U.S. Highway 75 passes three blocks from my house, at the bottom of the hillside where I live. Late last Thursday morning, I drove to the bottom of that hill, turned right onto 75, and kept on going.
Several hundred miles south, still on 75, I rolled into Bartlesville, Oklahoma, the original home of Phillips Petroleum before its merger with Conoco. There I spent the night. The next day I turned westward, leaving 75 at last, and entered the Osage Nation.
I was going to Hominy, Oklahoma, the site of this year’s session of Great Plains Yearly Meeting (FUM).
It was an interesting drive, for all that I’ve done it before. From Topeka south, Highway 75 passes through almost no farmable land at all. The soils are poor, rocky and shallow, so that pasture land alternates with secondary-growth woods. In Kansas, these are the Osage Hills, the first north-south range of hills westward from the Missouri border, historically an important part of the lands of the Osage people.
As one enters Oklahoma, the hills turn into tablelands.
Pretty country, but no good for farming: a landscape in the Osage Nation, northeast of Pawhuska, Oklahoma.
(Just west of the Osage Hills are the Flint Hills, where the land is so poor, even the trees thin out almost to nothing, and almost nothing grows but grass, and the landowners have big open cattle ranches with cowboys and cattle drives. On a wet year like this one, the grass there is green as emeralds. After thirty years of living deep in the true West, in Colorado, where the land is always visibly dry, the sight of cowboys driving cattle over countryside that green and seemingly farmable is a terribly disturbing experience for a guy like me.)
The Osage Hills are a significant landform in American history: for while they’re not where the West truly begins, they’re most certainly where the East ends. The Jeffersonian independent-small-farmer ideal that shaped the settling of the east-central U.S. from the Appalachians to the Missouri, became impossible when people got just this far west.
And when people got this far west, and began to see that the Jeffersonian ideal they’d hoped to attain in their own lives was no longer attainable, they went a little wild. So this is also where the “Wild West” we know from Hollywood’s cowboy movies started coming into existence.
Just east and northeast of the Osage Hills, where the wave of oncoming Jeffersonian settlers curled and began to tumble and break as it washed up on the shores of the West, was “Bloody Kansas”, “the burnt region” — the region that became the symptom-bearer of all the sicknesses dividing the North from the South during the final decade before the Civil War.
Here, with Kansas still just a territory, with the land still largely empty of settlers and farmers, and with the fate of slaveholding in the region still quite undecided, bands of Northern and Southern guerillas roamed back and forth over the Kansas-Missouri border, pursuing and slaughtering each other from farm to farm, and slaughtering civilian bystanders, too, with a fine impartiality.
Atrocities abounded. I won’t recite the details; there are books that deal with such things. I will say here, instead, that it was all fairly pointless, since with the land so much harsher and emptier than back to the east and south, there were practically no black slaves in the area either to be freed by Northern guerilla leaders like John Brown, or to be kept in slavery by Southern ones like William Quantrill.
However, the North and South could not agree on whether Kansas should be a free state or a slave state; and it has ever been the habit of Western countries to fight their wars by proxy whenever possible, at some safe distance — as the U.S. fought the Soviet Union in Viet Nam, for example, or earlier, as the U.S. fought Spain in Puerto Rico and the Philippines. And so it was with Bloody Kansas. There may have been no slaves there to speak of, but with the question of whether Kansas was to be free-of-slavery or free-to-own-slaves still unsettled, the raiders and guerillas fought and slaughtered each other for the sheer love of their respective abstract visions of freedom, while their respective supporters back east egged them on with speeches and material support.
Even the poet John Greenleaf Whittier, who as a Friend ought to have known better, wrote and published poems glorifying the struggle from the Northern point of view.
So the area became a dreadful staging ground for the even greater psychopathology and savagery of the coming American Civil War, in much the same way that Spain in its Civil War during the 1930s became a staging ground for the even greater psychopathology and savagery of World War II. Each side in the conflict clarified its ideology, polished its slogans, refined its tactics, tested its weapons, and brainwashed its populace into believing that war was right and necessary.
