Bigheart statue honors Osages Nation’s revered tribal leader

Mike ErwinJournal-Capital

John Free said he had been reluctant to create a life-sized statue of tribal leader James Bigheart.

When first approached by Bigheart family members three years ago, the Osage artist expressed his beliefs.

“I told them I would be proud to do it, because of my heritage,” Free said. “But, I said 6-2 would not do, that for someone of his stature, it needs to be bigger.”

Last week, Free’s 9 1/2-foot statue of the early 20th-century Osage leader was unveiled in front of the new Law Building on the Osage campus.

Osage Nation Principal Chief Geoffrey StandingBear recounted Bigheart’s far-sighted efforts on behalf of fellow tribal members.

“Until 1906, he held out for the Mineral Estate to be held together,” said StandingBear.

The current Osage Chief said Bigheart’s determined stance on allotment issues helped insure the future security of all Osages. However, it caused Bigheart to be attacked — verbally, as well as physically, he said.

“As a result, he passed away before the first payment was received,” StandingBear said.

The statue started as a Bigheart family project, but grew to involve the entire tribe — which sought to express its gratitude for his wise leadership more than a century ago, the Osage chief added.

Bigheart is credited with helping to delay passage of the Osage Allotment Act for more than 10 years — until the mineral rights had been preserved.

Four past Osage Principal Chiefs also spoke at Wednesday’s ceremony: Charles Tillman, John Red Eagle, Scott Big Horse and Jim Gray.

Free said the Bigheart project had been a team effort by members of his family (including his wife Cindy, brother Matt and nephew Cameron) and other workers at The Bronze Horse Foundry. He said Denise Rincovsky was responsible for the all-important wax work, adding: “This is mainly her work.”

Chief Bigheart is known for his leadership in negotiating the 1906 Osage Allotment Act that preserved and provided ownership of the Osage Mineral Estate, leading to great wealth among the Osage.

Bigheart, who had lived (and is buried) on the southeast side of the town formerly known as Bigheart — Barnsdall. He died at the age of 70.

It is said that Bigheart was fluent in at least seven languages — including Latin, English, French and Sioux. Bigheart was born in 1838 in an Osage village in what is now Kansas. He fought in the Civil War with the Kansas Volunteer Cavalry. Prior to becoming active in tribal politics, the future chief had worked as an interpreter and clerk at the Osage Agency.