ARTICLE WRITTEN BY: ANDREA A. HUNTER, PH.D. DIRECTOR & TRIBAL HISTORIC PRESERVATION OFFICER, OSAGE NATION
The Osage people have a profound connection with water, much beyond just the physical or biological need for it. Water played a significant role in our past and continues to do so today. Water greatly influenced our spirituality, social structure, migration routes, and our places of habitation, including the locations of our camps and village sites. Water is such a powerful force that our ancestors chose to name our people Children-of-the-Middle-Waters, Ni’-u-k. on-çka, or in Osage orthography: 𐓩𐓣𐓪𐓤𐓘͘ 𐓮𐓤𐓘. In our oral traditions, the name is not clearly understood in terms of a locational reference. Some, however, believe that it refers to the mid-range of the Mississippi River and lower range of the Ohio River, locations where ancestral Osage once resided.
To gain some understanding of the meaning of Ni’-u-k.on-çka, we have to look at our tribe’s origin traditions, how we came to be as a people on this earth. According to the Puma clan’s origin tradition, the Osage came from the sky, from among and of the stars. In the upper worlds, the Osage existed first as spirit beings and in their humility called themselves the Little Ones. e Little Ones decided that they should go down to earth to become a people. After receiving help and advice from four gods (the gods of day, night, male star, and female star) the Little Ones asked Hon ́-ga A-hiu-t.on, the immature golden eagle, to lead them below to become a people. Hon ́-ga A-hiu-t.on led the Little Ones down through the four divisions of heaven. As Hon ́-ga A-hiu-t.on approached earth, he came upon the tops of seven red oak trees. e Little Ones followed closely behind in three separate groups. As they approached the earth, the Little Ones floated down with outstretched legs and arms up, like the wings of an eagle, and landed in the seven treetops.
Water covered practically all of the earth below the tree branches. ey asked Radiant Star, their messenger, to seek help. After seeking help from the water spider, water beetle, and leech, Radiant Star brought O ́-pon T.on-ga, the Great Elk, who was a sacred person. O ́-pon T.on-ga threw himself down on the water four times to lower the water so that land appeared. e Great Elk proceeded to offer more gifts by creating all of the grasses on earth and all of the landforms, streams, and rivers from his different body parts. e people remember O ́-pon T.on-ga. We call him Mon ́-zhon ga ́-xe, Earth Maker.
After the Little Ones from the sky came down to earth, they proceeded to walk the earth in three groups and learned the ways of survival. At one point, the first group came upon a river. In the river was the Water Spirit, who spoke to the first group from the middle of the river. e Water Spirit gave them knowledge of the powerful force of water
and how to use it, so they would be strong and live to see old age. It is the Water Spirit who gave us our first knowledge of how to use nature and its forceful energy to survive and better ourselves through the use of that energy. e Water Spirit told the first group that he was going to give his name, Wah- zhá-zhi, to them. ey would be known as the Water People and also the Name Givers. ey symbolized all the waters of the earth. e Wah-zhá-zhi then turned and named the second group, the People of the Sky, Tsi-zhu and the third group, the People of the Land, Hon ́-ga, meaning the Sacred One. Now the three divisions were named, but they still had to find the indigenous people of the earth, the Isolated Earth People, or U-tah-non-dsi. Upon finding them, the Little Ones would be a tribe.
This was a very distant time period, when the Little Ones were developing, when the people were forming themselves into a tribal unit. e oral traditions describe how the Little Ones had to organize and structure themselves to move out of a state of chaos and the Water Spirit, Wah-zhá-zhi, provided that initial direction.
The tribe based their social, domestic, and political structure on their concept of the universe. ere are two grand divisions or moieties of the tribe: the People of the Sky and the People of the Earth. e People of the Earth have two subdivisions: the People of the Land and the People of the Water.
Characteristics of the universe were ascribed to the two grand divisions, the subdivisions, and the clans (see diagram above). e
Sky People were associated with the north and the concepts of up, left, six, and male. e Earth People were associated with the south, down, right, seven, and female. e directions east and west were also ascribed aspects of the universe.
Within the clan structure, water was a significant component for the organization of the Water People (see below). Each of the clans took names that represented all different aspects of the universe, so all of the universe would be represented in their clan structure. e concept was created so that tribal people could understand that all in the universe had a role and all was connected to one another. Each tribal division, subdivision, clan, and person had a role in the universe. With the Water People, some
of the clan names are quite obviously water associated (Elder Water, White Water, and Cattail), while others are not so obvious to us today but certainly were to our ancestors.
The Wah-zhá-zhi, the Water People, were the first leaders of the tribe. ey learned to harness energy from water and learned the forces of water, but within the universe, they conceptualized water as only one component. Water was a powerful component that the tribe needed to understand and utilize for its survival. Water was and continues to be life- giving, cleansing, and a guiding force for the Osage people.
