Osage jumping on the bandwagon?

Thursday, August 18, 2005

The Vernon County Historical Society can only be grateful to the Osage Tribal Museum and others responsible for bringing the latter institution's traveling exhibit to the Bushwhacker Museum, where it will be on public view till about mid-October.

But the present writer is surprised and rather troubled by some of the written interpretation accompanying the exhibit.

He's long fancied himself a friend and defender of the Osages. And the Osages seemed to agree. The Historical Society's little book "Osage Autumn," an effort of this writer, has been a bit of a bestseller in Osage County, at the Osage Tribal Museum itself.

But now it seems the Osages, or some of them, have decided no longer to go on priding themselves on their uniqueness, their comparative success and good fortune, as in the past, but to jump on the p.c. bandwagon. Doubtless they've looked around and seen that, in the present political and cultural climate, it pays.

"Breaking Up The Land: Photographs of the Osages after Allottment" (complete with the misspelling) is the exhibit's title. Along with a selection of mocassins, shawls, and other native handicrafts, it's a gallery of photos of some of the 2,229 Osages who were allotted "headrights" and plots of land in 1906 when the communal tribal land was apportioned. Official membership in the tribe still reposes in the descendants of those original allottees.

"Allotment" took legal form in the Dawes Act of 1887, which, according to the Encyclopedia Americana, benignly "paved the way for citizenship for American Indians."

Sen. Harry L. Dawes was seen as a benefactor of the Indians. Like many others, he'd concluded that the only hope for their betterment, or even mere survival, was assimilation.

The Osages, says the exhibit's interpretation, didn't agree. By 1906 "Osage leaders had spent the better part of two decades specifically opposed to allotting their lands." Allotment was "an enormous setback" for a people trying to preserve "their self-understanding of themselves as Osages." Already they'd been subjected to a "foreign education," actually forced to learn to read and write! (One can only wonder if they truly know what they're saying.)

No one denies the American Indians got a raw deal. It's an old story. History is ruthless. Yet how could it have been otherwise? It was the Stone Age suddenly finding itself face-to-face with the Steel Age. The Stone Agers could only adapt (i.e. assimilate) or go under.

The Osages, to all appearances, adapted. Walk the streets of Pawhuska, Okla., today and you might think yourself in any American town. The people look like other people. They go by "white" names. Their sons and daughters excel in the white man's world. Think of ballerina Maria Tallchief or General Clarence Tinker, namesake of Tinker Air Base. Reportedly, only one or two fullblood Osages are left, and the Osage language is all but extinct.

"Cultural" diehards may lament all this; but aren't these "assimilated" individuals better off by far than, say, their "unassimilated" cousins squatting in squalor on the great South Dakota reservations, living their "culture" to the fullest? But it's merely the ghost, the fossil of a culture that, sadly, died out generations ago, a culture of hunter-gathering and war.

Like it or not the Indians, like the rest of us, must live in the modern technological world. They can either submit to a "foreign education," learn to read and write and all that follows, and have some hope of succeeding in that world, or they can squat on the reservation daydreaming of past hunter-warrior glories.

Any anthropologist with direct experience will tell you, just like Sen. Dawes, bettering the Indians' lot can only begin with abolishing the reservation system, i.e. with allotment. The choice is between communal "culture" and individual well-being.

The uninformed might blame the exploitation the Osages suffered after the discovery of oil on allotment.

But the tribe had retained communal ownership of mineral rights. Oil income went to the tribe, but was passed on to individuals according to "headrights." The consequences would have been not a bit worse if the mineral rights, too, had been "allotted."

It's perfectly unobjectionable for Indians to have dances and powwows and so on if they want to; but they mustn't mistake these for "their culture." Culture is the way we live, and for the Osages, like most of the rest of us in this day and age, that means waking by the alarm clock, holding down a job or minding the store, shopping at Walmart, and so on. To "live" Indian culture would mean bringing down one's dinner with bow and arrow.

A friend of mine went to a convention of philosophers. Predictably they did their best to be "diverse" or "inclusive" by spending (wasting) much time on "American Indian philosophy." My friend listened long and hard but could detect no philosophy. Only stories, perhaps edifying or interesting but in no way presenting a philosophy in the usual sense.

Those responsible for this sort of silliness don't seem to realize that, in seeking to recognize the worthiness of outsider groups, they're actually demeaning them. It's as if they invited a group of children to join the grownups, and everybody agreed in advance to pretend that what the children had to say was profoundly interesting and significant. You find a great deal of this sort of thing on "New Age" bookshelves these days. Ask for "philosophy" and chances are you'll be directed not to Plato or Kant but to, say, the mystical yams of Carlos Castenada.

The exhibit's interpretation briefly summarizes early Osage history. The tribe was doing fine, thank you, until, "In 1808 William Clark forced on them a treaty that began to unravel their culture. This ruined their fur-based economy."

Of course one expects oversimplification in such brief blurbs; but it would take pages to undo the distortions of this one.

The treaty was "forced on them" by changing conditions, events over which neither William Clark nor any other white man or men had control, or even understood.

The usual view is that it gave the Osages a comparatively fair deal, the only alternative to which was utter destruction by those "changing conditions," which of course also "ruined their fur-based economy."

Among other things, the 1808 treaty "forced on" the hungry Osages specified numbers of cattle, hogs, and fowl annually.

Already the Osages were on the "dole," the beneficiaries of "rights" the government then didn't acknowledge even toward its own citizens.