Connectivity, Essay

‘We Connect Whole Families’

Aimee Inglis

May 6, 2024

“Some people have a hunger for tradition... I just had that hunger–it made my life more rich.”
Duane BigEagle, Northern California Osage group planning committee member

When I first went back to Osage County, Oklahoma, I was unsure what living relatives I had in the area, so I started by visiting the graves of the ancestors I knew. At a locked private family cemetery, I had the good fortune to arrive while someone was there mowing the grass. I asked, “Are you the family?” They said yes, and I said, “I guess I'm family, too.”

My newly found relative, notably the President of the Skiatook Historical Society, gave me a tour of our family cemetery. He spends much of his retirement doing genealogical work and often alerts us to new findings about our extended kin, like unearthing that my great-grandfather was sent to Carlisle Indian School. He gave me instructions to find my great-great-grandfather, buried but lost somewhere near Fairfax Lake, noticing that I also had a knack for finding relatives. This Scottish-American settler had met and married one of my Osage ancestors in Kansas in the 1870s. Together, they left for Osage County, for what was to be our permanent home after three mass displacements in under 50 years. His headstone reads: “married to an Osage woman,” as though this were the most important fact about his short life.

Many of the Osage families who moved to Southern California from Oklahoma in the 1920s were from mixed French-Osage people like the Tayriens, Pappins, Claviers, and the Whileses, my family. This group is not always well-regarded, but I am reminded in conversation with one of our elders that we descend from full-blood Osage women who were placed into the role of ambassadors in the tumultuous times between 1780 and 1820 and who helped our people survive. They and their children spoke Osage, French, Spanish, Latin, and English. They lived on the banks of the Osage and Missouri Rivers where their French fur-trader husbands sought their fortune until France lost the war. This “Half-Breed Band,” in the tradition of the band structure of the Osage, lived separately from other Osages in their own village, as did other bands elsewhere, but came together when circumstances demanded strength in numbers. Aiding the French, the “Half-Breed Band” helped build St. Louis and the infrastructure for what was to become the state of Missouri, but at the signing of the federal Treaty of 1825, these mixed Osages were forced to leave their homes as well. 

The “Reign of Terror” murders for oil money and land in Osage County reached its height in the 1920s, when “full-blood” (or those more than half blood quantum) Osages were automatically deemed “incompetent” and required to have a guardian to manage their finances. Osages of less than half blood quantum could make their own financial decisions, creating division by race that did not exist in Osage society before. However, their lives were also at risk; so many exerted their relative freedom in order to leave. Greg Clavier, who currently runs the United Osages of Southern California (UOSC) meetings, told me how the “Reign of Terror” forced his family off the Osage reservation. After fleeing to California in the 1920s, his family moved back to Oklahoma during the Great Depression when the oil boom had busted, but then they eventually moved back to California for jobs during World War II. Many Osage families have this same pattern of migration. 

A male-bodied person and three female-bodied people in regalia.

Greg Clavier and family. Courtesy Greg Clavier.

There is an old United Osages of Southern California membership book now housed in the Osage Museum in Pawhuska, Oklahoma. I want to find if my Osage grandfather is in this book to determine how he maintained connection with Osage people. I know he went back to Oklahoma because, for a long time, you had to receive your headright checks in person. I don't know who he visited when he was there. Before Galen Clavier, Greg’s father, passed away in 2023, I was able to have a phone call with him where he shared that he remembered visiting my grandfather often at his house in Long Beach, California. His family and my family were good friends. When I spoke to Galen, I felt what Osages mean by Wa’Hoin, a love and responsibility to one another that spans generations. The Claviers moved back to Oklahoma during the Depression for easy access to their headright funds. My grandfather stayed in California. Still, his name is listed on the Osage Veteran’s Memorial in Pawhuska, and I appreciate how in some way he has been brought home. 

We were like “aliens from outer space wearing flip flops and Tommy Bahama shirts dropped into a sweat lodge.”
Greg Clavier, chair of the United Osages of Southern California (UOSC)

Since the Claviers moved back to California in the 1940s, this is where Greg spent his childhood. When he began his own reconnection journey he would visit Oklahoma a few times a year, attending Native American Church ceremonies and assembling his regalia. “Once we continued to keep coming back, I guess Osages there thought, ‘We're not going to get rid of these guys,’” Greg told me. He says he and his brother were like “aliens from outer space wearing flip flops and Tommy Bahama shirts dropped into a sweat lodge.”

Greg shares that it's a privilege to carry on the work his family and other Osages did to hold meetings as the United Osages of Southern California for nearly 100 years. His father Galen became UOSC Chairman in the 1980s and ran them until the early 2000s. Greg and his brother Grant were co-chairs for several years. Since 2014, Greg and his wife, Kelly, have continued to keep the UOSC meetings running. An average of 90 people usually attend meetings. He says after the movie Killers of the Flower Moon came out, he hears from at least a few Osages a week whom he’s never met, interested in attending. 

A large group of people posing for a photo under palm trees.

