Volume 2, Number 6 - Winter 1966


God of the White River Osages
by Elmo Ingenthron

The White River Osages, regarded as savages by most white men and little understood by early missionaries, seemed to recognize the presence of some mystery force and the existence of immortality. They prayed and supplicated their omnific Wah-Kon-Tah for divine guidance and favors. Sometime in the unmeasurable depth of their savage past, they no doubt pondered the mysteries of their creation, their environmental phenomena and the status of the soul after death.

Until the coming of the Europeans, the Osages had no knowledge of the Bible, nor had they ever heard of the Son of God. Whatever religious convictions they possessed must have been communicated directly to them or through a divine intermediary received by them. Perhaps environmental manifestations of good or bad omens helped guide them. Somehow they believed they came down to earth from the sky and if they lived in accordance to the wishes of Wah-Kon-Tah, their spirit would return to spirit-land when death occurred.

The Osages were cognizant of the heavenly bodies which greatly influenced their lives, customs and beliefs. They possessed great reverence for the sun who bathed them with light and warmth each morning, giving sustained life to the creatures of the earth. The moon gave them, among other things, a measurement of time upon which they built their primitive calendars. They read meaningful things from the arrangements of the planets and stars. They referred to the sun as "Grandfather Sun," and the moon as the "Moon Woman." In fact they visualized themselves as having once been stars in the universe and believed they would be again if they lived in peace and harmony with the Great Spirit. In praying and supplicating Wah-Kon-Tah, the Great Spirit, the big and mighty Osages humbled themselves, calling themselves the "Little Ones." Yes, even the savage Osages experienced the blessings of being meek and humble.

According to the legends of the wise old men of the tribe there were other people inhabiting the earth when the Osages came down to it. They visualized themselves as the "Sky People," being noble and pure and the others as the "Earth’s People," being sinful and bad.

Sometime in the dim distant past the wise old men of the tribe, seeing evil and disorder prevailing upon the earth, appointed a chief for the Sky People known as Tzi-Sho, and a chief for the Earth’s People, known as the Hunkah. These chiefs were admonished by the wise old men to cleanse themselves of all evil and seek the approval of Wah-Kon-Tah, the Great Spirit, to reign over their subjects. The divine chiefs were to interpret the commandments of Wah-Kon-Tah to their people and their people’s prayers to Wah-Kon-Tah.

In the long, long ago when Tzi-Sho and the Hunkah were appointed by the wise old men of the tribe, they were commanded to go alone onto the prairies and into the woodlands, fasting, without food or water for seven days and six nights, humbly beseeching the approval of the Great Spirit to reign over their respective subjects. Like Sir Lancelot seeking a vision of the Holy Grail, they endured great sacrifices, purging themselves of all sin and evil, rendering themselves fit subjects for the great responsibility they sought.

When at length they became wretched, with weakened bodies and half crazed minds, Wah-Kon-Tah found them worthy of the great responsibility they sought and created good omens that they might know of their acceptance and approval.

One of the Osages’ religious customs of unusual interest was the method of preparing their dead warriors for the resurrection of the spirit. To assure the proper ascent of the spirit, the dead warrior was dressed in full battle array with all his war paints brightly shining and all honorary symbols properly displayed. He was then taken to some place of higher elevation and propped upright in a sitting position where he was exposed to the views of Grandfather Sun as he rose in the eastern sky. If Grandfather Sun recognized the warrior and approved of his spirit’s ascent, the spirit left the body at exactly noon, or when the sun was directly overhead. If Grandfather Sun failed to recognize the warrior or disapproved of him, his spirit was condemned to earth where it usually took up its abode in the body of a screech owl. As the condemned spirit suffered, its weeping and wailing could be heard at night when its host flitted about the woodlands.

The Osage warrior believed himself a brother of all other animals created by Wah-Kon-Tah, the Great Spirit. He usually refused to kill or harm them unless attacked by them or for the sustenance of himself and his tribe. Unlike the teachings of Christianity, the Osages believed that all of Wah-Kon-Tah’s creatures (God’s creatures) possessed a soul (spirit, mystery force, immortality).


He would not even harm a rattle snake unless he or his next of kin was first bitten by the snake. Should he kill the rattle snake without due cause the dead snake’s next of kin would follow him or his next of kin until the terrible wrong was avenged. The philosophy of "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth," fit perfectly the Osages concept of justice and was deeply embodied in their religion.

This spirit of revenge and idea of justice caused the early missionaries much worry. It contributed a great deal to the, almost complete, failure in Christianizing the Osages. It was difficult for the missionaries to replace the spirit of revenge with the spirit of forgiveness.

The Osages, like the Christians, strongly suspected they were guilty of transgressions against the commandments of the Great Spirit, and expected punishment for it. Such punishment usually came in the form of drouths, floods, cyclones, blizzards, sickness, etc. When white man’s measles and small pox decimated their ranks there was much fasting, prayer and supplication. Perhaps in this way they sought atonement for their sins, but usually and more often, they fasted, keened and prayed to Wah-Kon-Tah for favors.

Before embarking upon a slave stealing, horse stealing or warring expedition, they sometimes fasted, prayed, mourned and sacrificed much, to invoke the favors of the Great Spirit in their endeavors. This period of supplication sometimes lasted seven days during which time they watched for some good omen of Wah-Kon-Tah’s approval. If they observed a bad omen, however, the whole thing was off. The favorable sanctions of the Great Spirit was necessary for the expedition.

The Osages somehow believed that the bees, birds and wild animals could communicate with Wah-Kon-Tah through some mysterious way and were often accused of being "Talle Tales," revealing the wrong doings they witnessed. They never knew for sure when some such creature was spying on them.

To the Osages, the east represented light, life and the coming of all good things, while the west was symbolic of death, darkness and evil. This was probably due to Grandfather Sun who rose in the east to light the earth giving it warmth and life, then at day’s end sank into the west leaving a world cold and apparently lifeless. This probably resulted in the dawn being chosen as the appropriate time for prayers and supplication.

The "dawn chant," as it was often called, was typical Osage, having probably been handed down from their Souian ancestors. This manifestation of religious worship drew the interest and attention of all the early explorers who encountered it.

In the "dawn chant," the Osages’ mourning and prayers usually started with their lungs fully inflated and at the height of their voices continued in a progressively lower tone until all their breath was expended. The performance was then repeated over and over again until in a state of exhaustion, they often dropped to the earth sobbing and crying until they could cry no more. This morning devotion usually took the major portion of an hour. It seemed to be a manifestation of religious faith characterized by a mixture of devotion to the Great Spirit, of emotionalism, and of pining for lost loved ones. Usually their wailing and keening was accompanied by the barking and howling of a multitude of dogs, always present in and about their villages.

Perhaps no one but the Osages could describe their "morning chant," and they even had trouble in defining it. John Joseph Mathews, a descendant of the Osages, grew up with this religious practice and in later years, had this to say about it:

"I heard it many times as I grew up and until the time I entered high school, and I have never been able to describe it to myself; it was indescribable, and there is nothing with which to compare it. It filled my little boy’s soul with fear and bittersweetness, and exotic yearning, and when it had ended and I lay there in my exultant fear-trance, I hoped fervently that there would be more of it, and yet was afraid that there might be.

"It seemed to me later, after I had begun to reason, that this prayer-song, this chant, this soul stirring petition, always ended before it was finished, in a sob of frustration.

"It was Neolithic man talking to God."


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