Making Our Way Through

Last month, I wrote about learning to write Osage words via electronic media. We heard the Osage word for buzzard, and they’re back on this island in the Columbia River riding the thermals. This week on Facebook Live in the beginner class Wakonze Celena taught us red-tailed hawk. Just as the Osage Language Department is embracing distance learning, the Covid-19 virus has driven businesses and individuals across the country to Zoom meetings and digital platforms. Network news anchors are broadcasting from home.  

In Osage, we say húheka (per Carolyn Quintero) for sick. The old Osage faced more than one scourge. Historically, a scourge was a whip used for punishment, now it means a time of great trouble or suffering. There was suffering in Kansas. Those of us who have been to St. Paul, Kansas, have stood beside the unmarked grave in the cemetery at Osage Mission, a stone with no names attached, and mourned those children. Many Osages died in the school when measles spread, and many adults in the bands died as well. Louis Burns lists the series of diseases that hit Osages in the latter part of the 19th century; I won’t repeat those painful numbers.

John Joseph Matthews wrote that the Osages dispersed onto the plains when sickness appeared. As the Covid-19 virus spreads, the CDC and WHO recommend we isolate ourselves to avoid coming into contact with it. In Washington State we are under lockdown, i.e. a “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order, under which all gatherings including those for social, spiritual and recreational purposes are banned.

In the small town where I live, our grocery is taking orders over the phone and making curbside delivery to minimize contact with elders and those with underlying health conditions who are more susceptible to serious illness from the virus. The most essential social events in our lives—funerals and weddings—are prohibited. It’s hard to imagine the grief a local family endured over a father’s sudden death, watching a casket being lowered into the ground without even the usual words. A memorial service was broadcast via YouTube, but the physical gathering, the comfort of hugs wasn’t possible without risk.

Isolating is the opposite of the community gatherings that define our lives as Osages, but still, Osages take care of our own. In the Osage, volunteer groups are organizing, delivering food for seniors and sharing resources. This week Ryan RedCorn streamed bingo with print-your-own bingo cards for about 50 players. The Osage Language Department is still streaming classes. This is a time to check in with friends and family by phone and Internet, to take a break from the news when it’s too much and to be creative.

Americans faced shortages and rationing in World War II. Osages are not new to sacrifice. Our veterans can tell us about missing the birth of a child, about enduring fear and loneliness day after day. We’ll make our way through together.