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John Joseph Mathews: Life of an Osage Writer

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John Joseph Mathews (1894–1979) is one of Oklahoma’s most revered twentieth-century authors. An Osage Indian, he was also one of the first Indigenous authors to gain national renown. Yet fame did not come easily to Mathews, and his personality was full of contradictions. In this captivating biography, Michael Snyder provides the first book-length account of this fascinating figure.

Known as “Jo” to all his friends, Mathews had a multifaceted identity. A novelist, naturalist, biographer, historian, and tribal preservationist, he was a true “man of letters.” Snyder draws on a wealth of sources, many of them previously untapped, to narrate Mathews’s story. Much of the writer’s family life—especially his two marriages and his relationships with his two children and two stepchildren—is explored here for the first time.

Born in the town of Pawhuska in Indian Territory, Mathews attended the University of Oklahoma before venturing abroad and earning a second degree from Oxford. He served as a flight instructor during World War I, traveled across Europe and northern Africa, and bought and sold land in California. A proud Osage who devoted himself to preserving Osage culture, Mathews also served as tribal councilman and cultural historian for the Osage Nation.

Like many gifted artists, Mathews was not without flaws. And perhaps in the eyes of some critics, he occupies a nebulous space in literary history. Through insightful analysis of his major works, especially his semiautobiographical novel Sundown and his meditative Talking to the Moon, Snyder revises this impression. The story he tells, of one remarkable individual, is also the story of the Osage Nation, the state of Oklahoma, and Native America in the twentieth century.

ISBN-13: 9780806160528

Media Type: Paperback(Reprint)

Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press

Publication Date: 02-02-2018

Pages: 284

Product Dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

Series: American Indian Literature and Critical Studies Series #69

Michael Snyder is Professor of English at Oklahoma City Community College and author of scholarly articles on John Joseph Mathews and other American Indian writers. Russ Tall Chief (Osage) is a writer, an educator, and Director of Student Engagement, Inclusion, and Multicultural Programs at Oklahoma City University.

Read an Excerpt

John Joseph Mathews

Life of an Osage Writer

By Michael Snyder


Copyright © 2017 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-5609-5



Could it be that Indian blood mixing with other bloods will create a new type of Indian. If this be true, then the Osages will not be engulfed by present day society but a new type of Osage Indian will emerge from the propagation.

— Kenneth Jacob Jump, Osage Indian Poems and Short Stories

John Joseph Mathews was a respected Osage author who lived his life the way he saw fit. He held a clear vision of what he wanted out of existence and pursued his ideal diligently. Mathews was proud to be Osage Indian, one-eighth by the crude standard of blood quantum, and was thus invested in a collectivist tribal community. Yet he was a staunch individualist who cherished his autonomy and personal agency. This seeming paradox extended across his life: the embrace of Osage communalism by an author who, like Thoreau, embodied classic American individualism. Complicating this characterization even further is the fact that Mathews, as an Oxford University graduate, avid hunter, traveler, and pipe smoker, in several ways subscribed to the ideals of a leisured English aristocrat and was something of an Anglophile, despite his Native roots. In the 1930s, a reporter visiting The Blackjacks, his small sandstone home on an Osage prairie ridge, thought Mathews resembled "an English gentleman vacationing at his hunting lodge." In the 1950s, another visiting journalist stated that with "flawless diction and command of language" that "belied his western garb and mud-spattered boots," Mathews seemed "an English country squire dressed in the garb of an Osage County rancher." As Mathews grew older, however, he increasingly identified as Osage and was increasingly perceived and recognized as such by other Osages.

Mathews was a keen observer of the natural world. He received academic, empirical, or military training in ornithology, taxidermy, geology, biology, archaeology, botany, zoology, aviation, history, literature, tribal governance, and even chicken raising. In five books he published in his lifetime, Mathews distinguished himself as a literary nonfiction writer, novelist, biographer, and tribal historian. He holds a secure place in literary history as an early American Indian author who helped clear a path to the Native American Renaissance underway by the end of the 1960s. His semiautobiographical novel Sundown (1934) is one of the first novels written by a Native author to feature a Native protagonist. According to Cherokee critic Louis Owens and Potawatomi critic Terry P. Wilson, Sundown established the paradigm of the modern American Indian novel. The trope of the alienated Native veteran returned to his home community is similarly deployed by N. Scott Momaday in House Made of Dawn (1968), a late-modernist novel credited with inaugurating the Native literary renaissance, and Leslie Marmon Silko's masterful Ceremony (1977). Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) critic Gerald Vizenor writes, "Sundown was the start of a new vision in native literature, a modernist presentation of a dialogic presence over a romantic absence." Mathews's biography of oilman and governor E. W. Marland is one of a tiny number of books published in the 1950s by an American Indian author.

