Editor’s Note: This article is part of the multi-part series “Exiled to Indian Country” about the exile of Native Americans.
The exchange of lush, green woodlands for the dry, unwanted land of Indian Territory came with plot twists.
Osage ancestral territory east of the Mississippi included the Ohio Valley region, taking in portions of Ohio, West Virginia, Indiana, Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Illinois.
The Osage traveled for centuries between their spring and winter homes, from the Ohio Valley to the plains west of the Mississippi River. Sometime prior to European contact, they settled near what would become St. Louis, including the Cahokia Mounds.
Talon Ray Satepauhoodle is a member of the Osage Nation and staff representative at the Osage Tribal Museum in Pawhuska.
“We were slowly but surely moving anyway,” Satepauhoodle said. “We crossed the Mississippi, we already made a treaty with the U.S. government…saying that we gave up those lands in Ohio, Illinois, Indiana and Pennsylvania.”
Regarding the influx of white settlers in St. Louis, “We allowed them, because at that time ... we stopped fighting. We knew we had to assimilate. We had to live with these people anyway, so we never fought with them,” he said.
Osage land by the turn of the 19th century primarily encompassed Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma and Arkansas. Massive cessions of land began with major treaties in 1808, 1818 and 1825.
By the time of the Treaty of 1839 at Fort Gibson, the Cherokee Trail of Tears was underway, exiling the Cherokee to Indian territory, but the Osage people lived there already. The decision by the U.S. government created conflict, so the 1839 treaty called for cession of the Osage’s remaining land in Oklahoma and their removal to Kansas to alleviate the tension.
“That’s pretty much stirring up a big hive full of bees, and you just go over there and shake it up to see what happens,” Satepauhoodle said. “It was forcible removal so the Cherokee can live in peace, and they made the Osage move, even though that was [a portion of] our traditional homeland.”
Many had moved from Kansas by 1870. Their land had diminished over the decades to 1.65 million acres in territory later named Osage County, Oklahoma. The Osage owned the title free and clear — until the Dawes Severalty Act of 1887.
The Indian Appropriation Act of 1889 opened the door for 50,000 settlers to take possession of 2 million acres, beginning April 22 of that year, during The Oklahoma Land Run.
Osage leaders retained mineral rights in their final treaty negotiations. This paid dividends with a sudden discovery in 1897.
“The moment we struck oil, we knew. Overnight, we became the richest people in the world,” Satepauhoodle said. Peaceful living became impossible, as tens of thousands of settlers were fixated on the formerly undesirable piece of Oklahoma. Boom towns sprouted by the dozens.
Oil was a catalyst for the 1906 Allotment Act, building on Dawes.
The effect of the 1906 act boomeranged in favor of the Osage. Wiser because of their decades enduring misdealing, they negotiated 160-acre allotments per individual in each household. This multiplied land ownership, rather than limiting it to 160 acres per “head of household,” formerly provided by Dawes. They retained roughly 75 percent of the original reservation.
“We bought it for everyone, but they [government] wanted to diminish that more, because we're about to have a land run,” Satepauhoodle said. In November of 1907, Indian territory became the 46th state in the union—Oklahoma.
The location of the Million-Dollar Elm tree is marked on the Osage campus headquarters in Pawhuska, where auctions took place beginning in 1912 for the leasing and sale of tribal headrights, which is the right to receive a quarterly distribution from minerals. Frank Phillips outbid Henry Ford by a small margin and the scene erupted into a fist-fight between the two men.
Mysterious crimes rippled across the countryside and the period became known as the Reign of Terror. Hundreds of deaths on the Osage reservation remain unsolved to date and only three people were ever held accountable.
The New York Times wrote on Jan. 17, 1926:
“Seldom in the long history of the white man’s dubious dealings with the Indian has there been such a determined combination of craft and violence…white men and women have married members of the wealthy tribe. Others have become beneficiaries of heavily insured Indians. The devices for transferring oil royalties into white hands have been infinite. Before oil was discovered, the Osage Nation lived in peace on its meagre lands, held under treaty with Uncle Sam, and unmolested by the white man. But when petroleum began to gush from the Indians’ hills a throng of whites appeared on the scene; and ever since that time the courts of the little town of Pawhuska have been overwhelmed with lawsuits and criminal cases, while one after another of the heads of rich Indian families has been the victim of murder.”
How close did the government come to the extermination of Osage culture? Satepauhoodle replies, “really close,” referring to government prescribed boarding schools where children were beaten for speaking their language—and forced to assimilate into white culture after the pattern of military boot camps.
“If you kill off all of the culture, all of the language, all the traditions inside this little student's mind and you just have the plain body with a blank mind, you save the body and you kill the Indian inside the body.”
A young girl escaped a boarding school and was returned after capture. It was discovered that another person was caring for the girl like a mother, Satepauhoodle said.
“They took her [the helper] out, tied her hands and feet, and swung her against the tree like a baseball bat. Things like that happened.”
Satepauhoodle said the Osage people are taught there is balance and imbalance in the universe and when things go awry, the universe will eventually balance itself again. He said maintaining and building Osage Nation sovereignty is of primary importance. Today, the tribe has more than 20,000 enrolled members, nearly half of whom live in Oklahoma.