Nearly three decades ago, a young assistant chief of the Osage Nation made a visit to the Jesuit Archives in St. Louis, Mo. He had heard about a cache of 19th century documents related to the Osage, and he wanted to see them for himself.
What he discovered was a treasure.
The Osage collection in the Jesuit Archives of the Central United States contains correspondence and administrative records of the Jesuit Mission to the Osage Nation, established in 1847 near what is now St. Paul, Kansas. But of much great significance were the documents in the Osage language, including a dictionary, the Bible, two versions of the Lord’s Prayer and the Sign of the Cross. There’s even a letter to Pope Leo XIII in the Osage language regarding the canonization of Kateri Tekakwitha.
“The incredible treasure here is the (Osage) language, now on the verge of extinction,” said Geoffrey Standing Bear, principal chief of the Osage Nation.
Alexandra Bisio, assistant archivist, explains, “The Jesuits at the Mission took great pains to create documents in the Osage language. These are some of the only Osage language documents extant.”
The Osage and the Jesuits share a history from as far back as 1823, when the first Jesuit missionaries came to the St. Louis area. They taught the Osage, and most of the tribe became Catholic. Later, when the Osage had been forced to move to Kansas, they asked for Jesuits as their faith leaders.
Today, a high percentage of Osage remain Roman Catholic. The Osage word for priest is “Sho-minka” – derived from the name of one of the first Jesuit priests sent to the mission, Fr. John Shoenmakers.
“The documents are an amazing revelation of what our people were thinking and doing,” Chief Standing Bear said. “This collection is historically and culturally important, but also it reinforces our faith in our ancestors’ decisions about our faith.”
In addition to the official documents, the archives contain ancient Osage legends as told to the priests, legends which had been lost through the generations.
When he became principal chief, in 2014, Chief Standing Bear followed up on his discovery from 1990. He sought and received funding from the Osage Nation Foundation to pay for the preservation and digitization of the documents in the Osage language.
Some of that funding will pay for the purchase of a large digital scanner that will remain with the Jesuit Archives and Research Center as a gift from the Osage Nation.
Once preservation is complete, the records will be safe to handle again. Digitization will allow them to be shared online for greater accessibility. Chief Standing Bear hopes original materials or copies will be displayed in the Osage Nation Museum in Pawhuska, Okla.
“This is what archives do,” Bisio said. “They make history accessible and help people reconnect with their past.”
This priceless collection is just a small fraction of the collections that will be available to researchers at the new Jesuit Archives and Research Center now under construction in St. Louis. It will replace the existing facility to create additional space for the hundreds of thousands of documents, maps, letters, photographs, artwork and objects that have been collected by archivists and scholars throughout the United States. The new archives and research center will bring all of these historical treasures together in one place.
It will also provide space for exhibitions and meetings, making its treasures more accessible to more people.
You can support the effort to “Engage our Past and Animate our Future.” Donate to the ongoing capital campaign here, or contact John Fitzpatrick, provincial assistant for advancement, at email@example.com or 1-800-325-9924.
Photo top left and on home page are by photographer Matt Barnard, and used with the permission of the Tulsa World.