* * *

Mathews was born in Indian Territory in Pawhuska, the capital of the Osage Nation, located in the northeast of what in 1907 became the state of Oklahoma, not far from the Kansas border. According to Osage Tribal Agency records, he was born on November 16, 1894. Citing the family Bible, however, Mathews claimed several times that he was born in 1895, including on draft cards and his Guggenheim application. Jo Mathews, as he was known to friends (first spelled "Joe," then by the 1930s, "Jo"), was born in the house his father built next to the Osage Agency, overlooking the Pawhuska Indian Village. His parents were the wealthy, influential William Shirley Mathews ("Will") and his pretty, young wife from a French Catholic family, Pauline Eugenia Girard ("Jennie"), who married in 1887. The couple had eight children, three of whom died very young. Those who survived were Jo, one older sister, Sarah Josephine (b. 1888, known as Josie), and three younger sisters, Marie Imogene (b. 1897), Lillian Bernard (b. 1899), and Florence Julia (b. 1902). All three children born between Josie and John Joseph died in early childhood: Susan Frances (1889–91), George Martin (1891), and William N. (1892–95). The fact that little John Joseph thrived after Will and Jennie's three painful losses, and was the sole male heir, afforded him special treatment. In retrospect he called himself a "princeling."

Mathews felt mixed emotions about his sisters. He described Josie, the eldest, as "didactic and histrionic." After she repeated a fabrication a few times, to her it became fact. Almost seven years older than Jo, Josie had a hard time accepting that her younger brother stole her spotlight. As a little girl, Josie was pretty, imaginative, but willful, frequently getting her way with her parents. One time when he was about five years old, and Marie was about three, Josie persuaded them to become "REAL angels," since they had not yet reached the "age of reason" according to Catholic dogma. Jo and Marie agreed to be closed up in a bran box so that Josie could send them to heaven, but they begged to be released when they ran short of oxygen. Josie, perched atop the box, only gradually and reluctantly acceded. Later, Jo, whom Josie disparaged as a "clod," teased her about her near murder of her little siblings.

In contrast, Jo described his favorite sister, Marie, as tranquil, and guided by wisdom, logic, and a strong sense of justice. Because of illness, Marie became almost totally deaf at age twelve. Quiet, intelligent, and kind, Marie studied local history, wrote poetry, and like her sisters Josephine and Lillian, played piano. As an adult, like Jo, she shared her love of nature and birds with children. She was aided in school by younger sister Lillian, who was later known to relatives as difficult and disapproving, and according to Jo, was concerned with being "the first with the latest." Marie and Lillian frowned upon many of their brother's life choices, including his abandonment of Catholicism, but like their brother, they became historians of their tribe and Pawhuska, specializing in the Osage relationship with the Catholic Church and early white settlers. All three shared their knowledge with the community and historians. All the Mathews sisters were attractive young women, but neither Marie nor Lillian married, and eventually Lillian was labeled a spinster. Prominent Osage County rancher Frederick Ford Drummond reported that his father, Fred G. Drummond, dated Lilly. Deeply in love, Lilly believed she was destined to marry Fred, and when he married another woman, she was so devastated that she renounced marriage entirely. From 1937 to 1943, Lillian was the first curator of the Osage Tribal Museum, which Jo largely established. She then pursued a career with the Osage Agency, retiring in 1969.

Florence was Jo's adoring baby sister, a flattering tagalong he nicknamed "Dooley." Florence's daughter, Florence Feighan Jones ("Fleur"), said the nickname derived from the popular Irish American character Mr. Dooley, created by humorist Finley Peter Dunne. Like Mr. Dooley, intelligent Florence "always had an answer for everything." Since her sisters played piano, Florence took up the harp. As for Jo himself, he said that he was born happy, if slightly confused, but had a "terrible temper."