And woe betide the people whose border landscape makes them residents of such a proxy battlefield! Thus do ecological principles shape even our seemingly unrelated sufferings.
With the secession of the Southern states in 1861, way opened for the North to admit Kansas as a free state to the Union. And since that settled the slavery question there, it should have been the end of the violence. But of course, it was not.
Through all this time of madness, where were the Indians? They’d been forced out of most of eastern Kansas before it began. In particular, the Osage (Wa-Sha-She) people, for whom the Osage Hills were named, had been driven from those hills and, indeed, out of all of northern and central Kansas, and confined by a treaty of 1825 within a narrow strip along the southern border of Kansas Territory — a strip that contained, ironically, much of the actually farmable land in east Kansas.
Alas, their removal from the rest of Kansas failed to shelter the Osages from Anglo assaults. Partisan raiders in the Bloody Kansas struggles, and, later, roving bands of deserters from the Northern and Southern armies, had few compunctions about looting, raping and killing in Indian territory. And hundreds of illegal white squatters, invading the reservation in their hunger for good farmland, pillaged the Osages’ food stores and seized their farms and cabins for themselves.
A few years after the Civil War, the last three thousand surviving Osages, exhausted by their struggles against the white tide, were relieved of the burden of their remaining lands in Kansas by a pseudo-compassionate Federal government, and were removed to the relative safety of the unfarmable tablelands of Oklahoma, where their modern reservation now stands. And now the Osages’ tribal elders decreed, after some deliberation, that it was time for the tribe to give up its native religion and learn the “black book”, the Bible.
To help the tribe make this great religious transition, the elders enlisted Isaac Gibson, a white who had won the Osages’ trust by his hard work as their official Federal Indian agent back in Kansas. (Gibson had faced down U.S. President Grant, his nominal boss, in negotiations for the Osages’ land in Kansas, and had won for the Osages a much better settlement than they could possibly have gotten on their own. He didn’t have to do this, and the fact that he did it anyway was a real demonstration of integrity in the Osages’ eyes.)
Well, as it happens, Gibson was a Friend, a Gurneyite Quaker. The opening he made for the Gurneyite version of the Gospel was followed up, a generation later, by Gurneyite missionaries Daniel and Hattie Williams. And so it came to pass that a small fraction of the Osage Nation turned, for a time, into Gurneyite Friends themselves.
Native American Quaker steeplehouse: Hominy Friends Church, founded in 1908 by missionaries Daniel and Hattie Williams, as it appeared on the second day of this year’s Great Plains Yearly Meeting.
It was a happy time to be an Osage Friend. Oil was discovered on tribal lands, the same oil that built the Phillips Petroleum empire in Bartlesville!
The Osage Nation had already been suckered out of the surface rights to most of its land on its final reservation. But it had managed to hang on to collective tribal ownership of the mineral rights, and those mineral rights now made the Osages rich as well. By 1910, there were more than a thousand producing oil wells on Osage land. In the 1930s, when my father’s father was a wildcat oil prospector in nearby Tulsa, the Osages were living in very nice houses and driving Cadillacs even at the peak of the Great Depression. The comforts of wealth and the consolations of Quaker faith combined to make for a pretty good life.
But that era is now drawing to a close. Most of the oil wealth is spent, though the Osages are still better off than most tribes. And the young people, the children of Osage Quaker parents, drift away to other churches, typically the same Baptist and Pentecostal churches that draw low-income people all through the rural South and West — or else turn away from the white man’s religion altogether. Only a bare handful still worship at the old Friends church in Hominy.
Even so, Hominy Friends — Osage and Anglo both — continue to do good work in the Osage Nation: everything from child care and after-school programs to helping in an ongoing campaign to keep the Osage language alive. The pastor of Hominy Friends Church joins in the tribal dances in summer; the meeting invites native American preachers to preach, and native American singers and musicians to perform, at the yearly meeting sessions that it hosts.
And so it came to pass that I drove into Hominy last Friday morning, burdened by thoughts of history, and parked my car alongside a dozen other Quaker vehicles, to attend the most native-Americanized yearly meeting in all the continental United States.
I’ll discuss what transpired at that yearly meeting in my next posting.