John Joseph Mathews dedicated the book, “The Osages: Children of the Middle Waters,” to his great-grandmother A Ci’n Ga, who was an Osage of the Buffalo Clan, and to his wife Elizabeth Palmour.
The Buffalo Clan blood flowing in the veins of John Joseph was not apparent in the tone of his complexion or in the color of his hair. However, Osage was abundantly present in his heart and mind and in his soul.
John Joseph wrote about childhood memories of the upstairs bedroom view from the family home on the hill. Facing east and allowing him to see the rounded lodge homes of the Wa ka ko li Osages.
He wrote of childhood nights in June, when lying awake listening and remembering how the I’n lon schka Drum fascinated him.
John Joseph also wrote about that hour just before dawn when the silence was heaviest. That was when Osage prayer chants drifted to his window; prayers that he was never able to describe. He wrote the prayer chants filled his little boy’s soul with fear and exotic yearning, and when the prayers ended he would lay there in an exultant fear-trance hoping fervently there would be more of the prayer, and yet afraid that there might be.
He wrote that those experiences were the seeds that would disturb him all of his life. The prayer-chants that always seemed to stop before the prayer was ended.
A few years later, Joe, as he was often called, was attending the University of Oklahoma when World War I erupted. He enlisted in the Cavalry and ended up in the Signal Corps, becoming an early day Fighter Pilot and Flight Instructor. There were 153 Osage men who volunteered to fight in that war, even though at that time Osages were not U.S. Citizens and could not be drafted.
Following World War I he returned to OU. He debated, and played for the OU football team, and in 1920 graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a degree in geology. He remained a follower of OU football, listening to OU Football on his battery-powered radio.
He later spoke of his search for answers to those unanswered childhood questions. Not for the purpose of writing a book, but for the satisfaction of something deep within himself. It was a search that took him to many parts of the world. Mexico, and Africa and Europe.
He attended Oxford University in Cambridge, England, and in 1923 received a degree in Natural Sciences from Merton College. He continued traveling the world, and in 1924 he received a Certificate of International Relations from the University of Geneva, Geneva, Switzerland. He prepared himself well.
In 1929 John Joseph returned home to Osage Country and took up his lifelong search for meaning in anything Osage. He again spoke with elder Osages and found them anxious to share their knowledge with him because they worried about the shrinking number of people who understood Osage teachings. He built a one room stone house, with a large fireplace and added a kitchen. The house was built on his Osage Allotment where he lived, hunted and wrote, in the Blackjacks.
In 1932 John Joseph published “Wah Kon Tah.” It was a best selling Book of the Month.
He went on to write four other books:
1945 Talking to the Moon
1951 Life and Death of an Oilman
1961 The Osages: Children of the Middle Waters
John Joseph’s life-long search caused him to lead the way in establishing the Osage Museum, today the nation’s oldest, and one of the best tribally operated museums. That was the period when he served two terms on the Osage Tribal Council. After his two terms ended, he continued to be of assistance when Osages needed his unique and special help.
I remember the day my father introduced me to John Joseph. Dad told him I had read some of his writing. I was surprised such a distinguished man was so open.
One day, not long after publication of that amazing book, “The Osages, Children of the Middle Waters,” I ran into John Joseph. It was on the east sidewalk of Kihekah Avenue in Pawhuska and we stopped to talk. I told him there were many young Osages reading the book, and I was certain the book was having a strong and positive influence on their lives.
Holding the pipe he had just taken from his mouth, and standing with that distinctive posture he said, “So, I am proselytizing.” That was followed by a small bit of a laugh. A laugh that let me know he was pleased to learn that through his writing he was appreciated by Osages.
On another occasion I told John Joseph of an Osage friend of mine, a student who I dropped in to see one day. He was in his second day of reading “The Osages.” The Big Green Book, I have heard it called. The student told me he was stopping his reading long enough to sleep and to eat, then continued to read. Some time later the student told me he completed reading the book late on day three. Reading the book did change the student’s life.
John Joseph attended the I’n lon schka Dances in the Pawhuska Village. Still fascinated by the Drum and the Dancers, aware of deeper meanings of the dance.
In 1978 my sister Kathryn and I went to see John Joseph. His wife Elizabeth was helping him organize information. I seem to remember the information he was handling dealt with his life experiences. He was in his mid-eighties, and he took short steps as he carried small stacks of paper from one table to another. Although, he was older, his conversation had not slowed. He was interested in what I wanted to discuss and was helpful, and he found ways of bringing humor into our conversation.
A year later, on the day of his funeral I stood with others in that same room of John Joseph’s home. I thought of how he had dedicated his extraordinary gift of insight and expression to write about his incredible search that lasted him a lifetime.