While last year’s filming of “August: Osage County” spotlighted the picturesque region, it was hardly the first time Pawhuska has been a focal point of artistic attention.
The places and people of the Osage have been highlighted in multiple novels by John Joseph Mathews, a native of Pawhuska. His five novels published between 1932 and 1961, evoke the spirit of the land, its inhabitants and their colorful history.
Today, Mathews’ legacy is evident not only in his acclaimed literary accomplishments but in the existence of Pawhuska’s Osage Tribal Museum, which he was instrumental in developing.
Mathews was born in 1894 on Osage Agency Hill in Pawhuska to a white mother and a banker father, who was one-quarter Osage. While attending public school, Mathews would ride a horse through the Osage Hills, developing an appreciation for his “native culture and terrain,” according to Oklahoma State University’s digital library.
Mathews attended the University of Oklahoma before enlisting as a pilot in the Army Air Corps. He made this decision despite the objections of Osage Agent George Wright, who discouraged Osage youth from joining the military.
According to a booklet produced by Literary Landmarks Register, Mathews refused the offer of a Rhodes Scholarship and went to Oxford University on his own and graduated in 1923 with a degree in natural sciences. He became the first Oxford graduate of American Indian descent and studied international relations at the University of Geneva in Switzerland while the League of Nations was in session after World War I.
But it was an influential hunting trip to North Africa in the late 1920s that moved Mathews to reflect on his native soil and the people who inhabited it. According to the OSU digital library, after observing tribal rituals in Africa, Mathews felt compelled to return to Pawhuska, where he started “talking to the old men” and became devoted to preserving Osage culture.
While living in the Osage Hills, Mathews became a rancher and writer, penning his first book, “Wah’kon-Tah” which described the years after the Osage Indians were removed from the Kansas reservation to Indian Territory.
The historical narrative was published in 1932 by the University of Oklahoma Press and was the first university press book selected for the book-of-the-month club. It sold 50,000 copies in its first year and in the depths of the Great Depression. Soon afterward, Mathews alluded to the political, social and economic events in Osage County over a 30-year-period in his 1934 published work, “Sundown.”
Known as the “most illustrious Osage man of letters,” Mathews was also recognized outside the literary world. He was appointed to the Oklahoma State Board of Education and elected to the Osage Tribal Council, often serving in the role of tribal spokesman and taking part in a reorganization of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Yet, the Literary Landmarks Register states his proudest moment came in the 1938, when he founded the Osage Tribal Museum in 1938. One of his favorite passions was regaling visitors with “funny stories of getting some of the old chiefs to sit and have their portraits painted by WPA artists in the 1930s.”
After living alone in the Osage Hills for 10 years, Mathews wrote his third book, “Talking to the Moon” in 1945. The 12-chapter book is regarded as a “Thoreau-like” account of living in Osage County.
As much as he enjoyed living in his quaint stone ranch house surrounded by blackjacks in the heart of Osage County, Mathews often traveled, and during the 1940s, he spent time in Mexico doing research on Indian culture with funds from two successive Guggenheim grants, according to the LLR.
Mathews’ only attempt at writing a biography came in 1951, when the University of Oklahoma Press published the “Life and Death of an Oilman: The Career of E. W. Marland.” The book focused heavily on Oklahoma history and politics through the life of the founder of Conoco Oil Company and Oklahoma governor.
A decade later, Mathews’ final book was published, culminating a 30-year long oral history project. The LLR acclaims “The Osages: Children of the Middle Waters” as the best single history of any American Indian Nation … of how the United States has dealt with Osages, and vice versa.” As a result, Mathews received an award of merit from the American Association of State and Local History.
At the time of his death in 1979, Mathews was working on his autobiography. He is buried in a garden beside his home near Pawhuska.
In honor of his work in preserving the history of Oklahoma and Osage,the Oklahoma Historical Society posthumously inducted Mathews into the Oklahoma Historians Hall of Fame in 1996.
More recently, Mathews and the Osage Tribal Museum were honored as an Oklahoma Literary Landmark by the Friends of Libraries in Oklahoma joining, seven Oklahoma Literary Landmark sites across the state.