The Osage-Lakota connection
When my colleague Cornel Pewewardy sends emails to the Native American Studies faculty on our campus he often addresses us as “Relatives.” In a similar vein, when I meet a fellow Osage I think of her or him as a cousin. Folks outside the community are somewhat puzzled by this, but this is how I was raised.
After living overseas for most of her married life, my mother wanted to return to Indian country but she needed to demonstrate her sincerity in seeking to learn and relearn the local ways. Since my parents bought land after their retirement a few hours away in Arkansas, my mother would load the car with food, bedding and maps, and trek to Oklahoma to find out everything should could about what it meant to be Osage, filling in the gaps left vacant by her mother. She met many, many cousins and learned finger-weaving from one of the community’s most eminent elders, Maudie Cheshewalla.
My grandmother was an original Osage allottee, meaning she was among the Osage who were counted on the rolls. The rolls were a product of the Dawes Act, which was meant to disperse Native Americans like seeds scattered in the wind. At one point our numbers were about 2,000. Today there are nearly 10,000 Osages and half live off the Oklahoma reservation.
But my earliest known Indian relative was an Oglala Lakota (Sioux) called Bull Bear. In his book the Oregon Trail, Francis Parkman (1823-1893) describes Bull Bear (Mahto Tatonka) as a fearless warrior and leader. “No chief could vie with him in warlike renown, or in power over his people. He had a fearless spirit, and a most impetuous and inflexible resolution. His will was law.” Bull Bear fathered more than two dozen children, including my relative Bear Robe.
Parkman refers to Bear Robe as “Henri Chatillion’s squaw,” who died mid-way through the book. Parkman’s guide was my French forebear, Chatillion, who was described as powerful and graceful, with a “natural refinement and delicacy of mind” and greatly skilled on the rifle. “The common report [was that] he had killed more than 30 grizzly bears.” Said Parkman, “I have never, in the city or in the wilderness, met a better man than my noble and true-hearted friend.”
A messenger was sent to Parkman’s camp with the news that Bear Robe had fallen ill, and Chatillion was anxious to join her and their children. Their daughter, Emilie Chatillion, was raised by Lakota relatives and would later wed Benjamin Lessert, an Osage. Most of the Lesserts lived with the Lakota, but my forebears settled with the Osages. Indian relatives on my mother’s side (except the French, of course) emerged from the Kansas, Nebrasksa, Missouri and Oklahoma territories.
Whenever possible, I visit museums that feature western art and photography to get a sense of the life of my ancestors. A few weeks ago, while in Denver, I walked to the city’s art museum and wrote in the blog about some of the paintings, some of which invented images of Osage life.
But the most intriguing moment occurred outside the museum. I passed a store that featured Indian art called the Native American Trading Company and walked in. One of the owners said the crafts were made by Indians and invited me to peruse the pottery and jewelry. I noticed some exquisite quillwork earrings and asked to see them, remarking that you don’t see much quillwork. The owner agreed, saying that the artist, a Lakota who lives in Denver, offers quillwork classes and that most people drop out: they don’t have the patience to turn porcupine quills into artwork. I told him her earrings was stunning and he said he had a printed flier about her and made me a photocopy.
As I read through her biography, I felt the hair rise on the back of my neck. The artist is Cecelia Bernice Bull Bear. She writes: “My father was Amose Bull Bear, a great grandson of chief Bull Bear, a great warrior chief of the Oglala Lakota Nation.”
It’s not every day that you meet a cousin.
To see a photo of my grandmother and her mother, brothers and sisters, visit the Osage Museum website at http://www.osagetribalmuseum.com/photos/allottee-exhibit/?pid=6540