Last year the pandemic shut down travel, and I’m not sure what 2021 will bring, so when I had a chance to meet with other Osages for the NorCal Osage Winter Gathering last Saturday, I was ready.
We stacked into the squares of a Zoom screen on Saturday. There was social time as people arrived, and it was good to see friends. As constraining as Zoom can be, shrinking us into a face and a torso, there’s a special joy in seeing old friends.
The meeting included an update on the Osage Language Department’s programming, which is exploding into new media with CARES funding. Wahkonze Celena Noear described the rollout of new videos, curriculum and digital resources for Osages across the country and the world. A video on the importance of running for Osages, an integral part of life prior to contact, energized everyone. Noear urged us to remember that the only wrong way to speak your language is not to speak it at all. Eric Henson, a Chickasaw and an economic development expert, discussed the Tribal Energy Resource Agreement that the Osage Mineral Council has been studying.
The highlight was time with former Osage Nation Congressman Archie Mason, who had been asked to talk about growing up Osage. Archie Mason is a generous and gifted speaker, who grounded us in time and place, reminding us of who we are and what’s important in life. He told us he’d been in the Grayhorse Cemetery with cousins the previous day and was surrounded by family there. I remember walking in the cemeteries in each of the districts with friends and family and the stories that come up. The last times I’ve been home, I’ve walked daily in the Pawhuska cemetery across the wide hill that looks back at the Nation’s campus, curious about the many Osages buried there and greeting my relatives who lie under a shrubby tree.
Archie Mason told us he was born in Pawhuska, but was back and forth to grandparents in Grayhorse and Fairfax, immersed in the Osage language and switching to English during school days.
The Osage danced in the spring and fall “way back there,” he told us. He got roached in the old roundhouse in Grayhorse in the early 1950s, and he said he’s been there every year since, which is a beautiful testimony.
Seeing Archie Mason in a turquoise shirt with the tip of a beaded water bird at his neck, relaxed and visiting with us, was almost as good as being in the room together. We all know the timbre of his voice from prayers he’s offered and congressional discussions and his years as a community leader and educator.
For Archie Mason, 76, who said he was connecting via Zoom by himself for the second time, the digital world is a challenge, but it’s part of how we’re being Osage today. “I feel I’m hanging onto the caboose,” he said, “but I’m on the train.”
Because of Covid we can’t share a basket of groceries and ask to talk, as we might at other times, he told us, but we would hold onto the things that had been said during our meeting. He offered a model of how Osages connect, validating Osage ways into the digital age.
During a question and answer period, the conversation extended to the discrimination Osages and Poncas faced in and around the Osage Reservation. Participants compared their family’s experiences and some family members’ reluctance to talk about their early days in Pawhuska. A participant talked about her grandmother chained to the bed for speaking Indian at boarding schools.
Archie Mason, who described the special times he’d had with his grandparents, admonished grandparents to share with family, saying “As grandparents, we have to tell the truth. As grandparents, we damned sure better tell the truth, because if we don’t, who else is gonna do it, but us?”
It was a joy to listen to Archie Mason, who admitted, “I’m a grandpa; I’m full of stories.”
Thank you, NorCal Osage, because, as Archie Mason said, “You’re the only Osages I’ve seen today. Covid keeps me in the house.”
Like him, I say, “I saw an Osage today. It’s been a good day.”