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Osage Life and Legends

Price: $14.95

Manufacturer: Naturegraph Publishers
Pages: 148

The following are excerpts from my book Osage Life and Legends. There have been a scattering of books on the history and even the "religion" of this Native Nation, but none that I feel have done justice to their oral traditions.


The beliefs and traditions of the Osage were handed down in a series of prose-poems, called "wi-gi-es", with each clan possessing its own version. These recitations referred to the clan’s "life symbol", or the particular power of Earth and Sky, who speak of the gifts of live-giving power that they will bestow upon the clan and the People. "Wi-gi-es" means "to make live". A long, aged life is one of the blessings often repeated; it is instructive to note the great honor given to what we see as decrepit aging. In many of the ceremonies the wi-gi-es of the different clans are recited in unison, what one observer described as sounding like "a great humming hive, " much like the diverse voices of the Earth. Many of these Wi-Gi-Es were taken down in the late 19th century, by the Omaha Indian ethnologist, Francis La Flesche.

These excerpts deal with the traditions and "wi-gi-es" referring to the "LittleOne’s" appearance on Earth (for so these unusually tall tribe of people refer to themselves, in humility before the Great Spirit). The tribe was a moiety of the Earth People and Sky People; with as many traditions as there were clans. The diversity and harmony of life on this Earth was the inspiration for the religion of the Osage. After the Little Ones come to Earth they meet in awe the powers that will guide and challenge their lives. Reflecting on these traditions always helps me to see the blessings and powers of the Earth as the awe-filled Little Ones saw them in their Earth-innocence:



The People were in the lowest world. They had no bodies or souls and existed in the darkness of ignorance. Yet, they were capable of conscious thought. "we must seek a better way for the children, for they have no bodies", they thought.. And so the People ascended to the highest heavens where they were given souls. For many ages the spirits of the People and the spirits of the animals dwelt together peacefully among the stars in the vast quietude of space. The spirits knew that their destiny lay on the Earth below, yet they had no bodies.

In their confusion they set out across space to seek the counsel of the mighty beings of the heavens. They came to the Morning Star and the Evening Star , to the Pleaiades, and to many others of the Heavenly Beings. Each gave themselves to the People, promising to appear as signs in their lives on Earth, and granting their powers, "Even the gods cannot stand in our way as we travel our paths through the heavens. Take us as symbols and we will give you long life". But each in turn said there was one mightier than they who could counsel the People.

They came to the Moon and called her Grandmother. The Moon would rule over the realm of night and regulate the passing of time, Many cycles of birth and life, the flow of waters and the germination of seeds were under the influence of the wise beneficent Moon. "But there is a mightier being than I," she said, "Go to your Grandfather, the Sun. He is the life-giver, and can light the way to your new homes below.

All the spirits were gathered before the great shining presence of the Sun. To each of the spirits he assigned a form and a function to perform in their lives on Earth. He spoke then to the ethereal ancestors of the Osage, "Go now below. The Earth will be as your mother; she will feed you and clothe you. You must respect and care for her, for she is ‘Honga’, a sacred one. Remember that you are relatives to all life, as brothers and sisters of one Mother. You shall be caretakers of the bountiful earth and shall help to maintain the harmony of all life. Live in peace with one another." Before they departed he showed them two rays of light that appear from either side of the Sun upon his rising. These were to be symbols of his everlasting light. They would look to him daily for inspiration, and he in turn would hear their prayers for long life, for he observed all things that came to pass in his journey above the world.

The spirits were happy, for they knew that they would have the help and guidance of these heavenly beings in their new lives. They now drew near to the Earth and sent two messengers below: the Sacred One From the Stars, and the Sacred Radiant Star. After a time they returned, saying that the Earth was covered with water in all directions. Again they were sent below to see if they might find a powerful being that could help them disperse the waters. The messengers found the water-strider, the water beetle, and the dark and white leech, but as they made their way over the waters they could find no solid ground where the spirits could come to rest and take on their many forms.

