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History The Osage

The Ozarks were the hunting grounds of the Osage tribe of Native Americans when white explorers first came into the area. The Osage were a powerful tribe that claimed all of southwest Missouri. They had villages to the north and west and sent hunting parties into the Ozarks. Delaware and Shawnee, displaced from their Eastern homes, were also in the area.

Osage life was lived in harmony with the seasons for hundreds of years before the first white settlers. The Osage lived in villages along the Osage and Missouri Rivers, north of the Bryant Creek watershed. They cultivated crops and gathered food near the villages. They made long hunting trips deep into the Ozarks each year.

The Osage called themselves "Children of the Middle Waters". They believed they fell from the sky to live on the earth. Their Creator was Wah-Kon-Dah, the "Great Mysterious Spirit". They called the Earth "Sacred One". Every morning they prayed to the new rising sun for health, long life and a good day. 

Osage grindstone
Osage grinding stone, Harlin Museum, West Plains
The Osage were governed by a council of elders known as the "Little Old Men", and by two chiefs. The Little Old Men passed down the traditions and stories from the past. They and the chiefs settled disagreements and made decisions about important matters, but members of the tribe could take part in council discussions. 

They cultivated crops and gathered food near their regular villages, but each year they made several long hunting trips into the Ozarks. They made permanent camps to which they returned every year. The early white explorers and later the first settlers found the Osage to be fierce and proud. The Osage tribe also had many native American enemies. They regularly raided neighboring tribes for horses and supplies. 

The Osage spent much of the year in their villages, especially the coldest part of winter. In the winter the people lived off stored meats, corn, roots and nuts. For amusement they held feasts and played games. Their village "longhouses," built of wooden poles covered with woven mats or buffalo skins, could be forty-five to one-hundred feet long. Smoke holes built into their roofs vented their household fires. The doorways always faced east so they could say their morning prayers to the rising sun. 

When warmer weather came, they went on long hunts. In February or March they hunted for black bear, deer and elk; in summer, for buffalo and deer. In the fall they hunted bear again. The fat that the bears had put on for the winter was a source of tallow, which the Osage used to make torches. They also hunted turkey, rabbits, squirrels, quail, muskrat and possum. They only killed what they needed, never more than they could use. 

Women were the farmers and gatherers, men were the hunters, but almost everyone went camping on the long hunts. Women helped butcher and prepare the meat. They made jerky by drying meat on wooden racks; meat dried in that way would last through the winter. The women also made clothes, house coverings and other materials from deer, buffalo and bear hides. Hunters made their bows from Osage orange or ash wood. They made arrows from dogwood and arrowheads from chert stone, which they chipped to sharpen and shape. 

In April, after the bear hunt, the Osage bands would return to their villages to plant crops. They grew corn, squash and pumpkins, and also fished in the rivers and creeks. They used traps made of wood or rocks placed across a stream, but they also used nets and fishing lines. 

They gathered many plant foods from the forest, the prairie and the river: nuts, including acorns (white oak is the sweetest), hickory nuts, walnuts and butternut; wild fruits, such as persimmon, pawpaw, blackberries, huckleberries, and wild grape. They dug and dried roots like sassafras, sumac, spicebush and water lotus. Besides using plants for food and medicine, they used wood, bark, animal bones and sinew for tools, rope and string. 

Sources: The Osage in Missouri, Kristie C. Wolferman.
Osage Life and Legends,
Robert Liebert.
The Historic Indians of the Missouri Ozarks,
Angela Smith, for the Mark Twain National Forest.