Telling Stories

In late February, I went to Pawhuska to attend Wak’on Owatsi, traveling between snow and cold in southwest Washington and the freezing drizzle that fell in Tulsa the night I arrived. I wanted to support Moira RedCorn and the men and women who have worked to make the Women’s Dance an annual event.

This trip I went into the vault in the Osage County Clerk’s Office to see Allotment Deeds and Town Lot Deed Records. Over a century of transactions, of stories, are recorded there. It’s uncanny to compare what is written in a few precise words, slanting ink letters with the realities we imagine from stories we’ve heard. It’s touching to see your family’s names and to imagine them as young people.

Marla RedCorn-Miller had been on the job as the new museum director for two weeks when I visited. She stood in the current Patriot Nations: Native Americans in Our Nation’s Armed Forces exhibit on loan from the Smithsonian explaining how she envisions displays that feature Osage veterans. We turned as she indicated one space and the next, describing a station where people could write their stories if they want to.

I spoke with Pauline Allred and new museum employee Talon Satepauhoodle. We slid back and forth in time, what I’m doing here now, what’s happened since I last was home. We discussed Talon’s family, and when I first met his grandfather. Our connections are important as they locate us in time and place, speaking to where we’ve been and where we’re going.

A friend introducing me to several people mentioned that I write a column for the Osage News. He asked if they’d seen it. One said they set the paper aside to read later, which I relate to, another said she doesn’t read the newspaper until she finishes the books on her list. One person said she read the column and enjoyed it; another saved the paper, although she didn’t read it immediately, in case there were stories about people she’d like to keep. I’ve worked for a daily newspaper and a regional paper covering city politics and school board meetings that were important to local groups. Writing a monthly column feels a little like talking to myself because there isn’t immediate feedback.

The Osage Minerals Council met while I was home. The council members looked less glossy in real life than in their campaign photos. I hadn’t been in the Council Chambers since the black mold abatement was completed. While I listened to strategies to deal with low oil production in the Osage, I studied the murals, which seemed more deeply colored than I remembered. They are blood red, vibrant with Osages at the In-Lon-Schka and faces I know. But as I looked at Destiny to Dynasty more and more details caught my eye. There were Maria and Marjorie Tallchief, a priest, an early council, the council clerk bringing paperwork and two ropers. Each vignette suggests a story I want to hear, names I want to know. I didn’t remember seeing the faces in the sky, ancestors with wisdom still present.

Osage artist Robin Polhamus updated the mural in 2015, adding Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear. There are sketch lines of figures yet to be painted—a woman wearing an apron stands holding a spoon and a bowl. Amy Bledsoe, secretary of the Minerals Council, says she spends a lot of time in the room looking at the faces and matching names. The way the current chief appears in the foreground of the scene under the golden eagle flying from left to right makes the mural feel dynamic, unfolding in real time. Images reflect a multi-faceted history of the Osage, which includes Woolaroc, the Osage County Courthouse and the Superintendent’s house.

The mural on the left of the chamber, It has been said in this Lodge, moves back to the Nation’s early beginnings all the way to when the people came down from the stars. It includes the mystical arrival of the little ones via the red oak tree. After being immersed in modern images, the primordial times feel equally real.

My pleasure in the murals is proportional to the outside world that pushes against us, seeking to deny our ongoing sovereignty, the legitimacy of our rights, our existence. The murals are an embodiment of Osage storytelling, not unlike the conversations I had with Pauline and Talon and Marla about how we share and preserve our history. I came away reaffirming the value of our stories, my faith in the importance of my own writing renewed.