The cosmology of the osage: The star people and their universe

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Book Chapter

Publication Title

Visualizing the Sacred


The contributions of William Matthews and Jim and Andrew RedCorn provide the essential parts of the Dhegihan cosmic model discussed in this chapter. It is apparent that these men, all from the Tsi-Zhu grand division of the Osage, possessed substantial familiarity with ancient religious concepts. Dorsey's acknowledgment that he had obtained "partial accounts of similar traditions from other Osage" adds weight to the authenticity of his iconographical illustration (Dorsey 1885:378). The rendering technique of Jim RedCorn's twentieth-century ink drawing is more in the style of a tattoo. This stands to reason, since as a young boy he would have been privy to the tattoos worn by older Osage men. Dorsey observed that some of these men had parts of the symbolic chart tattooed on their throats and chests (Dorsey 1885:377). Unfortunately, few photos or paintings of these tattooed men remain. Arguably, the use of such tattoos would reinforce the accuracy of the cosmic diagram and ensure its survival as a two-dimensional entity. The tragedy of cultural loss is evident in Dorsey's description of the forfeiture of ritual knowledge through disease, the imposition of modern religious education, and the lack of interest among the "younger generations" before it could be passed on (Dorsey 1885:377). Fortunately, a small percentage of Osage - those who escaped the "thorough" assimilation and education in the mission and government schools - were able to carry on the "old ways," if only in memory. And a still smaller percentage continued to tell and hand down the stories, some of which we can still hear today. Unified dualism is an ever-present theme in Dhegihan cosmology, as represented in the following concepts: sky and earth, male and female, a refreshing rain and a powerful thunderstorm, sun and moon, day and night. The axis mundi, the great unifier, forms a bridge between the sky with the male sun and Morning Star and the female earth with her attendant Evening Star. Joining First Woman - the earth and the mother of all things - was an unavoidable episode in a Dhegihan's death and awakening. Pottery vessels depicting the First Woman or Old Woman are concentrated in the lower American Bottom, south into northeastern Arkansas and eastward into the Lower Ohio and Cumberland River Valleys (see Chapter 8). The influence exerted by Cahokia throughout the confluence region is remarkable in its magnitude. I suspect that the movement of Dhegihan ideology, art, and oral traditions impacted an enormous area, as may be judged by the extent of distribution of Classic Braden art objects throughout the Eastern Woodlands (Brown 2004:108). The use of "balanced" composition or structure in shell gorgets and the distinctive court-card design in Classic Braden may both be products of the Dhegihan principle of Wa-Kon-da-gi, the sacred balance (La Flesche 1975:194; Phillips and Brown 1978:67). The Children of the Sun epic found among the Alabama and Pigeon Hawk's Gift found among the Koasati, while collected as "tales" among the Southeastern ethnic groups, were part of a complex set of oral traditions in Dhegihan/Chewerian culture. This body of ritual literature was an important part of the essential knowledge in navigating the cosmos after death among the Dhegihans and many of their Siouan neighbors. The widespread use of pole symbolism - whether a red oak, a cottonwood, or a red cedar - survived not only in archaeological features but also in sixteenth-century European illustrations by Theodor de Bry. While these poles functioned as supports and, more importantly, as pathways, they in turn connect to portals or gateways, enabling supernaturals and mortals to traverse the levels of the cosmos. The outpouring of art and its accompanying oral traditions occurred over an extended period. Unquestionably, early expressions of the Mississippian Ideological Interaction Sphere or miis (Reilly and Garber 2007:3-4) began early within the confluence region. Symbolism involving the longnosed maskettes, the imagery of Morning Star, is comfortably dated to ad 1025 by a series of ams dates at Picture Cave (Diaz-Granados et al. 2001). The Dhegihan cosmos, which I have attempted to "sketch" in this chapter, is a complex, animated, and living entity. The production of skillfully rendered supernatural beings is unique to the confluence region. Its earliest expression is found in Picture Cave, only a few days' travel up the Missouri River from Cahokia. We can envision how this realistic style, through pictographs, red claystone sculptures, shell engravings, and repoussé sheet copper figures, transmitted the story of the supernatural ancestors for the next two hundred years and allowed them to populate the Middle World. The presence of these supernatural beings reassured the Dhegihans, their children, that they would continue to live and thrive at the center of their universe.



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