OU and the Osage Tribal Museum collaborate on wedding regalia exhibit

Roseanne McKeeJ-C Correspondent

On the evening of Feb. 19, the Osage Tribal Museum and Library hosted a presentation about a new exhibit undertaken in collaboration with the University of Oklahoma, which will open in December 2015.

The exhibit, which has taken five years to create, will include of a collection of over 100 Osage wedding photos of from several sources and the display of Osage wedding regalia.

Dr. Daniel Swan a University of Oklahoma professor gave a presentation with photos about the significance of Osage wedding clothing past and present.

“It seemed to us that this was an opportunity to undertake a project that’s still relevant to the community today. It’s close enough in the past that we’re not going back to the nineteenth century. We’re talking about the early twentieth century here.”

According to Dr. Swan, the significance of the regalia is twofold. First, the clothing was worn as wedding attire.

Second, “these wonderful wedding outfits have come to be incorporated into the passing of the drum or the paying of the drum,” Dr. Swan explained.

As he showed photos, he added, “you’ll notice that people have made identifications on the photos, which makes these collections stronger also.”

Because of the many requests to see the photos, a website has been created called www.osageweddings.com and over 6,000 people have visited the site, Swan said. “I really encourage you to visit the website to piece together these important stories of Osage history.”

The sources of the historic photographs gathered were: the Osage Tribal Museum, the University of Oklahoma’s Western History Library and a number of private collections.

The exhibit also provides a window into some of the customs associated with Osage weddings in the early twentieth century.

“We basically have the photographs to tell the story of a traditional Osage wedding from the very beginning of the negotiative process between the families, all the way to the completion of the wedding and the formation of a new family. It’s just tremendous,” he said.

Explaining this negotiation process, Swan said, “one of the things that my colleague, Jim, has turned up is a wonderful set of photographs that document the taking of food to the bride’s family, so for four mornings we have this procession where they’re taking the food every day as part of this negotiative process.”

In addition to showing photos, Swan played a silent film of an Osage wedding in the 1920’s and described additional details of the wedding.

“One of the things we learned was that each day the family would eat the food and put the dishes out at the end of the driveway and if those dishes were put back out washed, that meant that the negotiations were still open and they would expect for food to be brought again the next day. If those dishes were put out at the end of the driveway and they weren’t cleaned, it was over. Everybody packed up and went home. The negotiations had broken down.”

In gathering information for the exhibit, “the Osage people and members of the community, have been incredibly generous and forthcoming in sharing these resources,” he said.

Swan was impressed with the abundance of information people had shared for the exhibit. “We have the words of the Osage people themselves…. To me it’s just amazing that we have the voices of the Osage people to tell the story.”

“There are wonderful oral history materials,” Swan said, citing the Doris Duke collection, which funded a number of oral history projects around the country in the 1960s with Native American communities, which are kept at the University of Oklahoma. “It’s one of the few collections where community members interviewed community members,” he added.

“Our own Kathryn Red Corn did some interviews for this. She did some really important ones. Leonard Maker, Sr., did a lot of these and his wife did a lot of these interviews.”

“Vann Bighorse at the Wahzhazhe Cultural Center has a complete set of the recordings, which is really important,” Dr. Swan said.

Whereas in the past only transcripts were available, Swan explained that now, “you can go over there, any time the library is open, and listen to those recordings” at the Wahzhazhe Cultural Center in Pawhuska.

Another oral history project that provided helpful information for this exhibit was the White Hair Memorial, located between Hominy and Fairfax in a 1920s-era home which had belonged to Lillie Morrell Burkhart, a descendant of Osage Chief Pawhuska (White Hair).

A past project also provided helpful material. Beginning in 1983, Dr. Swan worked with Maurice Lookout to take on a project in which Osages interviewed Osages. Lookout and John Henry Mashunkashey had interviewed all of the members of the Pawhuska Committee “about the dance and the passing of the drum and the responsibilities of the drumkeeper and the other committee members,” Swan said.

“This was the year that Vann Bighorse took the drum, so it’s this wonderful resource – this glimpse into the workings of the committee and how you put a committee together and how you get ready to pay for the drum.” These recordings are available for listening at the White Hair Memorial, Swan added.

“There’s a wonderful recording in the series he did with his Aunt Mary Standing Bear Lookout in which she talks about a wedding outfit and she goes through and discusses each and every piece and the care that she took when she put these outfits together to help someone pay for the drum,” he said.

There are many archival sources and “an incredibly rich body of material out there” on the subject of Osage wedding regalia, including the Bartlesville Historical Society, Swan said.

“They have wonderful materials. We’ve been able to find great documentation over there. A lot of these weddings were written up in the newspapers of Tulsa and Bartlesville.”

Swan shared that Romaine Shackelford, had conducted research of government documents on microfilm at the Osage Tribal Museum, and made a significant discovery.

“Low and behold, he turns up a letter from the Commissioner of Indian Affairs writing the Superintendent of the Osage Nation, the agency, in which he said, ‘we received your letter requesting a chief’s coat for 17 Osage chiefs. We’ve received their measurements and on our next visit, we’ll bring them.’ This shows this continuous process of using these coats as symbols of authority and respect – that there was this continual supply coming in to them,” Swan explained.

“It’s clear that eventually that supply of old military coats exceeded the demands of the community and that people up here started to make these coats. These are stories that we’re working on right now – the different mechanisms that Osage people have employed to build their inventory of coats.

“Lastly, we’ve undertaken a series of interviews about more modern times and the construction of coats and their use in paying for the drum,” Swan said.

Swan encouraged guests to visit the University of Oklahoma’s website: www.ou.edu for digital collections such as Doris Duke’s, the Indian Pioneer Papers, the Native American Manuscripts, photographic archives, which are all free and available to be downloaded from the website.