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Tribute to John Joseph Mathews -- Osage Writer
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A Tribute To John Joseph Mathews: Osage Writer

Fredrick W. Boling

Published in August 2006 Western Writers of America ROUNDUP Magazine.

John Joseph Mathews.
Photo Courtesy of The Osage Tribal Museum


     John Joseph Mathews began the first chapter of his book, The Osages:  Children of the Middle Waters, with one of his unique metaphorical comparisons.  "If a snake were slithering along in definite search for food, and suddenly he became aware of the shadow cast by the wings of a red-tail hawk, high-circling, he would draw his head back and retract his body until it formed into a series of half-loops, then he would freeze, with only his forked tongue darting for messages.  He would be like a carelessly dropped rope; like a new rope that had not the kinks stretched out of it.

     "That is the way the Osage River of central Missouri and eastern Kansas looks, as it comes down from the high prairie to flow through the wooded hills.  It lies shining there, among the hills, like a snake under the shadow of wings, or like one that had been touched on the end of the nose by a snake stick."

     Few writers capture the reader with such vivid imagery as did John Mathews in all of his writings, fiction and nonfiction.  This trait is not uncommon among Native Americans who devote themselves to the creative arts-photography, painting, sculpture, music, architecture and writing.  Being born to Osage parents, William and Eugenia Mathews, at Pawhuska, Osage County, Oklahoma in 1895 and growing up among tribal members contributed greatly to insightful perceptions included in all of his writings.

     Mathew's ancestry played a major role in his writing.  His great grandmother, A-Ci'n-Ga, a pure-blood Osage, married mountain man, William "Old Bill" Williams.  He was an interpreter between the Osages and U. S. government at the treaty of 1825.  John Mathew's father, William S. Mathews, who married Eugenia Williams, a daughter of Old Bill and Ci'n-Ga, followed the Osages to Pawhuska, Oklahoma, where he established the Osage Mercantile Company and Citizens Bank.

     John married Virginia Winslow Hopper in Switzerland while studying International relations at Geneva University in 1924.  They returned to the United States, settling in California.  The marriage later failed after two children, John and Virginia, were born.  John returned to the land of his ancestors in Oklahoma and remained there the rest of his life.  He married Elizabeth Hunt in 1945.  She became his coworker, helping with extensive research of the Osages and their migration from Missouri to Kansas and then Oklahoma.

     His educational, professional, and lifetime accomplishments were numerous.  He became a pilot with a rank of second lieutenant in the fledgling U. S. Army Signal Corp Air Service during World War I.  He graduated with Bachelor of Arts degrees from University of Oklahoma in 1920 and Oxford University in 1923.  He also pursued studies at University of Geneva in 1923-24.  He served as a member of the Osage Tribal Council from 1934 until 1942, on the Oklahoma Board of Education in 1935, was co-founder of the Osage Tribal Museum, which opened in 1938, and served as United States representative to Indians of the Americas Conference, Michoacan, Mexico, in 1940.

    Following two years spent as a realtor in Los Angeles and Pasadena, California, he returned to Osage County, Oklahoma, in 1928, where he became a rancher and began his writing career.  All of his works reflect a concern for the loss of Native American culture and traditions.  His initial nonfiction book Wah'Kon-Tah: The Osage and the White Man's Road, published by University of Oklahoma Press in 1932, incorporated an Indian agent's journal to pass on Osage history and traditions.  He feared the tribal way of life was in danger of being lost.  The taproot of his fear probably had its origin while he was a small boy.  He alludes to this in the introduction of his last work, The Osages:  Children of the Middle Waters.  After the arrival of his second sister, John was moved from his mother's bedroom into a room by himself.  Here, he describes his first night spent alone.  "I might have lain all night obediently silent, but I remember the hour before dawn, when the silence was the heaviest.  There floated up to my room through the open window, which overlooked the valley, a long, drawn-out chant broken by weeping.  I could even hear the sobbing.  It was like the song of the wolf and yet like the highest pitch of the bull wapiti's moonlight challenge, but with a soul-stirring sob."

