Reading John Joseph Matthews’ Wah’Kon-Tah

I’ve spent most of December in a cabin on Bainbridge Island across Puget Sound from Seattle. I’m a writer-in-residence at Bloedel Reserve, a 50-acre estate that timber baron Prentice Bloedel owned. The family lived in a French chateau when they were here, but I’m staying in a fine wooden cabin designed by the architect Jim Cutler with two stone platforms that anchor the space. A stone hearth reminds me of the one in John Joseph Matthews’ cabin, the Blackjacks, that he built north of Pawhuska.

Most of us have seen the photograph of Matthews sitting in front of the hearth with his legs crossed, a pipe in his hand and a dog at his feet. It’s on the cover of Michael J. Snyder’s new biography John Joseph Matthews: Life of an Osage Writer, published this year by the University of Oklahoma Press.

As an Osage and especially as a writer, I’ve thought a lot about Matthews’ work. I’ve read and enjoyed Talking to the Moon, his account of building and living in the Blackjacks. I was intrigued by Sundown, a novel of early 1920s Osage life that reflects details I’ve heard from my Dad.

Sitting near the hearth on Bainbridge Island, I’ve read Wah’Kon-Tah: The Osage and the White Man’s Road, turning the heavy ivory pages of the orange cloth-covered book with the spider on the cover. Published in 1932, it reads like a novel, but it’s a transcription of the Quaker Laban Miles’ diary from the years he was Osage Agent. He was appointed in 1878, not long after the Osages purchased the current reservation.

I don’t know how many Osages have read all of Wah’Kon-Tah. I’m guessing more of us have dipped into Matthews’ four-pound tribal history, The Osages. I read The Osages in college when I set myself the task of reading for 15” a day till I finished. Other Osage friends said they gave themselves a reward for reading it. It’s that kind of book, dense.

I find Matthew’s style in Wah’Kon-Tah a little stiff, but interesting. It’s written more formally than is usual today, but if you press through, there are gifts. Matthews was a naturalist. He wants the reader to experience what he did, as when “dickcissels swayed on the tops of weeds.” Sometimes his style is dated, “the breezes talked and laughed merrily,” but at other times an image, “the blackjacks were hung with tassels of green, like the fringe on a piano cover,” makes me smile.

Wah’Kon-Tah offers modern Osages a chance to read about our people living in their bands, but I wince at Miles/Matthews’ characterization of Osage women. We read Laban Miles’ justifications for his decisions, the ambivalence he feels about sending children to school and dismantling the Osage way of life. I don’t know how much liberty Matthews has taken in interpreting Miles’ diary, but I’m curious.

Osage scholar Robert Warrior has written about Matthews in Tribal Secrets: Recovering American Indian Intellectual Traditions, and Michael Snyder, a professor at Oklahoma City Community College, has published a biography detailing Matthews’ complex character with carefully cited interviews from Matthews’ family and other Osages.

It’s good to see relatives’ names, like “Old Wah Shin Peesha” or “Wah Shin Kah Sabe,” or to recognize an Osage word in Matthews’ spelling. The book offers a sense of what it was like to live then. I’m in a fir forest in mid-winter, reading about Laban Miles being called to Big Chief’s band when the chief dies. Miles arrives around midnight, when no fires illuminate the camp, and he reaches in the total darkness for a tree to hitch his mules.