On Authenticity

Osage Warrior

We are of the Grayhorse District

Daughter number two (Wee-Hay in Osage) has urged me to take whichever road I wish in the blog, including more personal insights. And I demure because I’ve made a pledge to wax on about Native Science.

But the more I ruminate on the issues of science, the more I realize that science is woven into Indigeneity. I mean, that’s the fundamental underpinning of Indian ontology: all things are connected.

So my preoccupation with authenticity may not be grounded in science per se, but it is certainly linked to Indigeneity. Even when I was little, I knew that I was a descendant of Indians because my grandmother made sure we knew. Despite my mop of sandy hair and blue eyes, Granny made sure I knew our people are Wah-sha-she.

I shared a room with Granny, who would live with us, on and off, while she struggled with alcohol and took breaks from her husband (my grandfather)—a fellow inebriant. We had two twin beds in my room, and when Granny would come to stay, my sister Jennifer—my regular roommate—would sleep in my parents’ room and I got to share with Granny, who would talk long into the night about growing up in Oklahoma.

My grandmother was born in the nest of the reservation, and she was raised with Indians and whites who peopled the areas north of Osage country: Pawhuska, Hominy and Fairfax (Grayhorse). We say we are of the Grayhorse district, where some of my relatives live today and where some of my relatives are buried.

Granny and her sister Wymo were rather saucy, bound to show that women could do anything men could do. There’s a faded brown and white photo in my mother’s album of the two sisters, in their early 20s, sitting side by side, grinning at the camera, smoking cigarettes and wearing men’s clothing. My aunt told me they were dressed in men’s clothing because they wanted to smoke, and women were discouraged from the practice. So they donned trousers in order to smoke, and someone caught them on celluloid.

The 1920s changed forever the landscape of Osage politics, when oil became the prime currency, and Indians who were counted on the rolls began to receive a share of the profits. That meant my relatives received a cash endowment, and the Osage of Oklahoma were to become the wealthiest Indians in the West. (The photo on my blog’s website shows an Osage delegation en route to the U.S. capital in the early 1900s).

My grandmother cashed in her inheritance and learned to fly an airplane—at least, that’s the family lore. But not before she caught tuberculosis, a disease that was once the leading cause of death among American Indians. Granny had only one lung left, and she sort of sloped on one side, forever bent at the waist. It hardly slowed her, however, and she and her sister packed their bags and set off on a world cruise, oil money in hand.

I imagine two young Indian women, fresh off the rez, their hair bobbed in the style of the times, furs wrapped around their shoulders, on the prowl for a good time, and cruisin’. They ended up marrying brothers. My grandparents would raise their children on the road, living on Granny’s payment from the oil shares, and dodging the landlord if they ran short of cash come rent day.

Like many Osage people, my grandmother and her sister and brothers left the reservation to start new lives with their oil allowance. My grandparents were fairly nomadic, moving from town to town, with lots of drinking in between.

As a kid who learned about Indians from television and movies, my image of the warrior in eagle feathers didn’t square with my grandmother’s sloping figure and bobbed hair. She didn’t sing like an Indian, dance like an Indian, or walk like an Indian. But that’s because my Indian was the Saturday cartoon of some white guy’s imagination.

It took a long time to realize that what I thought of authenticity was a product of the media, cartoons and stories of my youth: my grandmother didn’t look like those Indians on TV, but then again, most Indians don’t. Most of us don’t wear eagle feathers and dentalium necklaces. Authenticity in mass media is linked to one’s appearance. But one’s appearance is hardly a measure of one’s authenticity, and my journey is to discover how to live an authentic life.

Stay tuned.


About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
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3 Responses to On Authenticity

  1. Leaf says:

    Loved this C., thank you for sharing…..
    I could envision so much of your Mother while I was reading about your Granny….


  2. Rachel says:

    I’m really glad you shared this story! I think considering identity, authenticity, and personal histories along with your study of Native science can only add depth to the conversation. Very cool!


  3. Celeste Moser says:

    Thanks for sharing. Your grandmother sounds like she was a hoot! I think you bring up an interesting point in regards to stereotypes and misconceptions and how they can take root.


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