United Osages of Southern California meeting in 2017. Courtesy the author.

Greg says that after the new Osage government formed in 2006, when all Osages descended from those on the 1906 roll could be enrolled and counted as Osage, the meetings started to change to bring in a cultural component. Before, the meetings focused on the business of mineral headright holders, who receive annuities from Osage County oil and gas leases. You could only become a headright holder if your parents died and passed it down to you, so to many these meetings did not feel personally relevant. One of the acts of the new government was to vote in a regional gathering fund in 2012. Greg explains, “before we had to solicit dues from members and that was a pain to get people to pay up.” 

Since Osages formed our current government and every Osage descended from an “allottee” could enroll, we have grown to count over 25,000 people. Most of these people live outside of the reservation in Texas, Colorado, California, and other parts of Oklahoma. There are at least four “diaspora” groups: Northern California Osage, United Osages of Southern California, Colorado Osages, and the Texas Osage Association. There is also a group for “Tulsa and Surrounding Areas,” since, to my surprise, Osages who grew up in Tulsa or the areas around the reservation speak of their distance from cultural activities of the tribe in similar tones as California Osages. Tulsa is an hour from Pawhuska, the Osage County seat. To me, growing up near Los Angeles where the average commute is an hour, this seems close enough. There must be some other forms of disconnection besides distance. 

Though Duane BigEagle, one of the founding organizers of the Northern California Osages, grew up in Northeast Oklahoma, he didn’t start to engage in cultural activities until later in life. He cites his father being born out of wedlock as the son of Harry BigEagle as the reason for the disconnection. “It was common knowledge but it took 20 years of trying to find lawyers’ records,” he explains. Through building relationships in his 20s, eventually, two elders put up a $10,000 bond to testify about Duane’s father’s lineage and Duane was able to get himself and his family on the roll. He says it’s understandable that “people are cautious about the headrights and where they go.” 

A male-bodied person in regalia.

Duane BigEagle in regalia. Courtesy Duane BigEagle.

Duane studied physics at UC Berkeley and learned that everything that is energy and matter is both a particle and a wave, reminiscent of the teachings from his grandfather about Wa-Kon-Da, and decided his elders must know something. The American Indian Movement (AIM) was strong then and inspired him to be proud to be Osage. The organizing skills he learned from AIM and the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley were put to use in the 1990s when he started organizing Osages he knew in Northern California to hold meetings. The first steering committee included Charles Maker, Irene Hopper, and Dave Evans. They were able to request a mailing list of Osages regionally from the first Osage reform government. Duane says, “We put together our money and sent out a mailing, and lo and behold 70 people showed up. It was a pretty good beginning.”

A large group of people posing for a photo under a pergola in sunny weather.

First Northern California Osage meeting in 1993 in Danville, California. Courtesy the author.

When Duane started inviting elders from the Osage out to California to teach traditional practices, he heard from these elders that when they went back home, more people on the reservation would ask that they share teachings with them as well. It seemed their value in the community was elevated from the visit out to California. This year, many more Osages have been visiting California, Hollywood specifically, because Scorcese made the movie about our oil murders. Scott George was nominated for an Oscar for “WahZhaZhe: A Song for My People,” which he wrote in the traditional style of our songs for the In-Lon-Schka, but the song is entirely new. At this year’s Osage Sovereignty Day celebration, he put this song “on the drum” for Osages anywhere to use. Our songs at the In-Lon-Schka honor specific people or belong to particular families. Scott in effect was giving the song to the whole WahZhaZhe family, and said it was for “Osages far off who may not know their songs.”

When I ask Duane why he has done the work and expended the resources to stay connected to the Osage, he says he has been “most happy about connecting people. When they move back to Oklahoma they are a resource.” To me, that sounds like a cycle of regeneration—time and energy spent that eventually comes back in ways that perpetuate life. The initial meetings that ran a decade before the new Osage Nation government was formed in 2006 were successful, Duane says, “because we were energetic and interested I think we helped the new government come through.” 

Greg Clavier feels a similar sense of connection: “All my life I've known about our connection with the Osage because of my grandmother, who was friends with your great-grandmother. I do it to honor the memory of my folks and the importance of the Osage Nation in my life and help my Osage brothers and sisters reconnect out here on the West Coast.” He says, “We connect whole families.”

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Read more in A History of the Osage People by Louis F Burns.

Aimee Inglis is a citizen of the Osage Nation. She is WahZhaZhe from the Pawhuska District and Tzisho Washtake clan (Gentle Peacemaker), is a descendant of Ogeese Captain, Susanna Captain, Francis Marion Whiles Sr. and Jr., and the daughter of Mary Inglis. She was born and raised in Anaheim, California near the Santa Ana (Wanaawna) River and currently lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She worked in social movement organizations for housing and climate justice for fifteen years and has been active with California Osage diaspora groups. She is an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at the Institute of American Indian Arts and a fellow with Indigenous Nations Poets. Her work has appeared in Under a Warm Green Linden, Anaheim Poetry Review, Poetry Northwest, and About Place.

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