The Wah-Zah-Zhi, People of the Middle Waters

Efmo_View_from_Fire_PointBefore the arrival of Europeans more than 560 tribal nations peopled the continental United States. There were no state boundaries or mapped delineations between them. The territorial distinctions between their ancestral lands were fluid, the inland waterways their highways.

Their sages sang their histories in words that were powerful and imagistic, drawing their spirituality from nature, the world about them; and their words became sacred repositories for ancestors, traditions and wisdom.

Into the Earth my grandfathers dug,

In the palm of their hands they rubbed its soil.

Into the Sacred One, the Aged One they dug;

In the palm of their hands they rubbed its soil.

Into the Earth my grandfathers dug;

Upon their foreheads they put its soil.

from The Osage Story of Creation*

osageWhen Pierre Laclede chose the site for his fur trading post below the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers in 1763, the Osage was the most powerful tribal nation in the area.

These Wah-Zah-Zhi (pronounced Wah-Sha-She) People of the Middle Waters, established hunting and trade routes far beyond their villages, from what became St. Louis, west and south to Santa Fe.

By 1750 the Osage controlled large areas of Missouri, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Kansas** and Laclede and his business partners were anxious to establish exclusive trade relations with them.


In a tradition pre-dating Laclede’s birth, the French in North America were intermarrying with women of the tribal nations. The young bride represented in the painting below, the mural of Fort Orleans, Missouri (from the Missouri State Capitol in Jefferson City) was part of a tribal delegation that visited Paris in 1725.

This custom would be adopted by Laclede’s common-law and natural sons, Auguste and Jean Pierre Chouteau, who spent months living among their Osage trading partners, establishing familial ties of their own.


“Legend traces Osage and other Dhegiha Sioux (Kaw, Omaha, Ponca and Quapaw) origins to Indian Knoll near the mouth of the Green River in Kentucky. In paleolithic times they ranged from the fork of the Ohio River to the Mississippi and beyond. Once peace-loving, the Osage became warlike in the face of invasion by the Iroquois who had dominated much of the Northeast. By A.D. 1200 both the Osage and the invading Iroquois (had) left the ‘dark and bloody’ ground of Kentucky.”**

The Osage Bear Clan story of creation has “the Four Winds gathering all of the flood waters on earth and draining them into great rivers at a place they called Ni-U-Kon-Ska (The Middle Waters); today the junction of the Missouri, Mississippi, Ohio, Tennessee, Wabash, Arkansas, and Illinois rivers.”**

p013489 Left to right front: Mary Nora Lookout Standingbear Escue, #594, Fred Lookout, #590, Henry Lookout (Pa-hu-kah-sha, #596), Julia Lookout (Mo-se-che-he, #591). Back: Frederick Lookout, allottee #593, Charles Lookout, #592.

Here they settled in great numbers, dividing themselves into diverse bands and clans, into Earth People and Sky People.

We had come down from the starry heavens into this holy land,

and we met here the mighty Middle Waters, rolling evermore,

the Waters who come down from the Mountains of the West

and the Mountains of the East

and the Great Lakes of the North,

who move continually into the great Waters of the South:

we met them here, the waters who make clean this Middle Earth,

the moving waters at their priest-like task

of pure ablution round earth’s human shores . . .

Carter Revard – Living in the Holy Land


April of 2014 was an especially rich month commemorating, in the words of the Rev. John Padberg, S.J. “the 250th Anniversary of the Founding of St. Louis in the land of the Osage.”

IMG_20140402_111323It began April 2nd with an Osage Mass at St. Francis Xavier Church (the College Church at St. Louis University), an Osage incantation leading the Processional.

The First Reading from Genesis was read in Osage by Principal Chief Scott BigHorse and then in English. Descendants of the French & Creole founding family of St. Louis were present.

Following a luncheon reception, Carter Revard gave a reading of his poetry and the 2,229 Exhibit opened at St. Louis University Museum of Art on Lindell Blvd.

A descendant of Osage, Ponca, French-Canadian, Irish and Scots-Irish ancestors, Revard grew up on the Osage reservation in Pawhuska, Oklahoma.

51UlJO8cJFL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_After earning Bachelor Degrees at the University of Tulsa and Oxford University in England (where he was a Rhodes Scholar) Carter Revard completed a PhD in English Literature at Yale University, taught at Amherst College and is currently a professor emeritus at Washington University, St. Louis.

He is the author of several books of poetry and prose:  (

IMG_20140417_132323On loan from The Osage Tribal Museum in Pawhuska, Oklahoma ( the 2,229 Exhibit at St. Louis University Museum of Art commemorates a spiritual relationship that began with Jesuit missionaries ministering to the Osage Nation from the 17th century.

By virtue of the missionaries’ very careful registration of Osage marriages and baptisms, the U.S. Government in 1906 recognized for land and natural resources allotment 2,229 men, women and children whose descendants continue to benefit from deeds related to those records.***

The Osage people were forced to move three times in forty-six years by the U.S. Government, finally arriving back in Oklahoma from which they had earlier been removed.


