Traditions of the Osage: Stories Collected and Translated by Francis La Flesche

Edited by Garrick A. Bailey. 2010. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press. 216 pages. ISBN: 978-0826348500 (hard cover).


Reviewed by Raymond J. Demallie, Indiana University

[Review length: 710 words • Review posted on January 9, 2013]


Francis La Flesche (1857-1932), an Omaha Indian, son of a tribal chief, was among the first and most famous Native Americans to take up a career in anthropology. His family supported the early work of non-Indian anthropologists who came to Nebraska to document the Omaha language and culture. In the 1870s, James Owen Dorsey, of the Smithsonian Institution’s Bureau of (American) Ethnology (BAE), taught La Flesche to write the Omaha language. Beginning in the 1880s, he developed a close relationship with Alice C. Fletcher, of Harvard University’s Peabody Museum, and worked with her on studies of the Omaha. Later La Flesche became a member of the BAE staff and with Fletcher’s encouragement extended his studies to the Osage, focusing on the meticulous transcription and translation of ritual texts. He ultimately published five major monographs on the Osage and a dictionary of the Osage language.

Anthropologist Garrick Bailey has spent much of his career studying Osage culture and history and has developed a deep familiarity with La Flesche’s work. Among La Flesche’s unpublished papers, housed at the National Anthropological Archives in Washington, D.C., is a series of Osage stories written in English that Bailey has made available in this welcome book.

The editor begins with a brief but comprehensive overview of Osage history, tribal structure, religion, and social life. La Flesche’s writings collected here comprise forty-nine separate narratives, of which thirty-five have never before been published. Bailey has organized them in three parts. The first, Sacred Teachings, comprises narratives that show the relationship between clan organization, naming, and religious life. Only three narratives in this section are from the unpublished manuscripts, but Bailey has selected material that is representative, significant, and easily understood. They serve as important context for understanding the remainder of the stories.

Part 2, Folk Stories, numbering thirty narratives, comprise the bulk of the book; twenty-seven of them are previously unpublished. The range of these stories is impressive. Historical traditions begin with the separation of the Osage and Omaha tribes and include origin stories of sacred bundles, stories of hunting and of war, and stories relating to religious beliefs and practices. The stories frequently revolve around themes of faithfulness and betrayal, of spiritual power and its abuse, and of ghosts and other supernatural beings. In many cases the stories relate back to themes introduced in Part 1.

Part 3, Animal Stories, comprises five previously unpublished tales. One combines the conflict between a hawk and an owl with a vision seeker who aids the hawk and obtains power from him. The others are tales told for amusement, including three about Coyote.

There is sufficient redundancy in the stories for readers to pick out distinctive themes. As an example, the gift of a bird’s wing feather bestows power on humans and establishes a permanent relationship. Stories of visions, of the role of husbands and wives, of mourning, and of medicine men all offer rich material for comparative analysis, both internally, and with other American Indian oral traditions.

Bailey quotes a 1903 speech by La Flesche in which he complained that Indian myths and rituals were usually recorded in such a way “as to obscure their true meaning and to make them appear childish” (xii). In short, the stories without their cultural context were incomprehensible. Bailey notes that when he first read the only earlier collection of Osage stories, published by anthropologist George A. Dorsey, “they gave the reader little insight into Osage culture and religion” (xi). These stories, told by Osage elders, were recorded in the first years of the twentieth century, and Dorsey published verbatim the translations of them as given by interpreters at the time of the telling. The contrast between these traditional tellings and La Flesche’s English retellings is striking. The tone, as well as the morals drawn from the stories, cannot fail to strike the reader as more representative of English literature than of Osage oral style. Here, again, is a productive opportunity for comparison.

La Flesche’s goal was to let the Osage narrators speak so as to be understood by non-Indian audiences. In that he succeeded, and thanks to Garrick Bailey’s editorial work these stories have now been made available.

Work Cited

Dorsey, George A. 1904. Traditions of the Osage. Field Columbian Museum Publication 88. Chicago.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.