Life symbols were to be taken on by the clan members to help them succeed in reaching old age. e clan members took the life symbols and applied the qualities and characteristics of each in their own life. e life symbols were sacred entities to the Osage. e clans within the Wah-zhá-zhi division chose life symbols associated with water, such as fresh-water mussel, snapping turtle, beaver, otter, willow tree, and cattail, to name a few.
One of the other important influences of water for the Osage related to the tribe’s social structure in relation to habitation. At one point in the past, the Osages lived on a large river as one tribe when an enormous flood occurred and threated their village. e flood was so intense it forced the people to seek shelter. e people scattered to five different types of landforms. ose that went to the hills were known as Top-of-the-Tree- Sitters, or 𐓬𐓘𐓮𐓶𐓪𐓧𐓣͘; the Upper-Forest-Sitters or Upland-Forest People are the 𐓻𐓘͘ 𐓺𐓪𐓧𐓣͘ , who went to the plateaus; the Sitters-in-the- Locusts or orny- icket People are the 𐓷𐓘𐓸𐓘𐓪𐓧𐓣͘, who went to the broad valleys; Down-Below People, or 𐓶𐓲𐓟𐓲𐓘, went under the cliffs or ridges; and finally, the Heart- Stays People, or the 𐓩𐓪͘ 𐓲𐓟𐓷𐓘𐓮𐓬𐓣, went to the low valleys. From this point throughout Osage migrations, the five groups continued to live on these types of landforms to which they fled during the great flood.
Water has greatly influenced our migrations. Evidence gathered from our earliest oral traditions on origin, linguistic research, and archaeological studies identify the Ohio River Valley as the location where ancestral Osage lived. During this early period, the ancestral Osage were one people with the other Dhegiha Siouan speakers, who would become the Omaha, Ponca, Kaw, and Quapaw. In our oral traditions, we identified where we existed on the landscape by watershed. All five Dhegiha tribes have oral traditions that say we existed as one tribe east of the Mississippi River in the Ohio River Valley. Archaeologists identify periods of time in history by similarities in human behavior and characteristics of culture. Archaeologists in the Midwest identify the time from about 100 BC to AD 500 as the Middle Woodland period. It is during this time that the Dhegiha Siouan people lived in the Ohio River Valley.
By approximately AD 400, the Dhegiha began migrating west down the Ohio River Valley. When the Dhegiha people reached the confluence of the Ohio River and the Mississippi River, the first major separation of the people occurred. According to oral tradition and linguistic and archaeological evidence, the people who would become the Quapaw turned southward at the confluence and traveled downstream. e Osage word for the Mississippi River is 𐓩𐓣 𐓶 𐓰𐓪͘ 𐓤𐓘, which means big or great waters, and the Osage word for the Ohio River is 𐓷𐓘𐓬𐓘𐓯𐓟, the meaning of which is unknown.
The separation of the Quapaw occurred around AD 500, and at this time the remaining Dhegiha traveled northward up the Mississippi River Valley and out into the tributaries in Missouri and Illinois, including the Missouri River Valley. is marked the beginning of the Late Woodland period, from approximately AD 500 to AD 900.
Around AD 900, many of the Dhegiha focused their attention to the area at the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. e Osage name for the Missouri River is 𐓩𐓣 𐓯𐓪͘𐓲𐓟, which translates as Smokey Waters. Most people who have been around the Missouri River would probably agree that the Osage name is a good description of the river.
The confluence location of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers is such a powerful place it was viewed as a rich energy source, particularly so for the Water People. Even today, these areas are considered sacred locations. It is
There at the confluence of these two powerful rivers that the Dhegiha expanded greatly economically, socially, and politically with the development of a cultural center that would later be named Cahokia. e Osage name for Cahokia is 𐓩𐓣𐓪𐓤𐓘͘ 𐓮𐓤𐓘 𐓲𐓣, which translated means e-Place-of-the-Children-of-the- Middle-Waters. e archaeologists refer to this time of cultural expansion as the Mississippian period. e Dhegiha culture was an agricultural society based primarily on corn, beans, and squash. ey created elaborate artwork in pottery, copper, and obsidian and had an extensive trade network from the Rockies to the Atlantic coast and from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico. During this time, a complex, ranked social structure developed along with political and religious power in the hands of a few. One aspect that most recognize is the large earthen mounds that were constructed for those in power.
