Interview: Chief Red Eagle talks about his life and legacy
During the June ceremonial In’lonshka dances in Pawhuska, Principal Chief John D. Red Eagle, took time out to talk about his life and legacy.
Chief Red Eagle has lived a life steeped in Osage culture. Sitting in his favorite chair under the arbor at his family camp located across the street from Wakon Iron, he told the story of how his Osage life unfolded.
“My family has participated in the culture all my life. I was named as a baby when I was only a few days old – in a Native American Church ceremony,” he said.
“My adult Osage name is Tzi Zho Zi’, which means young chief or a leader of the clan. My dad and I were Indians. We did Indian things. We went to Pow wows and dances in the summer and in spring we went to Native American Church meetings. The Red Eagle Native American Church is still there. My older brother, Eddy, is in charge now. The Native American Church is something I grew up around. You’re just used to it. I was around the culture growing up. Being around these dances, we were in this atmosphere all the time.
“When I turned 18, my parents took me to the [In’lonshka] dance and there was a man calling my adult Osage name and that was to announce that I’d become a man. They put a blanket on me and they had a horse and they walked me from our house to the dance arena; and the town crier was calling my adult Osage name as we walked to the dance arena,” he said.
“My parents were there and my two uncles and my sister, dressed in Osage wedding clothes, and my brothers, because that’s what they did when I became of age.” The eldest of his siblings is Carol. “She went blind at an early age. Mary takes care of her.” Eddy Red Eagle, Jr. is the eldest son, who is two years older than Chief. His brother Myron Red Eagle is three years younger than Chief.
Both of his parents were full-blooded Osage. Chief’s mother, born in 1912, was from Hominy and was a member of the Wa Tian Ka clan. From her family “[t]here was an old Chief who scouted the land here and said that we should live here. He had the dream of the oil coming from the ground,” he said. He advised the Osage to purchase the land in the Oklahoma territory, which became their home. “They camped near Blackwell at first and then came this way on foot.”
His father, born in 1918, a member of the Eagle clan, was from Pawhuska. His paternal grandparents came to the area across the land that became the Mullendore Ranch.
“My dad was a farmer and had cattle. We have a farm in Barnsdall that my brother, Eddy, takes care of now, which was the original allotment land,” he said.
The family also had a house in Pawhuska Indian Camp near Wakon Iron, where his brother Myron still lives.
Growing up, Chief Red Eagle helped his father on the family farm/ranch after school, on weekends and during the summer.
“My dad was a farmer and when there was a harvest, we had an eating house and my mom made big dinners there. It had a wood stove when we were kids and then a regular stove when electricity came in. My sister helped her,” Chief said.
“My parents were fluent Osage speakers and Osage was spoken frequently in the home. From both sides of the family, my dad and grandfathers were Chiefs,” he explained.
“My mother travelled a lot and was involved in a lot of civic groups. Both my parents were civil servants. His father served on the Osage Tribal Council and as an interim Osage Principal Chief. “He was a cultural chief in his latter days,” Chief Red Eagle said.
Chief Red Eagle graduated from Pawhuska High School, where he had been active in several sports, and then went to technical school in Oklahoma City. He finished his training at the Hillcrest Medical radiology program in Tulsa. During his 32 year medical career, he worked as a radiology tech, a nuclear technology tech, nuclear technology supervisor and then nuclear technology supervising administrator.
He served first as Assistant Principal Chief for four years and then was elected Principal Chief in June 2010 and is currently serving a four-year term.
As our conversation drew to a close, he reminisced about how Chiefs were regarded in the old days.
“In the past, there was a special seat under the arbor in Pawhuska. When I was a teenager Chiefs had a more respected place. Chief Paul Pitts was the last Chief that they did this for in the early 60’s. The Principal Chief represented the tribe at everything, including the Minerals Council meetings.”
Things are different now. There hasn’t been a special seat for the Chief under the arbor in over 50 years and with only a dozen or so full-blood Osages still alive, John D. Red Eagle is probably the last full-blood Osage who will serve as Principal Chief of the Osage people.