Everything about the view from the fifth floor of Downstream Casino Resort on Nee Road reflects the O-gah-pah, the Quapaw. Three flag poles stand in the center of a drive that form a curving wide circle, elongated to outline a Mississippian pot. Trim hedges mark the lip. Two spirals are set into the grass, dark stone and against white, and the reverse. American and Oklahoma flags flap on either side of the Quapaw Nation’s flag. The horizon is lined with the curls of deciduous trees. Bison and golden calves graze in a nearby field. At the entrance to the resort, a billboard reads “Ha’way from the Quapaw Tribe.” The casino is set where the states of Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma meet, about 25 miles from Joplin, Mo., in the center of Dhegiha land.
The resort was planned to showcase Quapaw culture. JCJ Architecture created a site plan that reflects the Downstream People in photographs, their artifacts and pottery. A sixteen-foot sculpture representing a pot stands in the lobby. The O-Gah-Pah’s spiral patterns are reflected in the curving shapes of the buildings, the designs in carpets, and even the landscaping. Once I tuned into the architecture, I noticed the curve of a feather inscribed in the wall of a 12-story tower. At night the fine interlocking web of a feather comes alive with colored lights shifting colors.
This is my first time to attend the Dhegiha Language Conference. The assembled Dhehiga elders and language teachers and speakers, Kaw, Osage, Quapaw, Ponca, Northern Ponca, and Omaha, make a powerful and welcoming group.
The conference feels like a revival meeting for language study, and reflects love for our Indian people and their ways, an antidote to the unacknowledged stress of living in a foreign, too often hostile, country. Just as the conference started, the Oklahoma Legislature voted to overturn Governor Stitt’s unreasonable (unlawful) veto of the tobacco compact. We are still warriors, fighting for the right to exist. Language is an incredibly important part of that struggle.
Teachers at the conference shared practices, while some elders gave deeper cultural context to our languages. Kaw Language Director Desiree Storm Brave shared a comprehensive range of programs for children and adults, that incorporate cultural activities linking generations on the reservation and in Shidler. Brave’s Kanza language Find a Word puzzles inspired at least one Osage to create one of their own.
Tom and Hillary Ashmore’s classes in Fairfax are meant to create a safe place for students, and grew to include parents. Tom Ashmore said he believes in the power of language to strengthen connection with one’s culture. He brings his grounding in artist practice to class: students paint together and sing and perform to deepen learning.
Elders like Ponca Louis Headman, Omaha Pierre Merrick, and our Mogri Lookout channeled a deep love of people, our ways and our language.
The ongoing presence of our Dhegiha people lives in place names, in towns like Quapaw, even in the names of states around us. It’s good to see Nee Road, for ni, water. In the resort, a coffee shop called Ma-kon Sha stocks O-Gah-Pah Coffee that the Nation roasts with blend names like Tribal Soul and Downstream. Restroom signs read “Men’s (ni‘ ck-ka)” and “Women’s (wah-ko’h).” In an ideal world, the order would be reversed, but still, I’m still grateful.