At last the Elk was chosen to go below, for he was a mighty being and a strong swimmer. The Elk went below and dove into the waters, with powerful strokes he made his way, but at last grew weary and began to sink beneath the waves. In desperation Elk cried in his mighty voice to the Four Directions, and so gave the breath of life to the Four Winds. The Winds came together with a mighty crash that sent the water upward in a fine mist to become the clouds. Now rocks and dry land began to appear from beneath the waters, and soon a broad land stood above the seas. In his great joy the Elk laid down and rolled over and over. Like waves, soil of four colors began to cover the rock. Again and again Elk rolled on the ground, and wherever a hair fell from his body there sprang up the grasses and trees and fruiting bushes upon which all life depends. Now the spirits of the animals, large and small, from the mighty black bear to the smallest insect, took on their forms and began to walk and crawl and fly over the new Earth; each with the wisdom of how to live and feed, taking their places within the great round of life.


In the midst of the East Wind
In the midst of the North Wind
He threw himself upon the Earth.
As he stood the sky became calm and peaceful
As though touched by gentle hands.
Throwing himself upon the Earth in the midst of the South Wind
He cleansed the land
Of all chaos and anger.
When he rose to his feet
He had left the Earth covered with the hairs of his body.
The Elk spoke: "These are the grasses of the Earth;
I have scattered them so that the animals may appaer in their midst".
He stood with his rumps turned to the People
Saying, "These round muscles of my rumps,
They are the hills of the Earth.
Behold the ridge of my back
It is the ridges of the Earth.
The tip of my nose are the peaks of the Earth.
Behold the branches of my antlers;
They are the branches of the rivers.
The small tines of my antlerrs are the creeks of the Earth,
The large tines of my antlers are the rivers
Dotted here and there with forests.

When the earth was made ready by the actions of the Elk,and the trees and grasses were as thick as the hairs on his hide, the spirits of the Little Ones made ready to descend. There was only one being that could lead them in their descent from the heavens, so the People made their appeal to Great Red Eagle (red for the color of dawn). The Red Eagle gave to the People bodies of eagles and led them as they soared down through the four divisions of the heavens, landing with wings outspread in the uppermost branches of the Great Red Oak, the sacred tree that upheld the heavens. As the People landed they loosed a great torrent of acorns that clattered down and covered the roots of the tree. This was a prophecy and a promise of the many children that would be born into the tribe and of the fruitfulness of the Earth to provide for them.

The Red eagle began a chant, and the People’s eagle bodies were transformed, with human bodies modeled after her own:

My wing shall be an arm for the children,
My head shall be a head
My mouth shall be a mouth for them....
Your children will live as human beings.
The Breath of Life I will bestow on your children....
The People set out to wander over the land. Having come from the sky, they were still pure and innocent of the earth-struggles, and very much in awe before the powers and the wonders of the new Earth. The first being they met with was the Buffalo Bull, who filled them with awe and fear. The powerful bull shook his massive head and bellowed his anger, kicking big clods of dirt over his back. A man of the Peace Clan (the Red Eagle People), took up a bow and a red eagle plume (the down feather from the tail of the eagle, stained red with pokeberry juice, was a symbol of the dawn and peace), and shot the plume into the mouth of the bull. The bull was subdued by the magic of peace and lowered his tail that was raised in his anger. He spoke then to the People: "I am one you shall use as a mighty symbol".

Four times the bull threw himself to the Earth with a great thundering. Where he had rolled on the ground sprang up four healing plants (the blazing star, the poppy mallow and two types of wild gourds). "Use these medicines and you shall live to see old age as you travel the path of life."

"And of what shall the children make their bodies?" they asked the buffalo. In response the bull caused the corn to grow and made the squash to accompany it. The corn was male and the squash female, and thus a mystic wedding of the plants was concieved.... "When they use this corn as food", said the bull, "their limbs will stretch in growth, they will live to see old age and reach and enter the days that are calm and peaceful." The buffalo then gave of his own body to be used in so many ways by the Little Ones: As food, clothing, shelter and tools. Of all the abundance of the Earth, the corn and buffalo were seen as special gifts from the Creator.

The next creature met with, the Crawfish, did not impress the People very much, and speaking words of ridicule to eachother, they were about to pass him by. But suddenly, in his mysterious backward movement, he disappeared into the banks of a spring. When he came to the surface there was blue clay sticking to his claw. "Place this earth on your foreheads when you offer up your prayers and you will excite the compassion of Wah-Kon-Dah, the Great Spirit’, the crawfish told them. From this time on, the Little Ones rubbed this earth on their foreheads when they prayed to Wah-Kon-Dah at dawn, and in their ceremonies and vision quests; it was symbolic of their humility.

Into the Earth my grandfathers dug,
In the palm of their hands they rubbed its soil.
Into the Sacred One, the Aged One they dug;
In the palm of their hands they rubbed its soil.
Into the Earth my grandfathers dug;
Upon their foreheads they put its soil.

