Celebrating Osage Women

On Friday, fifteen minutes before the Wak’on Owatsi tea was starting, I sat in my car on Prudom. I’d parked so I could see people going inside, but also, so that I could sneak away. The friend with whom I’d planned to attend the tea couldn’t get off work, so I called Chelsea Bryan, an Osage writer living in California. I told her I felt awkward because I wasn’t wearing a hat.

I’d visited earlier, when Osage youth were helping Chad Renfro set out vases of yellow roses and arrange petals on white linen tablecloths. Julie O’Keefe was moving quickly among a room full of round tables. There were so many, I thought no one would miss me if my social anxiety took over.

Moira RedCorn and Robert Warrior had talked about a dance for years, but when 26-year-old Blake Sisk died, RedCorn said things really got going. She wanted Osage women and girls to know they had a place.

I remember sitting with Moira in October, shortly after #MeToo rolled through the country. There’s something powerful about sitting and acknowledging painful things. Moira said her father, the late author Charles Red Corn, always advocated speaking with someone face to face.

When I saw friends entering the church annex, I went inside. At the tea, Cecelia Tallchief spoke about dances that had been held in Grayhorse over the years and the hand games she had hosted. Because Wak’on Owatsi coincided with the one-year anniversary of Blake’s tragic death, and the one-month anniversary of Mary Bighorse’s death, the evening was poignant.

That night as I listened to Osages, primarily women, speak about their lives and what was important to them, about the strength that had come down in their families and the names of the women they loved, I was glad to have stayed. We were building something together, embracing our history, saying aloud what we’d been taught and what we held dear. The Osage youth who were serving cups of strong tea had entered the spirit of the event, too.

You could imagine the men and women walking down from Kansas as people mentioned their grandmothers who were closer to those stories. I felt the hard times in our history and the joy of being together. I felt we Wah Zah Zhi were as strong as we’ve ever been. Determination was present in the most grief-stricken among us, and it showed in the elegant hats they wore. We were survivors, moving forward together.

Friday night was personal. Describing her losses, Anya Roanhorse said, “Oh, boy-- that was hard.” In a grief-worn voice, Shannon Shaw Duty described Margaret Sisk’s strength in nurturing family members in the face of her own loss.

After a traditional lunch on Saturday, people dressed in their Osage clothes or wrapped in blankets. Dancing outside in February in Oklahoma is daunting. We’d been ready to face the sharp wind that blows some days, like Blake faced cold in South Dakota, but the day was mild.

Veronica Pipestem emceed. Speaker of the Osage Congress Angela Pratt, a veteran, wore a blanket lined with flags and bison. I’d brought Lillian Pitt’s Coyote and the Huckleberry Sisters. As we danced, moving close to the drum, I thought about my sister, Jennie, who died too early. When they sang the new song honoring Osage women, we gathered at the drum in slanting light.

That evening on the prairie, the sky was a golden spray of clouds. In the days that followed, we talked about family members who we carried with us, who weren’t able to be present, who were incarcerated or who had passed. We’d made a community, each of us bringing our gifts and strengths. The artists, the drum maker, the singers, the men who cooked, the women who organized, the hosts of the tea, the caterers, the youth who served, the writers, a college student focusing on suicide prevention in Native communities, and everyone who spoke from their heart. The people we’d remembered made us open to each other, and the community we created continues.

We say Thali Wazho^, good job, and Ozho Awakizhami, I’m proud of you.