Culture , Columns

Tracing our History

Salt. Níísskue, as linguist Carolyn Quintero spells it. For those with orthography on their phone or computer, there’s another clear way to represent that delicious sound, the “shkue” sounding like a hawk’s cry. I’ve known the Osage word for a long time. I heard Mogri Lookout say it on recorded Osage lessons; I remember saying it at meals with Timber White. At Joe Hall’s dance at Grayhorse, one of the singers sitting next to me at dinner was prompting his young daughter for níísskue. Salt was important in Osage life, and I wanted to see the Great Salt Plain.

In late October, my husband and I started for our home along the Columbia River, driving west from Pawhuska across Osage County. I wanted to see the Osage hunting grounds I’ve read about and to follow the stops on the way to the buffalo hunt that Osage elders recited. The Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge is in Alfalfa County some 114 miles west of Pawhuska, north of the small town of Jet in northern Oklahoma. Osage people went to the Great Salt Plain for salt and gypsum, and for the animals who congregated there. I love the expanse of white at the Alvord Desert in remote Eastern Oregon, or White Sands, the dramatic landscape in New Mexico my father showed us. I was curious about the birds on this important flyway, but after photographer Tara Madden posted photos of Osage youth against the brilliant, almost blinding background, I wanted to photograph it.

A few people fished along the Great Salt Plains Lake the day we drove toward wildlife viewing stations that overlook the 32,000-acre marshy expanse.

When I saw signs for Nescatunga, a small town tucked against the lake that didn’t appear on our atlas, I felt the frisson that comes in finding your relatives close. I knew Nescatunga was Osage, “Ne” for water and “htáka,” large, per Quintero. Like Nelagoney or Neosho, our words still dot our ancestral land, as other Native words stretch across the country.

The Wah Zha Zhi controlled the Santa Fe Trail from St. Louis, guiding travelers and military and scientific expeditions across the plains to the Southwest, including John Sibley’s expedition of 1811. My husband and I stopped at the historical markers, then walked trails along the marsh. The markers don’t describe the full history of the place, but rather note the first white men who came with “6 Osages.”

In Tixier’s Travels on the Osage Prairies, Victor Tixier travels with trader Pierre Melicourt Papin to what he calls the “Grand Saline, Niskurèh-Tanga,” a closer translation. Tixier’s accounts are vivid and disturbing for the racism. As Osages, we listen for the reflection of our presence in place names, as well as in our family’s stories. We contextualize historical texts as we read.

In October, we heard cranes overhead, but I could barely see them they flew so high. Although we were surrounded by their cries from the brushy fields, we never saw one on the ground. Further across the marsh is a salt flat where water and clay and mineral particles make selenite crystals. Some days in summer 400-600 people dig for the diamond shaped crystals. Between 1942-46, the Army Air Corps used the salt flats as a bombing and strafing range. Signs describe the varied munitions still present. In 2007, a Boy Scout visiting the flats found an obsolete chemical weapon training kit with several glass vials of (diluted) chemical weapons.

Nelagoney means good water. In Pawhuska, I heard linguists excited to trace the pronunciation of good, thawle, between the way the Omaha people said it, the way we Osage once said it, and how the people who wrote it on maps heard it.

There are folks alive who heard our elders speaking Osage in the streets of Hominy and across Osage County. It’s good to know that the language is coming back. The Nation is investing in language classes and the language app. The Immersion School is laying the foundation in generations of preschool children who learn so easily. Adult Osages of all ages are investing time to study with the app and in the classroom. Janis Carpenter is teaching both Osage and non-Osage high school students the language in schools across the County.

Maybe as more of us become conversant, we’ll hear Wah Zha Zhi ie on the streets more often. Eddy Red Eagle talked to us about the power of language in class one day. He said, “Someone will ask why are you sovereign – how are you sovereign? You’ll explain and explain, and then,” whhhhhha —he made a sound like an eagle lifting off – “you’ll start speaking our language. There’ll be no question: Osage is a nation.”  

When my husband and I were in Gallup at a jewelry supply store, I realized the radio announcer wasn’t speaking Spanish, but Diné. It brought a visceral awareness that I was in another country. I’m looking forward to the day I hear Wah Zha Zhi ie on our own radio station.