and Big Heart later integrated with Pawhuska to become one Pawhuska district. The U.S. Government agreed to build agency buildings, a warehouse, a dwelling and shop for a blacksmith, a saw and grist mill, a schoolhouse and a church in the tribe’s new home.
In 1894 oil was discovered on the Osage reservation, ultimately making them the richest people per capita in the world. But this wealth came at a great price to the Indians.
In 1906 the Osage roll closed with 2,229 people, and the government divided the reservation into individual allotments of 160 acres, called a head right, as a part of Congress’s Osage Allotment Act. This head right provided each Osage landowner an equal share of all mineral income.
This was done in order for Oklahoma to become a state and end the fight over the Osage Reservation. Chief James Bigheart was influential in ensuring the Osages retained these rights. Today, as then, “Oil rights supersede all surface rights. The Osages own all mineral rights.”
The oil barons arrived, with names familiar today—Phillips, Marland, Sinclair—and with the massive oil fields flowing, payments to the Osages was considerable. Unfortunately, the wealth brought much misery. The years between 1921 and 1923 were known as the Osage reign of terror when murderers, gangsters, and the mob reigned.
“We had every corruption in the world. This was a no-man’s land,” Paula explained. “There were only local sheriffs for law; there was no Federal jurisdiction here. The 20s and 30s saw the likes of bank robbers Pretty Boy Floyd, Baby Face Nelson, and Machine Gun Kelly on the Osage Reservation.
“Non-Osages married into Osage families and murdered their wives in order to obtain their money. This was a place so full of money and those wanting to steal it. Opulence was everywhere.” She explained that the Osage murders were the first case handled by the F.B.I.
This glimpse of the history of the Osage Nation helps in understanding, if only in a summarized way, the importance of the Tribe in this amazing land that seems to go on forever.
About three miles north and east of Pawhuska on Okesa Road drive up a small hill and be rewarded with amazing 360 degree views of Osage County. The Lookout Memorial is the final resting place for Chief Fred Lookout and his wife Julia. He was the last chief who inherited his title by blood, and the Osages honor him as a benevolent leader. This is a must because you won’t believe how far you can see from atop this seemingly small hill.
Next, stop by the Pawhuska Cemetery near downtown where the grave adornments are stunning. Be sure to walk among them and feel history speaking to you. You’ll recognize many of the names that played important roles in the history of the Osage Nation.
The Osage Tribal Museum, atop another hill overlooking the city, is the oldest continually operated tribal museum in the country. Located on the Agency Campus with its beautiful stone buildings, the museum houses artifacts, photographs, art work and every-day items used long ago by the Osages. Be sure to see the cradle boards, still used today by many Osage mothers. Also, you’ll see many of the faces of the owners of the famous head rights.