Columns

Our Stories Matter

I spent most of April at Ragdale, a residency for writers and artists in Lake Forest outside of Chicago. Toward the end of my stay, I offered a writing workshop at the American Indian Center in Chicago, which is one of the oldest urban Indian centers in the country. Using Osage and Native authors’ work as prompts, participants (including several Osages) wrote about food, meals they remembered, about decisions our families had made or been forced to make about where we would live. When we wrote about photographs we treasured, someone wrote about his grandfather, the only photo he had of a man who passed from his life early, but who had imparted many of his values nonetheless. It was touching to feel the tenuousness of life, of generations passing, and the knowledge and love between us.

The week while my residency wound down, the Osage Historic Preservation Department set out on a trip across Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri and Kansas to battlefields, forts, old villages and sacred sites, ending at the Osage Mission in Kansas, where the Osage lived before they traveled to the current reservation.  

I appreciated the Osages who posted photos from the trip and Osage News Editor Shannon Shaw Duty’s coverage, including her streaming a ghost tour from the Crescent Hotel in Eureka Springs, Ark. Osages have a loose connection on social media, an ongoing conversation sharing comments and jokes and photographs that’s almost as much fun as being together in real life.

The photographs of Saint Francis Hieronymo Church reminded me of the trip I took to St. Paul, Kans., to the Osage Mission on a trip Vann Bighorse organized in 2012 through the Wah Zha Zhi Cultural Department.

We rode to St. Paul in a bus from the casino, cushier than a stiff-springed van we’d taken on an earlier cultural walk. Several Osage women sat in the back of the bus, laughing as we joked our way up to the old mission, and it felt like being in high school. When we toured the church at St. Paul that year, the crosses were covered in purple for Lent. I have a finger rosary from that trip in my office.

I remember sitting across from Mary Bighorse in the Osage Mission-Neosho County Historical Society’s museum, eating meat pies for lunch and hearing about the history of the Osage in the area. As a reader and a writer, a lover of libraries, I appreciate W. W. Graves Research Collection, which gathered local history including Graves’ compilations of facts and references from local sources regarding the missions to the Osage. Graves found his life work as a newspaperman, as an author collecting stories and history. As a writer, I understand Graves saying, “I have always written because I couldn't help doing it; it has been the accolade of earthly happiness to be engaged in assembling data for another book."              

The Jesuits came to Kansas at the Osage’s request. The priests set up a school and their records of individual students, the political events of the day, as well as their church records are valuable to Osages. In 2017, the Osage Nation Foundation funded the preservation of the Jesuit records. The Jesuits translated the Bible into Osage and created dictionaries. When the project is finished, the Osage Nation Museum will have an exhibit of those papers and artifacts. I have appreciated the letters and journals that give insight into daily life of the Osage students and the priests who were their teachers.

I remember standing in the cemetery and hearing about the priests who had come among the Osage like Father Bax playing jacks, and then listening to Felix Diskin tell us the story of the cemetery being moved, the Indian children buried in a mass grave. They were re-buried in a mass grave by the same fathers who processed the decomposing remains of nuns, each in her own small casket, from one side of the parish grounds to the other, when they had to move the cemetery. There were no names on the marker. We brought flowers and prayed at the grave, that visit also. It feels good to know that we continue to honor those who died there.

We were quiet on the way home, touched at having seen the single grave for all the Wah Zha Zhi children at the school where they died of measles and fever.

On the way home that day, five or six of us stood outside a restaurant on Highway 169 south of Coffeyville, a couple of tall men with braids, one tall woman, the rest of us were short and heavier. One of the men was smoking; we were stretching in the warm spring day. In the restaurant, it was crowded, a railing kept people moving past an ice cream counter.

An overweight gray-haired couple got out of a small car they’d parked in a handicapped spot by the restaurant. They looked at us and the bus and back.

“You Indian?” the woman said, her hands clamped on an aluminum walker. The words hung between us. She said, “Is that your bus?”

I said, “We went on a field trip.”

The woman looked at the bus again, the dark-haired girl with the cleavage and the big smile and started her walker clinking toward the restaurant. I can hear my friend, who has since passed, saying, “She sure was hoping we had slots in there” and the way we laughed.

I wish I could have gone on this trip, but I appreciate being reminded of those good times. I returned to St. Paul after the first trip with the Osage, and Felix and Margaret Diskin were generous hosts. We drove along the river, looking at old Osage village locations. I’m grateful to remember both the good times and those who have gone before.