Dance is something that is important to Osages. “The Osage danced before a raid, they danced before a hunt, they danced to the beat of the drum, they danced to the prayer songs, and sometimes they just danced. What better way to tell the Osage story than through a ballet that expresses the rich culture of a warrior people that controlled a large part of what is now called the United States of America,” said project sponsor, Kathryn Red Corn.
The Osage ballet, Wahzhazhe, is a contemporary ballet that brings together unique and diverse qualities of Oklahoma history and culture: a reverence for classical ballet that was the legacy of two famous Osage ballerinas, Maria and Marjorie Tallchief, and the richness of Osage traditional music, dance, and textile arts. The creative set designs transform the stage into accurate depictions of Osage lifestyles and the costumes are created to appear as the traditional tribal clothing that was worn during the past 200 years.
The first three scenes of the ballet depict our Osage ancestors in pre-Columbian times in Missouri. Ceremony and prayer were performed before or during any daily activity. Later scenes show some of the changes that took place after European contact. Children were sent to boarding schools; their hair was cut and they were dressed in citizen clothes. In 1871, the Osages bought their own reservation and moved to what is now known as Osage County. At dawn on the day after the treaty was signed, the air was filled with lamenting cries of the old people because they would have to leave their children’s graves forever. Europeans slaughtered the buffalo and many other animals, sometimes for the sport of it, and they began to put fences up, blocking the Osage hunting range which prevented Osages from getting food, clothing and the implements that they needed for ceremonies. The clan system, which was a highly organized family system, was diminished because there was so much death and the life as they once knew it would never be the same.
For over a decade, the Osage fought the allotment, which was the US government’s way of dividing land and distributing it to individuals. When they finally acquiesced, our elders, who had seen visions of a black substance oozing from the ground, held onto our rights to the minerals estate and Osage existence was about to change. Our people became the wealthiest people in the world.
The final scene, “We Walk in Two Worlds,” shows we are a strong, courageous, and surviving people who have learned to walk in two worlds, continuing to hang onto the threads of our own culture as our daily lives force us into a society that is not our own. This scene will be danced with some of the pre-contact scene characters who will be shadowing characters dressed as contemporary Osage people of today. An Osage man with a long braid, dressed in a suit and tie, carrying a briefcase will walk across the stage. Suddenly he hears the drum and begins Indian dancing across the stage. The sun sets. The Osage way will continue.
The historical ballet provides an opportunity for young people to become involved in the creation of an artistic performance that honors their history and cultural traditions. A minimum of 50 artists will work on a variety of tasks and many youth and be provided training in costume and set construction, stage crew and dance. Costumes will be made by local artists at the Osage Nation Cultural Center in Pawhuska, OK. This will give artists and local volunteers an opportunity to gather and hear stories from our elders in the oral tradition that is prevalent in Native America. They will learn about craftsmanship and social meanings that go into the color combinations and textile art forms that are unique to the Osage people. Professional mentors, being paired with college students, will provide rich opportunities to learn and gain experience in many aspects of art production.
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