Population during the Mississippian period grew tremendously, and with it came all of the issues with having thousands of people living in one place. Overutilization of the natural resources, sanitation issues, warfare, internal strife, and climate change all contributed to the decline of a very powerful society. At the onset of the Mississippian period, AD 1000, those who would later become the Omaha and Ponca tribes separated from the other two remaining Dhegiha Siouan tribes. At some point after the Omaha and Ponca departure, the Kaw separated and traveled up the Missouri River during the period AD 1200–AD 1250. The ancestral Osage were the last remaining Dhegiha Siouan tribe in the Cahokia/St. Louis area. At the end of the Mississippian period, AD 1350, the Osage moved westward, establishing villages along the waterways of what would become the state of Missouri. The territory was quite familiar to the Osage, as they had been in this region for about 900 years by then.
After the Osage left the Cahokia area, one of the first major village locations was near the mouth of the Osage River. e Osage refer to this river as 𐓷𐓟𐓲’𐓘͘ 𐓪𐓻𐓶, which literally means Place-Where-Snakes-are-Held. e Osage language is very descriptive, so there must have been a lot of snakes in the Osage River. From the mid-1300s to the late 1600s, the Osage lived primarily south of the Missouri River but traveled, hunted, and utilized the rich natural resources throughout the state of Missouri. The vast waterways and springs provided lush environments for permanent Osage villages and for temporary camps set up along their trails, many of which followed the rivers and streams.
After the Osage migrated up the Osage River into the southwest portion of the state of Missouri and populated this region for some time, the Osage’s protohistoric period dawned with the arrival of Europeans. In 1673, Father Marquette and fur trader Jolliet published a map which depicted the locations of various tribes they encountered or learned about during their voyage down the Mississippi River. e Osage were depicted south of the Missouri River, in the general vicinity of the Osage River. e account of our tribal migrations ends here, in southwestern Missouri. From this point, we experience forced removal from our homelands.
Through the historic journals of early European travelers and through archaeological studies, several late 1600s and 1700s Osage villages and camps have been identified in Missouri. For example, on a high ridge just south of the Marmaton River was an Osage village of the Grand 𐓲𐓣𐓻𐓶
and Grand 𐓡𐓶͘͘ 𐓤𐓘. At a lower elevation was another Osage village of the Down-Below- People, 𐓶𐓲𐓟𐓲𐓘. rough misinterpretation, the French ended up calling the people at the village on the high ridge the Grand Osage and the people in the lower village the Little Osage. Many Osage villages existed during this early historic period that would eventually be referred to as distinct bands. e distinct bands are those which were identified in the oral traditions as placing their villages on distinct landforms.
All of the village locations that have been identified are on rivers and smaller tributaries. Water is the prime factor that was taken into consideration when the Osage chose where to place their settlements. One location that was particularly significant for the Osage was the watershed of the Marais des Cygnes. In the early records and in our oral traditions, this location is referred to as the Place-of- Many-Swans. is area was inhabited over many generations. Our oral traditions are full of references to this area: how the people would repeatedly come back to this location and the use of the water and water-related resources available to them at the Place-of- Many-Swans. Practically all of our sacred life symbols come from this location.
Just to the south of the Place-of-Many- Swans is the Marmaton River. ere are several known Osage sites in this location. e Marmaton River is also known as the 𐓷𐓟𐓲’𐓘͘ 𐓪𐓻𐓶, or Place-Where-Snakes-are-Held, the same name as the Osage River. e Marmaton River and the Marais des Cygnes both may have been earlier identified as the Osage River. e Osage name for the Little Osage River is 𐓩𐓣 𐓮𐓤𐓘, or White-Waters.
The watersheds of the Osage, Marais des Cygnes, and Marmaton rivers are the locations of many our permanent villages. ree times a year, the Osage would go out onto the plains or into the Ozarks to hunt and gather other natural resources. e trails for the trips were not random, the trails were consistently used year after year to travel to these hunting and gathering locations. e rivers provided the routes by which the tribe traveled. Not only did the water systems influence the locations of their home villages—they also guided them out to their hunting and gathering territories.
The past territory that the Osage lived and traveled within was vast (see map above). Watersheds throughout these states were very well-known entities that provided the Osage their livelihood. Water, of course, sustained us, but water certainly means much more than that to the Osage people. Water is a prime essence in our spirituality and in the development of our social organization. Water directed us as we moved across the landscape in the past and dictated where we placed our homes and, in many instances, our burials. When thinking of how the current communities will shape and use what were once watersheds in our domain, we hope planners and developers will think carefully about their decisions to build and maintain the watersheds they impact. e Osages have been legally separated from most of these watersheds for hundreds of years, but they are still our homeland. I greatly appreciate Missouri Humanities for giving the Osage Nation the opportunity to share our history, connections, and view of water. e Osage Nation would certainly welcome the opportunity to work with
any community to share our concerns and participate in securing these watersheds for all to benefit.