Wah Kee Lah

Osage family photo from the National Cowboy Museum

I love listening to the Osage language tapes.

One section has “common Osage terms” and tucked between words for coffee and “sit down” is “quarterly payment” (wah-kee-lah).

My mother told us kids that the Osages negotiated ownership to the oil rights on the territory where they were relocated in Oklahoma (the tribe is not native to Oklahoma). As a result the Osages who were on the rolls in the early 1900s (including my great-grandmother and her children) were entitled to receive a share of the royalties.

By a twist of fate by great-grandmother settled with the Osages while her sisters settled with the Lakota (my heritage is Osage and Lakota, but I am enrolled only with one tribe).

So, when census takers began the head count at the turn of last century, my family was officially enrolled, with each entitled to a “headright.” Not all Osages bothered to be counted, creating rifts with families. But the greatest turmoil came when outsiders married Osage men and women, taking advantage of their oil inheritance.

Writer Linda Hogan chronicled the time in her historical-fiction book, Mean Spirit. She models characters based on actual Osages who disappeared or were found dead after marrying someone outside the community. Sometimes an individual would pay an Osage a sum of money to be named beneficiary in the event of his death, and, low and behold, he would wind up dead. Later the Osages changed the laws so that a headright could not be so easily gifted to a non-Osage.

My grandmother received a full headright, which helped sustain her and my grandfather. She also used her quarterly payments to buy us winter coats or shoes for church. She always had a little tucked away for my mother, who was raising four children solo before she married my stepfather.

When my grandmother visited she would offer to take us out for supper: usually spaghetti and pizza.

My mother inherited one-quarter of the headright, which was split four ways among her brothers and sister. Now I receive a portion of her quarter, divided among my sisters and brother since Mother’s passing. The Osages wisely voted to invest oil funds into healthcare and education, so my share is small, compared to what my mother and grandmother received. But I’m not complaining.

It’s enough to treat my daughters to spaghetti and pizza.


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.
This entry was posted in authenticity, Indian, Lakota, Osage. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Wah Kee Lah

  1. conrad s. ramirez says:

    your positive take on our inheritence is very uplifting ,, our family story is comparatively the same,,thank you for your words. you should also receive something for the recent osage trust settlement. how do i get the language tapes? please. thanks,,,conrad s. ramirez


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