“Art of the Osage”

St. Louis

St. Louis Art Museum

Peyote Kit, Mid-20th century, Wood, brass locks and handle, cloth lining, and assorted objects inside, 8 7/8 x 21 1/8 x 7 3/4 in. Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Unlike some American Indian exhibitions, “Art of the Osage” offers 100 objects whose aesthetic is spare and cohesive. The art’s visual impact is unified by its elemental materials and highly charged symbols, yet each maker’s individuality is strong. Since these works are unsigned, they are treated as ethnographic rather than “art” objects, yet each is a unique piece rather than a multiple turned out by a workshop.

The Osage, descendants of earlier Mississippian cultures (1000–1500 CE), were the first Americans to use their prowess as fur traders to acquire guns, metal tools, and horses from the French and to dominate other tribes west of the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers around 1775. Even after the United States forced them west into Kansas and then Oklahoma, where oil was found on their reservation in 1897, they managed to preserve their wealth and heritage during the Great Depression and into this century as the Osage Nation. The exhibition organizes the works, which date from about 1850 to the mid-20th-century, into Old Era and New Era child rearing, hunting, domestic industry, warfare, weddings, and religion.

The Osage powerfully merge aesthetics, religion, and practical use. Four works will serve to give an idea of the style. The first is Catalogue No. 3 (Brooklyn Museum), one of four Split-Horn Headdresses used in ritual preparations for the hunt. No. 3 came from Shunkahmolah, a leader of the Black Bear clan priesthood. A geometric front headband with a triangle motif leads to the split horns, which have blond roots and dark tips amid a dramatic triangular mane of red, ochre, tan, and white hair, feathers, horn, hide, glass beads, fur, silk, wool, cotton, and sinew. Its centerpiece is a kingfisher bird attached to the back. This bird, which comes from the sky and hunts in the water, symbolically unites the Osage Sky and Earth people. Trailing below the kingfisher, the feathers of the northern-harrier and red-tailed hawk, sewn onto a blood-red cloth, also presage good hunting.

One object dense with symbolic shapes and meanings is a “Roach Spreader” (National Museum of the American Indian) made from elk antler. The warrior’s “Mohawk” top hair was set through holes in the bone, whose heart shapes held the hair tight and allowed an eagle feather to be strongly attached. This roach spreader has a bleeding heart shape and other cut and incised designs. For the Osage, these forms help realize the order and balance of the cosmos as embodied in their ceremonies and lives.

Roach Spreader. Bone, 6 5/16 x 2 3/8 x 3/8 in. National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution.

The Peyote medicine kit (Gilcrease Museum) is a portable shrine from the mid-20th century. In the exhibition catalogue, Daniel C. Swan details how the Peyote ceremony came to the Osage. Peyote religion, combining certain Christian and Native American elements, was adopted in response to structural change in the community due to “disruptions and dislocations” around 1900. The Osage tried and rejected several different “new ways” in those years of crisis, but when John Wilson, a non-Osage Native American, introduced the “Big Moon” and “Little Moon” ceremonies used by the Kiowa and Comanche, many Osages found it a strong and helpful way of affirming their relation to the Creator and strengthening their social fabric. An Osage who became a “Road Man” leading ceremonies would own a “grip” containing rattles, fans, liturgical instruments, and official papers authorizing the use of peyote. This kit is notable for its colorful ceremonial objects, including an array of sacred feathers, crosses, beaded objects, bead needles, a comb, American bonds, family pictures, and images of Jesus and Mary.

The child’s blanket from about 1850 (Osage Tribal Museum, Pawhuska, Oklahoma) was made for the grandson of Nopawalla, Chief of the Little Osage. A relative of Nopawalla, poet and Rhodes Scholar Carter Revard pointed out some aspects of the blanket not noted in the catalogue and also gave the correct spelling of the chief’s name. He noted that Western beads and materials used in and on this blanket replace older Osage forms: a buffalo robe, various shells that came by trade from the Pacific or the Gulf of Mexico, abalone shell gorgets, and other wearables dense with symbolic meaning, intended to strengthen the child in its journey through life. At the same time, the use of new European materials to carry the older ceremonial meanings allowed the Osage to preserve their cultural heritage. Revard noted that the beadwork patterns embody traditional Osage figures and symbols. At the blanket’s center, within a beaded circle, is a man whose outstretched hands turn into trees. Outside the circle, are two flags that at first seem to be “stars and stripes,” but each “flag” has only one star, and Osages say one of these is the Morning Star (with five points), the other is the Evening Star (with six points). So the grandson’s Symbolic Man, within the circle of life, is set between Dawn and Sunset. Other auspicious symbols include a horse with its feedbag (prosperity), fruit-bringing and healing flowers and plants, and a cedar tree (everlasting life) with a golden bird perched on top.

Each of the 100 selected objects stands out, including the patriotic beaded blankets with waving American flags started by the War Mothers Society around World War I. The excellent catalogue features essays by anthropologist Garrick Bailey, Daniel C. Swan, curator John W. Nunley, and Osage leader E. Sean StandingBear. At a ceremony inaugurating the exhibition, an Osage orange sapling was planted inside the decayed trunk of a red oak. An elder prayed and chanted in Osage and English; then a circle of Osage men began drumming and chanting to complete the ceremony. The museum and all of the objects were blessed before the installation.