No people have lived in Oklahoma longer and no land has given Oklahoma more than the people and land sharing the name Osage. Elements of the tribe were here before white men ever knew of it. When Europeans did come, they arrogantly declared the land theirs, presumably by some right of discovery, conquest, but it was only their alliances with the powerful Osage that made it theirs in effect, and even then it was on loan from the proud and independent Osage.

Across Missouri from Saint Louis, down western Kansas, then across Oklahoma to the Red River and beyond, Osage hunting and raiding parties had their way with whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted it.

Until Washington wanted it. What had been ruled by the Osage came to be assigned to the Osage, and bit-by-bit what Washington assigned got smaller and smaller. By 1872, when the United States forced upon them a new treaty that pushed them entirely from Kansas, all that remained was about 2,300 square miles. It may not have been much — not compared to what had been — but it was enough. Best of all, they could count on it.

Whites, tribal leaders are supposed to have said, had never shown much interest in such a treeless land, its undulating hills sealed with an impenetrable matof grasses and buried beneath worthless wildflowers. No one much seemed to care what if anything might lie beneath all that, which may have been why Washington gave the Osage such a singular deal when it otherwise gave the Osage no choice at all. By federal law of 1906, every square inch of Osage land was to be divided equally among the 2,229 individuals that Washington had enrolled as Osage tribal citizens, each receiving 160 acres as personal homestead and some 500 more as separate surplus.

But what lay below — the oil, gas, coal or other minerals covered by the lands — were to be retained by the Osage tribe for at least 25 years, more if Congress later saw fit to extend it.

Thus there entered one number and two terms that have had great consequence for Oklahoma, particularly with what at statehood became Osage County. Two-thousand, two-hundred, twenty nine. That was the number, the number of names that appeared on those very old rolls. It is a number that has never changed and never will. The Osage population, of course, has. Currently, it is roughly double that old figure, but 2,229 is forever fixed; it is the number of Osage “headrights”. That term, especially when linked to other mineral rights is what has given the number so much meaning and yielded for Oklahoma so much history.

Each of the original 2,229 received an equal headright. None could ever sell it, lease it, borrow against it, or otherwise dispose of it. The only way to lose it was to die, at which point, the headright passed to heir or heirs, if the latter, as equal fractions.

And what was one headright worth? Exactly 1/2,229th of the value of all mineral rights assigned collectively to 2,229 Osage citizens. As early as 1919, that added up and divided out to about $20,000 — the income derived in one year from the mineral rights held by an Osage family of five.

The reason had no more to do with the grasses than with the wildflowers. The reason was oil. Everyone knew, back in 1906, that those mineral rights — particularly the right to punch through that grass, trample the flowers, and drill for oil — had to be worth something; but nobody had any idea how much, not even in 1919. It was in the 1920s that the Osage lands were flooded with oil and the Osage people were awash with money. In fact, they were the wealthiest people on the planet. Take 1923, when the tribe split up $27 million. Her share was enough that one Osage citizen could spend $12,000 for a fur coat, $3,000 for a diamond ring, $5,000 for a new car, $7,000 for new furniture, $600 to ship it to California and $12,800 on Florida real estate — $40,000 all told, spent by one Osage woman in one afternoon. All that treeless land, undulating hills sealed beneath impenetrable grasses and buried beneath worthless wildflowers was anything but worthless.

That was many an afternoon ago, though; and oil doesn’t mean nearly as much now as it did then — not to Oklahoma, not to the Osage, not even to Osage County. Today, the county’s population hovers around 40,000, about 7,000 fewer than had been making their living there 75 years ago. On the average, they do not make anything like such a good living either. The county’s per capita income does not reach even two-thirds of what can be found in neighboring Kay, Washington or Tulsa counties.

Even that would be worse but for the million dollars and more that the state sends the county annually for public assistance. It may be that some of that has to go to a few of the Osage, probably not many for those “headrights” still have some worth and the Osage are still a proud and independent people.

That has not changed. Neither has some of that land, land still lush with bluestem, Indian grass and switchgrass, land still undulating in hills still aglow with the colors of nearly 800 plant species. Like the oil that had been beneath it in Oklahoma, there is not now nearly as much of that kind of land left anywhere anymore — not even a tenth of a vast tallgrass prairie that once carpeted 142 million acres in 14 states. In fact, about all that remains in large, unbroken tracts survive to be found nowhere but in the Flint Hills of Oklahoma and Kansas.

None is able to sustain itself as a functioning ecosystem. At least not now, but it may one day, and it may in Oklahoma. In 1989, the Nature Conservancy purchased 30,000 acres of what had been the sprawling Barnard Ranch, north of Pawhuska. Since expanded by another 9,000 acres and designated the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve, it today is home to bison and songbirds and wildflowers in other words, something of a precious reminder of and tribute to what it had been when all it had been was a land and a people sharing the name Osage.

(Note: “Oklahoma Reflections” is produced in cooperation with Danney Goble, Ph.D., a professor of Classics at the University of Oklahoma and a noted author of history. The art was produced specifically for this series by Carolyn Chandler, an artist and illustrator of 45 years, who now resides in Norman and specializes in oil painting.)

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