The stories tell that the Little Ones came to Earth in the season when acorns fall. The vegetation of the Earth was soon to be bare. When they came across the Cedar, whose boughs remained green even in the depths of winter, they were impressed with the life-power and wonderful fragrance of this tree that clung even to the bare rock of the bluffs, making of it a symbol of everlasting life: On the brink of a precipice stood a cedar,

Sighing where she stands in her chosen place,
Saying, "Here upon this precipice I stand,
In order that the Little Ones may make of me their medicine."
In the midst of the Four Winds,
Whichever way the winds blew,
She sent forth a pleasing fragrance,
Saying"Behold my roots
Which I have made to be the sign of my old age.
When the Little Ones make of me their symbol,
They shall live to see the toes of their feet gnarled with age.
Behold the wrinkles of my ankles and my outspreading branches;
When the Little Ones make of these their symbols,
In their ankles and limbs there shall be no cause of death.
See the downward bend of my branches;
With these as symbols, the People shall live to see their shoulders bent with age.
See the feathery tips of my branches,
These are the signs of my old age.
When the Little Ones make of these their symbols,
They shall live to see their hair whitened and feathery with age
As they travel the Path of Life.

Besides being a symbol of long life, the Osage made the female cedar to be the Tree of Life itself, a symbol common to peoples throughout the world. In old traditions, this Tree of Life was seen as existing in a kind of Garden of Eden; it stood beside a clear running stream the River of Life; from this place springs forth all life and growth and the holy waters.

As the cedar was symbol of continual growth, so the Rocks symbolized the enduring and unchanging. The Osage saw the rock as the very foundation of life; in the creation of the land the Elk, called to the Four Winds to expose the ancient rock upon which he created the vegetation of the Earth.

The Osage say that their ancestors came upon four great rocks in their journeys. The rocks also gave themselves as symbols of endurance to the Little Ones:

Even the great gods themselves
As they move over the Earth pass around me
As I sit immovable as the Great Red Boulder.
When the Little Ones make of me their bodies,
Even the gods themselves shall pass around them
In forked lines
As they travel the Path of Life.

The rocks were also used for healing, when heated and used in the purifying sweat baths. Although it is hard for the white man to concieve of, the rocks were known to have the power of thought and to be able to transform themselves, and to appear to the People in dreams. The very rocks were thought to be alive with power.

No reason is given for the Little One’s descent to the Earth from their peaceful abode among the stars. There is no mention of divine punishment, but instead there seems to be the feeling that the People were meant to live on Earth to experience the Earth’s many powers and to make choices in life, in order to learn their way back to the peace and harmony of the cosmos through thei experiences and mistakes.

There were three groups of peoples that descended to the Earth, and each took divergent paths as they began to wander. (A fourth group, The Isolated Earth people were native to the earth, with their own creation stories).* Eventually they came together, trading experiences, skills, symbols, ceremonies and foodstuffs. These were the Tzi-Sho or Sky People, the Honga or Earth people, and the Wah-Sha-She or Water people. Together they represented the three realms in which life had its home. The Water People always led the way, and the Sky and Land Peoples followed.

One day the Water People came to a fine stream rushing and rippling over the rocks. The chief of the Wah-Sha-She came close to the bank and suddenly percieved the body of a man in the stream. Perhaps the image was formed by the sunlight on the rippling waters. With the voice of the waters this man spoke: "I am Wah-Sha-She, and my body is the waters of the Earth. I can purify the People, so they can live to see old age:

Behold the hollow bed of the river.
I have not made it without a purpose.
When the Little Ones make of it the hollow of their bodies
They shall free the hollow of their bodies
From all causes of death.
Behold the swift current of the river,
I have not made it without a purpose.
When the Little Ones make of it their windpipe,
They shall free their breath from all causes of death.
Behold the ripples on the surface of the water,
I have not made it without a purpose.
When the Little Ones make of me their bodies.
They shall live to see their breasts wrinkled with age.

The Water People took his name and became the Wah-Sha-She. In the warmth of summer and the frigid days of winter, the Osage would go down to the river daily to immerse their bodies in the purifying waters of Wah-Sha-She.

(In this chapter, the Wi-Gi-Es have the Little Ones go on to meet many more inspiring powers and animals as the clans seek the life-symbols that will give life-giving power to the tribe).

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