Plains Folk

Going Native


“Boy, Horse, and Dog.” The early chapters of the life story of John Joseph Mathews are grouped under this heading. His father, a mixed-blood banker and judge in Pawhuska, Oklahoma, gave him a foal to raise, and the two became joined as one in the exploration of the Osage Hills. There was a hunting dog, too, that was essential to Mathews’s growing up, which involved a lot of time roaming the landscape without benefit of adult supervision.


My mother had a saying: “Kids do better if they’re a little bit neglected.” I remembered that this past weekend as I traveled to be with her over the Easter holiday, following a medical episode on her part. She’s an old German woman, and it shows, but I’m pretty sure John Joseph Mathews’s mother Eugenia, a French woman, would have agreed with her saying about child neglect. In the first place, these are women who pulled their weight and more in family and community, and they didn’t have time to hover over a boy. Beyond that, they recognized that a boy has to find his own way.


A prairie landscape is a good one for roaming. That was the experience of Mathews in the Indian Territory, of me in western Kansas, of Wallace Stegner in Saskatchewan. There, notice how deftly I inserted myself between two of the greatest authors ever to roam the lands and pages of the Great Plains? I have learned to seek good company. We are not special, though, because all over the plains, old boys—and old girls, too, but more so the boys—describe to me how they came of age in the presence of rocks and hills and creeks and creatures. Place is basic to our identity. But it is not the whole thing.


Twenty Thousand Mornings is the autobiography of John Joseph Mathews I have been reading. It was unfinished when he died in 1979, but now Susan Kalter, a professor from Illinois State University, has brought it to publication by University of Oklahoma Press. Early in the book we read how Mathews, while still roaming the grasslands, also fixed upon the thing that would complete his identity.


Despite his Osage blood, Mathews was not raised in a traditionalist family. He recalls, however, a “previous memory” of a “soul-stirring sound that floated up into my window from the hills across the valley.” It was the sound of old men chanting their prayers, “long, drawn out, and broken by weeping.”


“The prayer-chant that disturbed my little boy’s soul to the depths,” Mathews writes, “was Neolithic man talking to God.”


This memory gave Mathews something to come back to. He chose to go native, to align himself with his Osage lineage. After education at the University of Oklahoma, at Oxford, and at Geneva; after service in the Air Corps; after the breakup of an ill-considered marriage, he came home. He wrote five great books that established the Osage in history, and he guided his tribe through the troubles that came with petroleum development.


Not many people outside Oklahoma are familiar with John Joseph Mathews. Of those who are, most pigeonhole him as an Indian writer. He is worth getting to know by all of us who have found our lives and identities as people of the plains.


Here’s a natural history footnote from Mathews’s autobiography. When he was in his final year of high school, his father took him out of class to go hunting, because there were plover migrating through the hills. Upland plover, or upland sandpiper, are elegant birds that we cherish and protect on native prairies today. A century ago they were shot by market hunters and sold for the eastern hotel market. My grandfather, my mother’s father, has described for me how he shot plover for market with a Model 97 like the one that hangs above my desk as I write these words.

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