     "I heard it many times later as I grew up and up until the time I entered high school, and I have never been able to describe it to myself; it was indescribable, and there is nothing with which to compare it.  It filled my little boy's soul with fear and bittersweetness, and exotic yearning, and when it had ended and I lay there in my exultant fear-trance, I hoped fervently that there would be more of it, and yet was afraid that there might be."

     "It seemed to me later, after I had begun to reason, that this prayer-song, this chant, this soul-stirring petition, always ended before it was finished, in a sob of frustration.  It was a Neolithic man talking to God."

     Mathews spent the remainder of his life searching for the ending of this prayer-song in desert mosques, European cathedrals, pre-Columbian Mexico - once again in the Osage hills of Oklahoma.

     His only fictional work, Sundown, is a novel about a boy who has both white and Indian ancestry, commonly called a mixed-blood by tribal members.  The story appears to be somewhat autobiographical, which lends authenticity to the main character's experiences.  Challenge Windzer who is a mixed-blood Osage is born in the early 1900s when Wah'Kon-Tah, God of the great Osages, was still dominant over the wild prairie and the blackjack hills.  His father named him, Challenge dedicating the boy to confront the disinheritors of his people.  The story propels the reader through the many ups and downs Challenge experiences dealing with discovery of oil on Osage lands, sudden wealth, and their effects on tribal and non-tribal members.

     Talking to the Moon relates Mathew's experiences in getting back to the land of his elders after living elsewhere for too many moons.  A quote from Western American Literature says it best.  "This is a timely book, beautifully written, one that can be enjoyed just for the flow of beautiful English.  It reminds one of the writings of Thoreau with its down-to-earth philosophy, keen and intimate observations of nature.  But it is also full of Native American comparisons, cowboy reflections and humor, and personal experiences."

     John J. Mathews became a close friend of Ernest W. Marland, one of Oklahoma's foremost oilmen who later became governor.  Marland was responsible for much of the oil discovery and development in Osage County, which retains the same boundaries established for the Osage Nation by the United States government in 1870.  In 1951, The University of Oklahoma Press published Life and Death of an Oilman:  The career of E. W. Marland by John Joseph Mathews.  It was an in-depth accounting of one of Oklahoma's enigmatic pioneers.  The author begins this story by relating how Marland's mother dressed her only son in a complete Scottish outfit, including Glengarry, dirk, sporran and kilt when he was quite young.  She sent him off to school where his schoolmates severely taunted him.  He ran back home, all the while yanking away every accoutrement prized so highly by his mother.

     Mathews best describes the task at hand for writing this accounting by the following:  "I had to find the human being among the many pictures given me. . . . On the one hand, I had to cut off his "devil's tail, reshape his cloven hooves, and give him the human quality of sympathy, and on the other, to snip off his wings and throw his nimbus away. . . .Gossip was everywhere for the taking." 

     On June 11, 1979, John Joseph Mathews, his astute observations and metaphorical genius ceased to be.  The American West as he knew it had experienced growing pains, agonizing and debilitating for most Native Americans; yet, he succeeded in reminding his people of their historical heritage.  He became a part of white society without giving up his Osage legacy.  He accomplished much in his account of The Osages:  Children of the Middle Waters.  The narration is replete with in-depth observations, often approaching a spiritual realm, and allegorical comparisons that reveal the Native American psyche.  His words paint pictures that can be understood and savored by anyone, no matter their ethnic origins or societal orientations.

     During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, white America saw the West's verdant forests, cascading streams, far-reaching prairies, and towering mountains as its manifest destiny.  There was little thought concerning the impact of westward progression upon Native American societies.  Let us hope John Joseph Mathews' Wah'Kon-Tah will give us another chronicler like John who can show us the way to recover the treasures of our combined heritages.

Copyright © 2006 Fredrick W. Boling. All rights Reserved.