Volume 2, Number 6, Winter 1966
When the fur traders and trappers first pushed their way into the upper White River valley they found the Osage Indians occupying the area. Just how long they had inhabited the region no one seemed to know. In fact at that time they only lived there intermittently, making seasonal hunting expeditions into the area from their more permanent villages on the perimeter of their vast territory. The upper White River valley, the hinterland of the Osages, lay in the heart of their domain.
The Osages had fought many battles against other tribes to hold their land. They were considered by many to be one of the most warlike tribes in all North America. Nuttall, an early explorer of their region, said that scarcely any Indian nation had encountered more enemies than the Osages. He reported that as late as 1818 they still flattered themselves by saying they were seated in the middle of the world, and that although surrounded by enemies, they had maintained their usual population and their domain.
There were reportedly 17 Osage villages in 1680, according to Hennepin and 17 or 18 villages in 1770, according to Coxe. Ashe, another explorer of their region stated that in 1805 they could still muster a thousand warriors.
For a description of the savage Osages, as they were sometimes called, let us examine the reports of the early explorers who observed them in their native state before European influences. Morse reported them to be of, "remarkable height, not many being less than six feet high, and of fine figure. Some would have been perfect models for a sculptor." "They are in appearance," says Jones, "as noble a race of people as I have ever seen." "Well formed, athletic and robust men of noble aspect," were the words of Audubon. "The Osages," says Bradbury, "are so tall and robust as to almost warrant the appellation of the term gigantic. Few of them appear to be under six feet, and many are above it. Their shoulders and visages are broad which tend to strengthen the idea of their being giants." "The activity and agility of the Osages is scarcely credible," says Nuttall. Instances of deformity were rare among them.
These were the Indians pre-eminent who took great pride in their physique. The customs and beliefs of the tribe contributed much toward the development of the "Super-Race." Sports, games, hunting and warfare all tended toward the best muscular and physical development of the human body. The desire to attain great physical stature and long life governed, to a considerable extent, the marriage customs of the tribe.
The largest and most athletic warriors were favored to sire the infants of the tribe. Fortunate was the Osage maiden who was chosen as the bride of the tallest and mightiest of the warriors. But, once the marriage was consummated the warrior fell heir to all his wifes sisters which he could espouse as additional wives to bear his progeny or bestow upon others. For what better way, the tribe reasoned could the race perpetuate its strong physique and long life.
In the course of inter-tribal trade and commerce, Indians of neighboring tribes sometimes visited the Osages. On occasions when the desert Apaches or other Indians of short stature came, the old squaws often concealed their marriageable maidens least they should succumb to some magic power and flee to the forest with the short ones.
The Osages in building their "Super-Race," forbade the marriage of any of their young men who had shown weakness or cowardliness in their first warring engagement. These were compelled to live out the remainder of their lives as "squaw men," dressed like squaws and doing the work of squaws, never getting a chance to redeem themselves. "Squaw men," were forbidden to marry least they beget cowardly sons who might endanger the survival of the tribe.
Another tribal custom in keeping with the Osages philosophy of building the "Super-Race," was the prevention of inbreeding. No one was allowed to marry into their own clan. The warriors must select their wife or wives from one of the clans other than their own.
The Osages put such strong emphasis upon the attainment of height and manly appearance that they followed the practice of tying their infants heads tightly to boards. This resulted in flattening the back portion of their heads, but caused a more than natural elevation to the top of their heads, thus adding to their height and unique appearance.
These tribal customs, so disappointing to the early Christian missionaries, no doubt contributed much toward making the Osages somewhat of a "Super-Race," physically. Few, if any other North
American Indians, could claim their equal in that respect.
Just what, if any influence these practices had on the mentality of the Osages is not known, but insanity was unknown among them and none were known to ever commit suicide. Unlike other Indian tribes, the Osages were known for their sobriety, believing that a drunken man was bereft of his reason and should be avoided. Perhaps their ambitions to become the "Super-Race," caused the major portion of them to refrain from the use of intoxicants.
The Osage warriors were men pre-eminent, masters of their domain over which they reigned supreme. They often sought the big game animals of their hinterland, the buffalo and the bear, the deer and the elk, which were numerous on the upland prairies and wooded valleys of the upper White River watershed. It was here they pitched their barbaric tents of buffalo skins or raised their grass-thatched brush lodges on the banks of Ni-U-Skah (White River).
Copyright Ó White River Valley Historical Quarterly
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