By Roseanne Sutton
On March 11, 2011, the Osage Nation held its fifth annual Sovereignty Day celebration at the Agriculture (Ag) Building at the Osage County Fairgrounds.
Traditional gourd dancing began shortly after 2 p.m.
Gourd dancer John F. Johnston, known to many as Sandy Johnston, spoke as he prepared for the afternoon’s dance.
In the center of the room was a large drum with chairs circling it.
Around this was open floor space for the dancers.
The outer perimeter of the room had groupings of several rows of chairs facing the center of the room.
Various Osage Nation department and organizations had booths set up along the walls of the Ag building including: the Osage Million Dollar Elm Casino, Osage CASA program, which trains volunteers to be advocates for children going through the court system, and the Osage Nation Education Public School Support Program.
The emcees for the afternoon were Osage Congressman Archie Mason and John Henry Mashunkashey, who announced upcoming Osage cultural events during breaks in the gourd dancing.
Johnston sat on the front row, facing the center of the room. He explained that after having grown up in Pawhuska, he moved to Parsons, Kan., and then Coffeeville, where he had made his living as a butcher and meat cutter for over 30 years.
Now single and retired for five years, Johnston has three grown children – two daughters and a son. One daughter and the son participate in Osage traditional dances, he said. Johnston’s son has just recently begun to return to the Osage traditions, he added.
Johnston said that his biological mother, Beatrice Hunter, and his adoptive mother, Marian Coshehe, were both full-blood Osage.
A bench in front of Johnston held a cedar chest. Johnston opened the chest and from it took his wardrobe accessories for the dance.
First he tied a navy cloth sash around his waist. The ends of the sash, which were aqua, hung from his right hip to below his knee.
Next he added a bandolier, which he placed over his left shoulder and diagonally across his chest, which were fastened with a silver disc at his right hip.
The bandolier consisted of two strands of decorative beads – red peyote beads, silver beads, longer cylindrical beads of real cattle horn and brown rectangular leather spacers. “At traditional dances you wear two strands of bandoliers,” Johnston explained.
Johnston then placed a long cloth shawl around his shoulders. One half of the shawl was navy and the other half was red. “The red side is always worn over the heart,” Johnston said.
“My clothes were smoked and prayed over,” Johnston explained. “That’s what we do with all our things,” he added. “I’m a Catholic, and raised that way, but with Osage ways too.”
From the cedar box, Johnston took a silver shaker on a wooden staff with cotton strands at the bottom and embellished at the top with aqua and red beading and pale horse hair, which he held in his right hand.
In his left hand, Johnston held a cluster of five eagle feathers bound at the bottom with decorative multicolored beading. The feather quills were painted in bands of bright colors — yellow, red, green and black. Below this were cotton strands.
Soon, the Osage performers began their song with the all-male circle seated and striking the drum at once. A group of Osage women sat in chairs behind the Osage performers in a semi-circle. “The women are behind the men; this is traditional,” Johnston said.
The gentlemen gourd dancers moved from their seats to the outer rim of floor space and began to shake the gourds and move their feet solemnly to the beat of the drum. They often stood in groups of two during the dance.
Across the room, several female gourd dancers participated.
At times during the dance, male and female gourd dancers formed two large semi-circles behind the seated Osage performers and danced.
As the song continued, the drum and the voices became louder and faster. Some Osage participants had closed eyes and focused expressions.
Asked the meaning of the dance, Johnston said, “The main thing is respect of your elders and the ground – mother earth.”
During the afternoon, Osage Principal Chief John D. Red Eagle and Assistant Principal Chief Scott Bighorse also participated in the gourd dancing.
There were many more in attendance, but these are some of those who spoke to Pawhuska Community News.
Event organizer Otto Hamilton attended with his wife Geneva and twin sons.
Osage Attorney General Jeff Jones attended with his wife, daughter, newborn grandson and two-year-old granddaughter.
Osage Minerals Councilman Myron Red Eagle was one of the Osage performers seated at the drum.
Cultural Center Director Vann Bighorse participated in the gourd dancing.
Osage Congressman Daniel Boone took time to share his thoughts about the day, “We’ve come a long way in a short period of time … This is our fifth year of our new government. We’ve experienced some growing pains. We’ve learned what not to do and hopefully … we will experience great growth in the coming years.”
Shortly after 5 p.m., servers began to place the evening supper serving dishes onto buffet tables.
“I don’t get to dance as much as much as I’d like to, but I started learning about my heritage again about 15 or 20 years ago,” Johnston said as he carefully placed his bandolier, gourd shaker, sash and eagle feathers back into the cedar chest.
Chief Red Eagle prayed over the meal in the Osage language and then prayed in English as well.
The meal, which had several traditional Osage dishes, consisted of: steam fry, which was made of pork, fry bread, chicken and dumplings, salad, chocolate or white cake and iced tea.
When supper was finished, Johnston, who said he was pleased to have been able to participate in the dance, said he was going to head back to Coffeeville before nightfall.
The celebration continued into the evening with more gourd dancing at 6 p.m., a Grand Entry at 7 p.m. and a Pow Wow.
Although the gourd dancing and Pow Wow are open to the public, the traditional dances held during the summer in Pawhuska are by invitation only, and are not to be photographed because they are spiritual in nature. “It is very spiritual because it’s the closest you are to your creator, Wah-Kon-Tah,” Johnston said.