Pawhuska, Oklahoma is the capital of the Osage Nation. The 2,229 Exhibit contains traditional clothing, Osage genealogical records and scores of photographs depicting original allottees and their family members. (


Left to right front: Josephine Watson (Wah-hrah-lum-pah #226, Joseph Cox (Wah-tsa-ah-tah, #167), Jennie Spencer Red Eagle Long, #155. Back: Amanda Claremore, allottee #308, Celia Cox Pryor (A-non-to-op-pe, #166).

Begun in 1999, The Osage Tribal Museum Allottee Collection is now sixty per cent complete.

pierre-jean_de_smet_-_evamgelizadorA third floor gallery adjacent to the 2,229 Exhibit contains photographs of the most powerful Jesuit advocate western tribal nations had in the United States, the great Belgian missionary, Fr. Pierre Jean De Smet; along with the black robe by which he became famous, and the beautifully hand-made, Plains Indian coat that Fr. De Smet so proudly and humbly wore.

A short, three block walk north of St. Louis University, an exhibit titled Imagining the Founding of St. Louis was (and continues ongoing through summer) on the second floor of the Sheldon Galleries  at 3648 Washington Blvd.


Culled from private collections and collections of The St. Louis Mercantile Library, The St. Louis Art  Museum, The St. Louis Science Center, and The Osage Tribal Museum in Pawhuska, it provides a powerful context for the evolution of St. Louis from an ancient tribal capital to “The First City of the New West,”**** as a result of mutual friendship and partnership among native people and the French and Creoles of Saint Louis.

IMG_20140417_141401The exhibit in The Sheldon Galleries ( includes pottery, early maps, artifacts, sculpture, textiles, oil and watercolor paintings, and the hand-colored lithograph on the left by Thomas L. McKenney after Charles Bird King’s painting of Mo-han-go, an Osage woman with her child, first published in History of the Indian Tribes of North America, 1838.

From trade beads to bear claw collars they leave a splendid impression of the transcultural relations that made early St. Louis such a rich and diverse settlement.

On Thursday, April 3rd the Chatillon-DeMenil Foundation ( hosted an overflow crowd in the Carriage House.

Osage Principal Chief Scott BigHorse delineated some of the family ties between the Osage and French in early St. Louis, including the Chatillon and DeMenil families, and the impact his nation had on the founding and rise of St. Louis.

p013161Chief Bighorse explained the Osage approach to change, and how their ability to adapt to and assimilate aspects of other cultures, coupled with their determination to be agents of change themselves allowed the Osage not only to survive but to flourish.

This adaptability may have been impacted by their habitation of the Middle Waters where rivers converged and so many different people and cultures intersected.

The garden beyond the Cafe DeMenil was transformed with celebratory lights on April 3rd that lent the Chatillon-DeMenil Mansion’s STL250 Birthday Cake a silvery glow.

Standing: Marion Coshehe, allottee. Seated: unknown girl and Hope Coshehe (Wah-kon-tah-he-um-pah, allottee #573).


As tornado sirens went off all over St. Louis, Osage guests from Oklahoma and the large crowd of St. Louisans there to welcome them, hurriedly retired to the mansion to finish their wine, secure in the knowledge that if tornadic winds circled DeMenil Place they could all take refuge in the cave below; some things in St. Louis not having changed appreciably since well over the 250 years we’re celebrating in 2014.

Special thanks to Kathryn Redcorn of The Osage Tribal Museum in Pawhuska, OK for permission to publish the three photos above from the museum’s 2,229 Allottees Collection. 


References: * Osage Life and Legends – author: Bob Liebert; ** Louis F. Burns -; ND ***Osage Chief Scott BigHorse;****Frederick Fausz – Founding St. Louis, First City of the New West; and Imagining the Founding of St. Louis – exhibit book published by the Sheldon Art Galleries St. Louis.

IMG_20140417_131959Illustration Credits: Tal-lee and Fort Clark – Karl Bodmer – in the public domain; Map of the Great Osage Trail/Sante Fe Trail – in the public domain at; Fort Orleans Missouri Mural from the Missouri State Capital Building – in the public domain at; Book Cover of Winning the Dust Bowl by Carter Revard, University of Arkansas Press.

Photography Credits: Mississippi River – Efmo_View_from_Fire_Point -in the public domain at; 3 Allottee Photographs from The Osage Tribal Museum Archives, Pawhuska, OK; Garden of the Chatillon-De Menil Mansion – Thomas Kavanaugh, Sr., Cell Phone Photographs of the 2,229 Exhibit at St. Louis University Museum of Art, Fr. De Smet’s Coat at St. Louis University Museum of Art, and Imagining the Founding of St. Louis Exhibit at The Sheldon Art Galleries – Maureen Kavanaugh, author of this blog.


About stltourguide

I am a walking tour and narrated coach tour guide in St. Louis, Missouri specializing in the history of the area.
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2 Responses to The Wah-Zah-Zhi, People of the Middle Waters

  1. Mary Seematter says:

    Great post about little known history. Loretto Sisters ministered to the Osage in Kansas until they left. Then in OK from 1918 til 1942. Several Loretto sisters attended the recent 250 birthday event at SLU. The Osage honored Loretto with the gift of a blanket.

    Mary Seematter


    • stltourguide says:

      Thank you, Mary! And thank you for adding this important history of the relationship between Loretto Sisters and the Osage!Please feel free to elaborate. I would love to read more. Where will the blanket go?

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