• May 3, 2017

The Osage and Cheyenne Nations

By Lydia Garcia

The title of the play, August: Osage County, grounds us not only in the seasonal and geographical realism of Pawhuska, Oklahoma, but also connects us to the historical impact of white settlers’ presence on indigenous land. Osage County, including the county seat of Pawhuska, is home to the federally-recognized Osage Tribe (originally named Ni-u-kon-ska, or “People of the Middle Waters”) who ruled much of Kansas, Oklahoma, Missouri, and Arkansas at the height of their power.

For playwright Tracy Letts, the inclusion of a Native character in his story was both personal and political. “When you grow up in Oklahoma and you have Native American blood,” said Letts, “that heritage is embedded in your DNA.” The playwright’s father, Dennis Letts, was a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Tribe. The character of the Cheyenne housekeeper, Johnna Monevata, is noteworthy for being one of the few authentic Native representations on the national American stage.

Johnna’s existence is the spine of the play, her quiet presence amidst the chaos of the Weston home at once imperceptible and deeply visible. As Kimberly Norris Guerrero (the Colville, Salish-Kootenai and Cherokee actress who created the role) notes in a HowlRound article:

“Johnna was meant to be seen living in her assigned quarters, the attic; the most remote, uninhabitable part of the entire house—a type of reservation. Johnna was meant to experience long periods of staged silence—perennially present, but rarely heard from. And after three long acts, the audience was meant to be left with one final image seared into their conscience—Johnna in the attic, cradling the suffering matriarch in her arms, singing, ‘This is the way the world ends, this is the way the world ends, this is the way the world ends….’ What message is our family, the American Theatre family, to divine from August: Osage County? There are Indians in the attic! […] American Theatre, this is a humble, but passionate plea to bring us down from the attic. Let us contribute to the family dinner. And please don’t make us sit at the children’s table.”

There are other meaningful allusions to Native and indigenous cultures woven into the play that touch upon some of the play’s larger themes, such as:

  • wild onions: From the Cherokee Nation website: “Wild Onions have an important social aspect among many Indian people in eastern Oklahoma, including Cherokees. In the early spring, many Indian churches, stompgrounds, clubs and other groups hold wild onion dinners. Families and friends also often make an outing of gathering wild onions and/or eating them together. The wild onions are prepared by frying them with eggs and are usually served with other Indian dishes such as fry bread and grape dumplings. Wild onions grow in a variety of conditions but are best gathered where a loose moist soil promotes thick growth and easy digging. Timbered bottomlands are favored. Cattle grazing effectively eliminates the digging of wild onions. Wild onions are among the earliest greenery to emerge in the spring and cattle like to crop off young blades, making it impossible for humans to find them even if they survive the grazing. The milk of dairy cows grazing on wild onions takes on a strong flavor that most people find objectionable.”
  • Umbilical cord pouches: “According to Cheyenne custom, the umbilical cord of a newborn child is preserved and sewed into small round or diamond-shaped pouches stuffed with sweet grass. The child wears this navel amulet on his or her belt or keeps it in a safe place. It is said that children who do not have navel cords prepared in the Cheyenne traditional way will always be searching for their souls. Girls’ navel amulets are beaded with turtle designs. The turtle is known as the one who carried the dirt from the bottom of the ocean. From this dirt, the earth was created. Turtle brought the Cheyenne patience and mystery, and reminded the Cheyenne to take their time when traveling to faraway places. ‘I may be very slow,’ said the turtle, ‘but I always get to wherever I’m going.’ Boys’ amulets are decorated with lizard designs. Lizards and turtles are used because they are strong and long-lived, attributes that Cheyenne families wish for their children.”