William S. Mathews, one-quarter Osage, was by turns a successful rancher, trader, merchant, banker, tribal councilman, and judge, and he and his family became one of the most prosperous in Pawhuska. For his son, growing up in a booming Osage oil town adjacent to the traditional life of his ancestral Osage culture was exciting, enriching, but perhaps also disorienting. In both volume 1 of his unfinished autobiography and the opening of The Osages, Mathews evoked the sounds of tribal songs and death chants that entered his upstairs bedroom window and his little ears. The poignant, climactic "sob of frustration" on which the chant suddenly terminated filled his impressionable mind with perplexity and wonder, and haunted him throughout his life. He pondered humankind's frustrating struggle to comprehend the infinite mysteries of God (Wah'Kon-Tah) and existence.

The name "Osage" is a corruption of Wah-Zha-Zhe, an English rendering of the French phonetic transliteration of the name that the French thought pertained to the whole tribe, but which actually referred to a specific subgroup, the Hun-Kah, or Earth People. Long ago, the Osages referred to themselves as Ni-u-kon-ska. Humbling themselves before Wah'Kon-Tah, they modestly called themselves "Children of the Middle Waters," which Mathews used as the subtitle of The Osages. According to Mathews, the tribe was divided into two groups, the Tzi-Zho, or Peace People, whose names came from the Sky, and the Hun-Kah, a warlike people whose affinity was to Earth. Mathews's ancestral line, the Buffalo clan, was of the Hun-Kah. Given that Mathews was an erudite gentleman-author, his belonging to the warlike Earth People may seem ironic. But he was also something of a warrior: he served his country in World War I, tried to join the war effort during World War II, and became a "hawk" in his geopolitical views.

Centuries ago, the Osages were Woodland Indians, part of a large group of Dhegihan-Siouan speakers who lived in the Ohio River valley. By the mid-seventeenth century, this group gradually began moving west, having tired of war with Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) invaders or searching for better game to hunt. Over time, this large group separated into the Osage, Ponca, Omaha, Kaw (Kansa), and Quapaw tribes. The Osages transformed into a buffalo-hunting Lower Plains tribe, and for centuries their homelands stretched over vast tracts of what are now the states of Missouri, Kansas, Arkansas, and Oklahoma. Rennard Strickland wrote that his people were often praised for their "steadfast resistance to white influence." Early Euro-American visitors described them as strikingly tall, dignified, handsome, fierce, and sometimes imperious or aloof. Successful in "taking advantage of their strategic position athwart the navigable Missouri River system," the Osages played "one European power against another before finally succumbing to the overwhelming tide of immigrants streaming from the new American nation," Terry Wilson writes. Throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, Osage homelands gradually shrank through a series of treaties with and land purchases by the federal government, until Osages were relegated to a diminished reservation in what is now Kansas. The tribe sold that land in 1870 under the Drum Creek Treaty, and over the next few years moved south to their present reservation in Indian Territory.

An Osage, Jo's father, Will, was a storehouse of tribal knowledge, and served as a trader and merchant to the tribe. In most ways, however, he raised his children as upper-class Catholic Euro-Americans, and hired servants and a driver. Jo's mother, whose parents were born in France, was devoutly Catholic, so the family went to Mass regularly. Jo did not attend the local boarding school for Osage boys; instead, he and his three younger sisters were enrolled at Mrs. Tucker's Preparatory School, an institution established to educate the children of white traders, clerks, and Indian agents. Mrs. Tucker's school was very close to the Mathews home, located on a hill on Grandview Avenue across from where the white-frame Osage Agency building once stood. Laura Tucker was one of Jo's most formative influences. "From the first grade to perhaps the sixth," Mathews wrote, "Mrs. Tucker, with her brightness and her rugged certainties, laid a wonderful foundation upon which later I was to build my formal education and culture." Though strict, she encouraged Jo's fascination with words. Perhaps surprisingly, he was not an outstanding pupil; he believed he was "ranked rather low in effort and interest." When Tucker was interviewed after her student had achieved recognition, she simply recalled Jo as shy. This failure to assert his talents was typical throughout Jo's educational career, and his grades were uneven. This pattern derived from the privilege he enjoyed: being the sole male heir in a relatively wealthy family encouraged complacency. After Tucker's school, Jo enrolled for two years of junior high at St. Joseph Mission School, a parochial school in Pawhuska, and then attended Pawhuska High School, a public school.

