Art of the Osage/A History of the Osage People

By Feagins, Jim D. | Plains Anthropologist, February 2007 | Go to article overview

Art of the Osage/A History of the Osage People


Feagins, Jim D., Plains Anthropologist


Art of the Osage. By GARRICK BAILEY and DANIEL C. SWAN, with contributions by JOHN W. NUNLEY and E. SEAN STANDINGBEAR. Saint Louis Art Museum in association with University of Washington Press, Seattle. 2004. xi + 221 pp., 50 figures, 108 catalog plates, notes, references, index. $40.00 (cloth, ISBN 0-295-98387-6). $30.00 (paper, ISBN 0-89178-085-8).

A History of the Osage People. By LOUIS F. BURNS. The University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa. 2004. xiv + 576 pp., 44 figures, notes, bibliography, index. $80.00 (cloth, ISBN 0-8173-13-19-2). $39.95 (paper, ISBN 0-8173-5018-7).

From the Ozarks to the tall grasslands, for several centuries the Osage were masters of their domain-the environment which became significant portions of the states of Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas. Considered warlike and greatly feared by their many enemies, the Osage hegemony influenced (some would say controlled) the region's fur trade with the French and the Spanish. With the Louisiana Purchase (leaving only one government for the Osage to attempt to manipulate), with the westward movement of the citizens of the United States, and with the coercion of the eastern tribes as they were forced to move west of the Mississippi River, the Osage hegemony was broken. The Osage were to experience very hard times as their main villages, also, were forced southwestward by treaties, and prior to the discovery of oil on their greatly diminished reservation in Oklahoma.

The two volumes that are the subjects of this review add considerable insight about this colorful tribe. Taken from quite different viewpoints, each is useful for anyone seeking an increased understanding of the Osage tribe. However, it is important for the reader to understand the objectives and perspectives presented in each volume.

The Art of the Osage is a beautiful catalogue published to accompany an exhibit by the same title compiled and designed by the Saint Louis Art Museum. This display traveled to several American cities. The book presents a good range and quality of Osage artistry during historic times. Clothing, blankets and other textiles, rattles, headdresses, roach spreaders, bone quirts, bear claw breastplate, stone pipes, beads, mirror board, feather fans, pipe-tomahawk, shell gorget, cradleboards, standards, wooden bowls, bows, calumet, scissors case, hide shields, clubs, "war" hatchet, horse regalia, parfleche, painted and woven bags, bison horn spoon, lance, dolls and other toys, peyote staffs, drums and drumsticks, silver bracelet, neckerchief and tie slides, whistles, and bone dice are among the many items illustrated. This material cultural is shown to good advantage with fine photographs mostly in color.

However, it is slightly disappointing that there is not even a token photograph or two of at least a few decorated, shell-tempered potsherds or some of the well-crafted chipped-stone work that was so abundant during prehistoric and very early protohistoric times. Without getting into stale arguments concerning what is artistic and what is merely craftsmanship, certainly the Osage did not suddenly become artists with the arrival of European materials supplied directly or indirectly by the fur trade. A few examples from the collections at the University of Missouri-Columbia or other institutions from the earliest of the Osage sites in Vernon County, Missouri could have been photographed to give a better understanding of the "older artistry."

Although declining, Osage art is still dynamic and evolving. With a few individual exceptions that come to this reviewer's mind, Osage art was never commercialized. Perhaps this is partly due to the eventual bonanza of oil revenue that, at a critical point in their cultural evolution, curtailed an economic necessity for individual Osage to sell art to the dominant society. Osage art was generally made for the Osage and not considered separately from other aspects of their material culture or from the contexts of their belief system.

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