We went to learn about the Osage Indians and thought we had discovered a ghost town. We rolled into Pawhuska, Oklahoma on a Saturday night anxious to meet some people and find out about the Native American traditions in this region. All we found were deserted buildings and empty streets. Why was the town so dead on a weekend night? After making a few more loops through the streets and still being greeted with stillness all around, Becky and I, much dismayed, decided to head out of town. On our way out, we stopped at a gas station and ran across a local paper that proved to be a turning point in our evening. The headline story caught our eye as it declared that tribal dances were being held that weekend on the outskirts of town. Dancing? Well, that sure sounded a lot more fun and interesting than staring at dark buildings all night long .We got directions and were on our way!
As we drove closer to the site, we quickly realized why the town seemed so deserted. All the cars lining the streets around the Indian Camp made us think that not only was everybody in Pawhuska at this event, but everyone from the neighboring towns must have been there as well.
The dances were being held in a large, rectangular, open-walled "arbor" with packed bleachers on all four sides. Behind the bleachers, people had set up lawn chairs and were hanging out and watching the ceremonies. It was no wonder there were so many people there-- this was the I'n-Lon- Schka, an Osage ceremonial dance that is held only once a year. And we were lucky enough to be there!
I'n-Lon-Schka means "playground of the eldest son," and is a chance for the first-born son of each family to participate in a very important religious and cultural ceremony. Eldest children are considered to be special blessings, something the younger kids come to accept. (I hope my older brother isn't getting any crazy ideas here...)
The drum is the center, both literally and figuratively, as it is not only placed in the middle of the arbor, but is also viewed as a sacred instrument in the ceremony. An eldest son is chosen to be the drumkeeper for a year, with his main duties being to protect and care for the drum. Having a couple of drums at home, I know how powerful and wonderful the rhythms of the drum can be. Unfortunately, I have no skills when it actually comes to producing these magical rhythms.
When the Osage men started playing however, it was a whole different story. As soon as the music started, the eldest sons sitting on the perimeter of the arbor got up and started dancing around the drum circle. The men were all in traditional dress, which included otter hides and an array of colorful beadwork and ribbonwork crafted by the women. As they danced, the sounds of the drum along with the movements of the men created an amazing rhythm that made the entire place come alive with the beat. Each man seemed incredibly focused on his own motions without regards to the other dancers or audience around him. Yet they all moved together so cohesively and with such a great sense of harmony and peace with one another.
Becky and I were enthralled, allowing ourselves to be immersed in the entire experience. The music and movements really did take control, allowing even observers like us to feel a part of the rhythm and harmony. In the I'n-Lon-Schka, the emphasis is supposed to be on the total package-- the music, the dance, the ceremony, the dress-- rather than on any one specific element. For this reason, the men's dancing is a ceremonial style that involves some bending down but is not as elaborate as the fancy dancing that occurs at pow wows. The dance steps are passed down the generations through observation so that these men are quite literally following in their fathers' footsteps!
The experience became even more powerful once we learned all the significance behind the dancing. The first thing to know is that the I'n-Lon-Schka is traditionally a war dance. Now, you may have noticed that I said the I'n-Lon-Schka is the playground of the eldest son, not of the eldest child. Well, what about the daughters? What role do women play in this ceremony? Historically, this has in fact been a male dance as it is men who traditionally have been the warriors. In present day, women are allowed to participate on the outskirts, circling quietly around the male dancers with a more sedate step and upright movement.
Along with harmony with each other, this dance also signifies harmony with nature. It is usually held in June to celebrate a season of new growth. (This year it had been postponed till September due to the death of a tribal elder).
Also, as opposed to the social pow wows, the I'n-Lon-Schka is more of a serious, religious event where people come for healing and to draw spiritual strength. This ceremony has been a great source of spiritual reinforcement for the Osage for over 100 years. Here's a quick history:
Having migrated from the Atlantic coast, the Osage used to live in permanent villages along the Osage River in Missouri. Actually, they were called the Wazhazhe, a name that was later corrupted through translations by Europeans into the current term "Osage." They were in a great location between other Native American tribes to the west and the advancing European-American frontier and were thus able to control trade between these groups. Then in the 19th century, the Osage began a period of treaty-making with the U.S. government that resulted in the diminishment of their homeland. They ceded over 100 million acres of land and ended up moving to Kansas. After the Civil War, pressure on the U.S. government to open up all Native American lands to white settlement led to the sale of the Kansas reservation, forcing the Osage to move again. This time they went to northeastern Oklahoma, where they are today. When they left Kansas, there was much spiritual confusion and division brought on by broken treaties and intermarriage with whites. It was around this time that the I'n-Lon-Schka dance and traditions came to the Osage from the Ponca and Kaw tribes. The I'n-Lon-Schka helped them through this difficult period and was used to celebrate the tribe's survival.
The move to Oklahoma ended up fulfilling an ancient prophecy that included a prediction of great wealth in a new land. The discovery of oil on their reservation in the late 19th century along with an agreement with the government to retain all mineral rights on their land did indeed make the Osage a uniquely wealthy tribe. Because they are economically well-off, the Osage have not had to submit to pressure from the public to offer more fancy dancing and tourist events and instead can focus more on preserving their culture. The I'n-Lon-Schka is thus one of the few authentic ceremonial dances remaining in the U.S.
This important dance is also used to build community and unite the tribe, strengthening their sense of identity. When they moved to Oklahoma, the Osage settled in three main areas corresponding to ancient divisions of the tribe: Pawhuska (the present capital of the Osage Nation), Hominy, and Gray Horse. Presently, the I'n-Lon-Schka, which is a four-day event (Thursday-Sunday), takes place at each of these locations and ends with the last two days in Pawhuska. Each tribe sits on a specified side of the rectangular arbor with the fourth side being reserved for visitors. From what we could tell, tribal members and visitors from all over Oklahoma were in Pawhuska that night, brought together by this great ceremony.
Not only did this event draw people from all over the state, but I am also aware of a couple of trekkers who had come from California (that's Becky and me, for those of you keeping track) and had been completely drawn in by the experience. We may have been inadvertent visitors, but I feel so blessed that we were able to encounter this important ceremony and be a part of the rich Osage tradition.
P.S. Since the Irquote n-Lon-Schka is such a spiritual event, taking pictures or video is strictly prohibited. We are sorry that we cannot show you this amazing ceremony, but we of course needed to respect the wishes and traditions of the tribe.
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