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HomeCulture'A labor of love' Tara Damron set to leave White Hair Memorial

‘A labor of love’ Tara Damron set to leave White Hair Memorial

Damron, who has worked at the Osage research center for nearly five years is set to leave at the end of June. She talked with Osage News about what’s next for her and the center.

Lillie Morrell Burkhart had an important role in the Osage Inlonshka dances. She was one of the cooks for the Hominy District and according to people who knew her in the 1950s and 60s, she would send groceries and pledge support for the Drumkeepers and their families during the annual dances.

“It’s important, and it’s meaningful and it’s hopefully, it’s a way that we continue to honor Mrs. Burkhart because that’s what she did in her lifetime,” said Tara Damron, White Hair Memorial director.

That support continues today. It’s the reason Damron sends money to individual grocery stores in Fairfax, Hominy and Pawhuska every June to take care of Lillie’s song. She is the only Osage woman who has a song in all three districts – Grayhorse, Hominy and Pawhuska.

The pledge of support goes a long way. “It’s a lot,” Damron said, for Drumkeepers and their families to host during this important time for Osages.

“Because of who she was throughout her lifetime and her financial ability to be supportive, the White Hair Memorial on behalf of Mrs. Burkhart, we take care of – I take care of her songs and I have been doing that for the past five years,” she said.

This will be the last time Damron will be taking care of Lillie’s song. At the end of June, she will be wrapping up her 20-year career at the Oklahoma Historical Society and her tenure as the program director at the White Hair Memorial, Mrs. Lillie Morrell Burkhart’s country home between Hominy and Ralston.

“It’s been a labor of love,” Damron said.

Damron, who is from Fairfax, remembers visiting her grandparents who lived near White Hair Memorial. The area used to be called Middle Enterprise and there were more people living out here, she said. And before stepping into her role as program director, Damron took Osage language and cultural classes at the center when she was in high school.

Tara Damron, left, speaks with the late Osage filmmaker David Bishop and Donna Leonard about Osage ancestry. Damron will leave her post as White Hair Memorial program director at the end of June. Courtesy Photo

Alice Couch would pick her up and take her to classes taught by Kenny Bighorse Sr. and Harry Red Eagle Jr. Lillie’s great-niece, Billie Ponca, was running the White Hair Memorial during those language classes. The classes began after a series of community meetings took place to decide how it would benefit the Osage community.

When Ponca heard that Damron was leaving White Hair she said she was heartbroken because of the good job Damron’s done in making the place more accessible to the community.

“She understands our culture, she understands Osage tradition and she’s so helpful,” Ponca said.

“And she’s brought it so far from where it was from the last attendant that I have nothing but praise for her.”

Ponca remembers the meetings when Dr. Dan Swan was initially hired to take over the White Hair Memorial. When he began his tenure, Lillie’s will had just been settled – after nearly 20 years of being stuck in probate in Osage County Court.

Lillie willed her home, some of her land and her two headrights to the Oklahoma Historical Society when she passed away in 1967. OHS manages Lillie’s trust and the funds from her headrights and proceeds from her land are to pay for the upkeep of the White Hair Memorial as well as Damron’s salary.

Lillie was married to Byron Burkhart, the brother of Ernest Burkhart and nephew of William King Hale. While Ernest and Hale were convicted in the murderous plots to take Osage headrights, Byron was not, even though he was involved in the death of Anna Brown. Lillie Morrell Burkhart divorced him in 1961.

She wanted the house to be a shrine to her ancestor, Chief White Hair, Pawhuska. On the wall of her house hangs a proclamation giving her the title of the Chief of the White Hair clan because of her connection.

When Damron first started working at White Hair, she was amazed at Lillie’s collection of Osage cultural items like clothing, wedding coats and brooches. The place also holds a collection of Inlonshka songs, a trove of papers and documents containing Osage history going back to the 1700s and the Louis F. Burns and Ruth B. Burns Osage Research Library, a priceless collection of books and manuscripts about Osage culture.

“I just really wanted people to really start using this place, and to increase the visibility of this place,” Damron said. She’s acknowledged the challenges the center has faced being so remote and out in the country. Damron relies on satellite internet and has undertaken massive projects that an older home requires. The roof has been replaced and the windows recently received new treatments and blinds to better protect Lillie’s collections.

“There’s still more work to be done.”

Damron worked with the Osage Nation roads department to have signs placed along Highway 20 so that people will know where it is. She also worked with the Osage County Sheriff’s Department to get them to come out and check on the place.

TV Journalist Lisa Ling speaks with Tara Damron on Season 8 of “This is Life with Lisa Ling.” The episode focused on the Osage Reign of Terror. Osage News

The Future of White Hair

The Oklahoma Historical Society said they will be looking for a replacement to fill Damron’s job.

Osage News reached out to Trait Thompson, who agreed to comment over email about what the future holds for the White Hair Memorial when Damron leaves.

Osage News asked how they will search to fill the position and if they would hire an Osage citizen to run it.

“The OHS is a state agency, and we are subject to state laws regarding hiring candidates,” Thompson said in an email reply. Thompson also said it was too early to comment on the direction of the site but that their goal was to staff it with a full-time employee and that they “have no current plans to change the direction that the site goes in, as it operates under the direction set forth by the Trust that governs it.”

Last fall, KOSU and Osage News broke the news that OHS had been in talks with the Osage Nation to return the trusteeship of the White Hair to the Osage Nation. Thompson said there hasn’t been any further discussion on that matter.

Billie Ponca hopes that OHS will get the community’s input into how the place will be run.

“If they do hire someone, it would be perfect if that person was Osage and it would be wonderful if they understood our culture and understood what the White Hair was originally set up to do,” Ponca said.

Ponca said her main concern for whoever works there is that they maintain its legacy.

“As a family relative and descendant, my main concern is that it continues to cultivate and support the Osage community.”

For Damron, who’s been absorbed in Lillie’s legacy over the last five years, the place will always have a special place in her heart. Working out in the country gave her a chance to come home to the place where she grew up and to serve the Osage people.

“The thing about being Osage and being a part of this community is that it’s a living culture, we’re a living community.”

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Allison Herrera
Allison Herrerahttps://osagenews.org
Title: Freelance Reporter
Email: aherrera@osagenation-nsn.gov
Languages spoken: English

Allison Herrera is a radio and print journalist who's worked for PRX's The World, Colorado Public Radio as the climate and environment editor and as a freelance reporter for High Country News’ Indigenous Affairs Desk.

Herrera recently worked on Bloomberg and iHeart Media's In Trust with Rachel Adams-Heard, an investigative podcast about Osage Headrights.

She currently works for KOSU as their Indigenous Affairs Reporter. Herrera’s Native ties are from her Xolon Salinan tribal heritage.

In her free time, she likes buying fancy earrings, running and spending time with her daughter.

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