Published: March 30, 2004
“Art of the Osage,” on view at the Saint Louis Art Museum through August 8, gathers together more than 100 objects made between 1750 and the present day by the American Indian people known as the Osage.
Although artist George Catlin sketched the tribe’s chief Clermont in 1834, the material culture of the Osage remains little known among art historians today. This Native American group never made art for art’s sake; instead, they attempted to make all useful objects beautiful. The unfamiliarity of the outside world with their creations results, in part, from the fact that – due to a series of fortunate economic circumstances – the Osage were never constrained to make goods for sale to settlers or tourists.
Dr John Nunley, the Morton D. May curator of the arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas at the Saint Louis Art Museum, spent six years organizing the exhibition with the help of Osage tribal authorities. “This is really the first major exhibition on Osage art,” he explains. “It is true that you hear more about the Mandan or the Oglala or other Plains Indians. But, when the Osage were at the height of their commercialization of the fur trade, they occupied an area that included Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas and Oklahoma. They processed bison in the plains but also lived in the eastern woodlands and on the prairie; they were involved in three different environments. This is another reason why people interested couldn’t quite peg the Osage in any one place.”
The exhibit features a collection of objects with a “purposeful beauty characteristic” that spans a history of more than 250 years. Borrowed from a variety of prestigious sources, including the Osage Tribal Museum, the “Art of the Osage” project chronicles the history, religion and society of the tribe.
This does not mean that contact with Europeans did not change Osage life and art. In exchange for the furs traded to the French, the tribe received wool broadcloth, which replaced leather for clothing, guns and metal weapons to aid in their hunting, and decorative glass beads, which became an important element in the graphic designs ornamenting every sort of object. Fine beadwork was used for patterns on articles of clothing, such as belts and garters, on cradleboards used to carry infants, on ceremonial headdresses and on ritual implements, such as peyote fans and rattles.
Nunley also draws attention to other subtle changes brought about by contact with outside influences. One of his favorite objects in the exhibition is a quirt, or riding whip, made of engraved elk antler, circa 1850, lent by the Detroit Institute of Arts. The outlined horses resemble prototypes that go back to the Paleolithic period and the frontal warriors are geometric in construction. The curator compares this example to another quirt, collected by Karl Bodmer in 1833, that depicts a more realistic warrior in three-quarter perspective, whose engraver seems to be copying images by trained European artists.
The refined artistic tradition of the Osage reflects the sense of continuity and purpose that has long united the Osage people in the values of spirituality and community. Rich in meaning and complex in its commitment to tradition and utility, Osage art is infused with aesthetic vigor bound to exquisite simplicity.
Since Osage art always has a practical orientation, many objects displayed in the exhibition are specially decorated clothing or accessories reserved for ceremonial occasions. The most important of these are the traditional male dances of the E-Lon-schka societies, which have been an important keystone of Osage community life for the last 100 years. These ceremonies are this tribe’s version of the Grass Dance, which was adopted by many prairie and plains peoples in the late Nineteenth Century. A distinctive element of the Osage costume for this event is the characteristic roach headdress attached to the head by a roach spreader or platform, which helps give the crest its flaring shape.
One bone roach spreader, on loan from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, is decorated with a series of three stacked hearts, a common motif in Osage art. A complete headdress, also on view, shows how the crest was constructed from the beard of a wild turkey and red-dyed deer tail hair, which symbolize the fire and ashes of a prairie fire. Brightly colored beadwork terminating in wild bird feathers completes the headdress. Other rdf_Descriptions on display that were used in the E-Lon-schka dances include a ceremonial tail dancer’s stick with beading and a trailer and fringed leggings worn by a male dancer.
Patriotic decorations appear in another group of exhibits connected with the participation of Osage soldiers in World War I. A special certificate of appreciation was signed by President Calvin Coolidge and presented by his representatives to tribal members at Pawhuska in 1924. Julia Lookout, one of the tribe’s most important artists of the Twentieth Century, wore a special pair of moccasins she had decorated with beading incorporating the American flag and lightning motifs from Osage cosmology. The War Mothers Society, founded around this time, also made special wool blankets commemorating their sons’ contributions; all four in the exhibition are decorated with multiple American flags.
An interesting group of exhibits involve paraphernalia of the Osage peyote religion, introduced into the tribe in the 1890s by John Wilson, a Caddo-Delaware Indian who taught and constructed altars in the community for many years, gaining many converts. His followers were encouraged to abandon earlier tribal religious practices, even the E-Lon-schka dance. A pair of moccasins on display has beaded medallions representing peyote buttons. A ritual Big Moon Staff, borrowed from the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, is decorated with feathers, bells, possum hair and an otter’s hide, which represents purity. A box holds a complete peyote kit of liturgical implements, which would be owned by each male member of the church. Particularly beautiful is a peyote fan of macaw and eagle feathers with beaded shafts, used to steady and focus participants during the long church ritual.
A scholarly catalog has been published by the museum in conjunction with the University of Washington Press. Nunley and Sean Standing Bear contributed the final chapter on “Osage Aesthetics,” but the majority of the essays on history and religion were written by Bailey. It also includes rare black and white historical photographs dating from the 1870s, as well as excerpts from recorded interviews with members of the Osage Nation.
The Saint Louis Art Museum, located on Fine Arts Drive in Forest Park, is offering the “Art of the Osage” exhibition as part of the Three Flags Festival commemorating the 200th anniversary of the formal transfer of the Louisiana Territory in St Louis on March 9-10, 1804. For information, 314-721-0072 or www.slam.org.
5 Church Hill Road / Newtown, CT 06470
Mon - Fri / 8:00 am - 5:01 pm