Osage Nation cuts ribbon on new chapel

Robert Smith
Pawhuska Journal-Capital

Wakon Iron — the name looks and sounds formidable, and by all accounts that’s what the man was.

Wakon Iron lived from April 1891 to December 1967, and became one of the most trusted and beloved leaders of the Osage people. He was a World War I veteran, a leader in the Osage Indian Baptist Church, a generous community benefactor and an elder sought out for his wise counsel.

Memories of him surfaced last week, at a ribbon cutting April 27 for a new chapel that bears his name. Current leaders of the Osage Nation recalled growing up in the warm, nurturing community environment that Mr. Iron and others of his generation labored to create.

“I cooked my first feast in that building — 30 chickens and a pot of green beans,” Osage Nation Congresswoman Paula Stabler said, reflecting on the importance of the first community center that Wakon Iron and others established in the Pawhuska Indian Village. That small building, a former Indian Camp two-room school that the tribe purchased and relocated, currently still stands, on the opposite end of the block from the new chapel. It, also, was named for Mr. Iron and is now affectionately dubbed the “Little Wakon.”

Ms. Stabler, who has become a respected community leader in her own right, sponsored the appropriation bill in the Osage Congress that provided financing for the $1.72 million chapel project. She said Wakon Iron was a strong leader at a critical time in the life of the Osage people, “when our community was trying to figure out what to do.”

Principal Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear, who signed Stabler’s bill, also recalled soaking up the influences he encountered years ago in the “Little Wakon” and he urged those attending the ribbon cutting for the new chapel to embrace the idea that each generation of Osages has the responsibility to remake tribal institutions to face the challenges of its own day. This is a recurring theme for Mr. Standing Bear.

”I’m really, really wanting us to remember that we make it in our own way in our own time,” Standing Bear said. He encouraged his listeners to understand that their ancestors would be proud of their progress. He also commented on a bit of wisdom from past generations that motivates him.

”Life is short. Be quick about it,” Standing Bear recalled his elders saying. “I know some of you folks have that ingrained in you.”

Standing Bear, who is running for a third four-year term as principal chief, at least briefly cast aside a bit of the rhetorical defensiveness that has characterized his campaign. He acknowledged to the chapel ribbon cutting crowd that Osages sometimes have their differences, but he forcefully added that those differences don’t amount to anything “in the eyes of God.”

”As you know, we’ve always put prayer first,” Standing Bear also said, touching on the Osage practice of beginning events by seeking divine blessing. That cultural primacy of prayer helps explain why a chapel dedication would be an especially important event in the life of the tribe.

Talee Redcorn, who provided the opening prayer for the ribbon cutting, observed the event held special meaning for him in part because Wakon Iron was the younger brother of his great grandfather.

Mr. Iron’s immediate relatives fit within the structure of the RedCorn family. The name is varyingly represented as RedCorn, Redcorn and Red Corn. Mr. Iron, however, appears to have chosen his own path in his youth.

Kathryn Red Corn, a past director of the Osage Nation Museum, explained that “Wakon” was translated from a portion of Wakon Iron’s Osage name. The name “Iron” is something he may have been able to choose at school, she said.

Ms. Red Corn also noted that Wakon Iron led the effort to establish the “Little Wakon” along with his friend, Rose Hill. The Osage Nation later built a larger, 12,000-square-foot community center, which is named for Wakon Iron. Work is to begin soon on a new community building, the largest yet. 

The ribbon cutting for the Wakon Iron Chapel took place the day after an Osage Nation ribbon cutting for 10 new units (five duplexes) of tribal senior citizen housing. Another 20 units are anticipated to be completed soon in Fairfax, and 20 units are to be built in Hominy.

Chief Standing Bear acknowledged the completion of the new senior housing units in Pawhuska as an important step forward, but also emphasized the Osage Nation has much work remaining in order to care for its people.

“”We have years of work ahead of us,” he said. His administration has been pushing hard to spend federal COVID-19 relief dollars to build new facilities meant to address long-term needs such as housing, food security and public health. His energetic approach to the function of the executive in Osage government has garnered Standing Bear a lot of support, but it has not entirely insulated him from criticism. The week prior to the ribbon cuttings, he faced criticism regarding his office's handling of a sexual harassment complaint.

The Osage Nation's general election is scheduled for June 6, with Early Voting on June 3 and 4. After the elections, the Nation's citizenry will focus on the annual June ceremonial dancing period.

Photo cutline: Osage Princess Gigi Sieke cuts the ribbon April 27 to mark the official opening of the new Wakon Iron Chapel in the Pawhuska Indian Village.