The Osage were governed by a council of elders
known as the "Little Old Men", and by two chiefs. The Little Old Men passed
down the traditions and stories from the past. They and the chiefs settled
disagreements and made decisions about important matters, but members
of the tribe could take part in council discussions.
They cultivated crops and gathered food near their regular
villages, but each year they made several long hunting trips into the
Ozarks. They made permanent camps to which they returned every year.
The early white explorers and later the first settlers found the Osage
to be fierce and proud. The Osage tribe also had many native American
enemies. They regularly raided neighboring tribes for horses and supplies.
The Osage spent much of the year in their villages, especially
the coldest part of winter. In the winter the people lived off stored
meats, corn, roots and nuts. For amusement they held feasts and played
games. Their village "longhouses," built of wooden poles covered with
woven mats or buffalo skins, could be forty-five to one-hundred feet
long. Smoke holes built into their roofs vented their household fires.
The doorways always faced east so they could say their morning prayers
to the rising sun.
When warmer weather came, they went on long hunts. In
February or March they hunted for black bear, deer and elk; in summer,
for buffalo and deer. In the fall they hunted bear again. The fat that
the bears had put on for the winter was a source of tallow, which the
Osage used to make torches. They also hunted turkey, rabbits, squirrels,
quail, muskrat and possum. They only killed what they needed, never
more than they could use.
Women were the farmers and gatherers, men were the hunters,
but almost everyone went camping on the long hunts. Women helped butcher
and prepare the meat. They made jerky by drying meat on wooden racks;
meat dried in that way would last through the winter. The women also
made clothes, house coverings and other materials from deer, buffalo
and bear hides. Hunters made their bows from Osage orange or ash wood.
They made arrows from dogwood and arrowheads from chert stone, which
they chipped to sharpen and shape.
In April, after the bear hunt, the Osage bands would return
to their villages to plant crops. They grew corn, squash and pumpkins,
and also fished in the rivers and creeks. They used traps made of wood
or rocks placed across a stream, but they also used nets and fishing
They gathered many plant foods from the forest, the prairie
and the river: nuts, including acorns (white oak is the sweetest), hickory
nuts, walnuts and butternut; wild fruits, such as persimmon, pawpaw,
blackberries, huckleberries, and wild grape. They dug and dried roots
like sassafras, sumac, spicebush and water lotus. Besides using plants
for food and medicine, they used wood, bark, animal bones and sinew
for tools, rope and string.