Columns

Our Osage Hills

Michael Snyder, who wrote the striking biography John Joseph Mathews: An Osage Life is back with Our Osage Hills, a collection that braids newspaper columns Mathews’ wrote for the Pawhuska Journal-Capital between March 1930 and August 1931 with Snyder’s essays giving context to Mathews’ position in the Osage.

Our Osage Hills: Toward an Osage Ecology and Tribalography of the Early Twentieth Century is a significant work. Snyder uses Mathews’ columns as a window into Mathews’ understanding of the Osage, its geology, its flora and fauna, as well as its human inhabitants. Snyder’s interwoven essays describe Mathews’ position in the community amidst the challenges of the 1920s and 1930s, as well as voicing aspects of the community usually left silent, such as environmental racism in “Pawhuska Flood” and amendments to the 1884 Osage Constitution that banned African Americans from living in the Osage. Snyder draws connections and raises questions unaddressed in David Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon. 

Snyder aimed to create an Osage-centric study of Mathews and he’s done that with a forward by Russ Tall Chief, interviews with Kathryn Redcorn and Raymond Redcorn III, and Russ Tall Chief, and by describing the family and political relationships between various Osages and community members, especially in such sections as “Osage Women and Others,” and “Critique of Settler Colonialism.” Reading the book is like being part of a conversation with multi-generational references, listening to gossip from relatives.

Snyder identified Mathews’ columns, signed only JJM, pouring over microfilm copies of the Pawhuska Journal-Capital from the Oklahoma History Research Center. Snyder is an associate teaching professor in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Oklahoma, whose biography of Mathews was a finalist for the Oklahoma Book Award.

Having immersed himself in Osage history for the biography, Snyder is prepared to record and parse the complicated relationships within the political world of the Osage, its environmental and economic battles and the political factions within the Nation. Snyder describes the struggles between the Osage Tribal Council and the Department of the Interior, in his essay “Chief Bacon Rind, Henry Red Eagle, William Mathews, E-stah-o-gre-she, and the Osage Tribal Council versus the Department of the Interior.”

Mathews’ photographs are interspersed throughout, bringing Mathews’ love of the Osage to the pages. Snyder offers a significant resource to the Osage people, in his bibliography and comprehensive notes. Mathews articulates his own philosophy as a naturalist, a conservationalist, and a member of the Izaak Walton League, one of America’s first conservation groups. A geologist, Mathews called attention to environmental damage from the oil industry, even as he saw the oil derrick as natural to the Osage. Enjoying the Osage from his car, Mathews was grateful to the petroleum that made that trip possible, appreciates the geological processes that formed the Osage. In his first column, Mathews wrote that the oil derrick symbolized “the commercial romance and the material well-being of a race,” calling attention to the “history of those hills and valleys.”

Our Osage Hills, a tribalography, as Snyder calls it, is like a good biography, bringing events and people close, letting us hear stories of family members and community, while drawing connections that illuminate ongoing issues for the Osage Nation. Osages will find echoes of familiar voices, contemporary issues and ongoing struggle in these pages.

Michael Snyder. Our Osage Hills: Toward an Osage Ecology and Tribalography of the Early Twentieth Century. Lehigh University Press, 2020.