Although Mathews and his younger sisters attended Tucker's school, Josephine attended the Osage Boarding School, funded by the tribe, and the St. Louis Boarding School for Osage girls, run by the Catholic Bureau, which two of her sisters also attended. St. Louis School, which boarded up to two hundred girls, was a four-story, native stone structure lying south of Pawhuska. Also underscoring the Mathews family's Native heritage, Jo's cousin Owen Mathews, son of Uncle Ed, attended Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, but ran away and lived with Jo's family for a time. Josie later attended Mount St. Mary's Academy in Oklahoma City and graduated from Loretta Academy in Kansas City, Missouri. One June, after returning from boarding school, she annoyed Jo with lessons on how to eat soup genteelly and other such niceties, causing him to spill his soup while resisting her grabby hands.

Growing up, Mathews was not closely connected to full-blood or traditional Osages, partly because of discontinuity in his family's Osage backstory. For the most part, the relatively traditional "village Indians" (as opposed to "town Indians" and mixed-bloods) did not regard Jo as Osage, and outside of his family, few Osages in the community recognized Jo as a relative. Yet as Osage author Charles H. Red Corn eloquently writes, "the Buffalo Clan blood flowing in the veins of John Joseph was not apparent in the tone of his complexion or in the color of his hair. However, Osage was abundantly present in his heart and mind and in his soul." He derived his Osage ancestry from his paternal great-grandmother, A-Ci'n'Ga (or d'Achinga), also called Wind Blossom. She was full-blood Osage, part of the Great Osages division, a member of the Big Hill band and the Buffalo clan. Tradition states that long ago, all Osages dwelt together in one village. At some point, a great flood separated the people, and the group that found safety atop a hill became known as the Pa-ciu'-ghthin (Big Hill band). A-Ci'n'Ga resembles the traditional Osage name for a third-born or subsequent daughter.

As a young woman, circa 1813, A-Ci'n'Ga married William Sherley Williams, a Welsh American. Williams, John Joseph's great-grandfather, was a missionary to the Osages who helped compose an Osage dictionary and translated parts of the Bible and several hymns into the Osage language. Later he "went Native," more or less converting to Osage beliefs and culture. Williams spoke Osage fluently, hunted and trapped with Osages, and danced with them in ceremonies. According to biographer Enid Johnson, the Osages gave Williams the name "Red-Headed Shooter" and even wrote songs about him. A prodigious trapper and trader, and an interpreter for missionaries and the government, he much later became renowned as "Old Bill" Williams, legendary Mountain Man of Old West lore. Bill Williams courted A-Ci'n'Ga in Osage fashion, giving horses to her parents and gaining their consent to his proposal. For part of the year, the couple lived in an Indian village called Big Osage Town in what is now westcentral Missouri.

Their first daughter, Mary Ann Williams, was born in 1814, and Sarah followed two years later. Mary Ann attended the mission school at Harmony. Both Mary Ann and Sarah became brides of Jo's grandfather, John Allen Mathews. A-Ci'n'Ga died sometime between 1819 and 1825, at which time Bill Williams left the Osages, heading for the mountains, having previously served as translator during negotiations of the tribe's unfortunate treaty with the U.S. government. That year, 1825, was a bad one for the tribe because, arguably, they were swindled out of their rich, fertile lands in Missouri and Arkansas, and relocated to southern Kansas, having been persuaded to sign a dubious treaty. According to Johnson, before leaving the Osages, Williams took his daughters to live with his sister Mary in St. Louis, where they encountered a new world and were compelled to pray to the white man's God. Alternatively, according to John Joseph Mathews, Williams sent them away to a boarding school in Kentucky, where they met John A. Mathews. In the mid-1830s, Mary Ann married Mathews, a Kentuckian with Virginian roots, in Jackson County, Missouri. She had been previously married, and Mathews gained a young stepson, Bill Nix, also called Red Corn. Red Corn's father, Lorenzo Dow Nixon, had disappeared shortly after the birth of his son in 1832.


Excerpted from John Joseph Mathews by Michael Snyder. Copyright © 2017 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of illustrations ix

Acknowledgments xi

Foreword xiii

Chapter 1 Silver Spur 3

Chapter 2 Flight / School 23

Chapter 3 Oxford and Europe 42

Chapter 4 First Family / California Dreaming 62

Chapter 5 Osage Literary Man 83

Chapter 6 The Hunter and the Hunts 104

Chapter 7 Mexico 125

Chapter 8 The Tragedy of Lorene Squire 134

Chapter 9 The Moon and Marland 143

Chapter 10 Slow Melt through Time 163

Chapter 11 Everything is a Circle 186

Notes 199

Works 235

Selected Bibliography 239

Index 253