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Essay

Witnesses

By February 26, 2021 11 Comments
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“What places do I really have to see when I’m here?” I asked the woman behind the desk at the Osage visitor’s center.

“You must see our church,” she said, smiling.

Clearly, she was at least part Osage. I liked the way she’d pushed her church at me–“our church,” she said. I knew she meant the tribe’s. 

Our church,” is Immaculate Conception, Pawhuska, Oklahoma, a red-brick cruciform built in 1910 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.

When I drove up, the doors were locked, but the office posted a number so I called. A woman with a pleasant voice told me the church was closed for the holiday weekend, but she’d meet me anyway. That was nice, and I told her so. 

By the time she arrived and we got inside, a half-dozen others had joined us, a family from Colorado on their way to a ball game. Thought they’d stop, they said. So, there we stood in the nave ready to tour. 

Our silver-haired, dark-eyed docent was linked to the region by blood, by DNA, she said. She was part Osage, but born and reared in Dallas because many years before, her grandma had left Osage County, afraid of being murdered. 

I’d read the book. I knew the story. 

“You know what happened around here a century ago?” she asked the folks in football jerseys, who shook their heads. She turned to me. I’d met her only five minutes earlier. “You tell them,” she said pointing. It wasn’t a question. It was a command. 

I was stunned. The story was so much hers. It took me weeks to begin to believe that she chose not to tell it because it was so much hers.

A rash of unsolved murders in the early 1920s brought in the fledgling FBI in to investigate multiple deaths of Osage men and women who’d become unimaginably wealthy when oil gushed from wells drilled into tribal lands. In 1925, little Pawhuska, Oklahoma, had a Rolls Royce dealership–and dozens of dead Indians. White men murdered a gallery of Osage people, mostly women, for their money. The story our tour guide wanted me to tell the tourists is as unbelievable as it is horrifying, explained most recently in David Grann’s Killers of Flower Moon, (reviewed on these pages previously by Rebecca Korselman).

When I was finished, the tourists had trouble knowing where to look. Our tour guide thanked me with yet another smile and pointed immediately at Immaculate Conception’s pride-and-joy, a stained-glass portrait of a Dutch-born priest named Father John Shoenmakers bringing the divine light of Christ to the Osage people. She was proud to say that her people needed Rome’s special approval for that window because it featured Native men and women who were still alive back then and were therefore, by some papal edict, not to be so honored in stained glass. The Osage won that tussle; so today, if you visit Immaculate Conception, your guide will most certainly point at the north window with great pride.

The Colorado bunch had to get to the game, they said, so they left.

Once I was alone, my guide walked me over to the far side of the church to show me a dedicatory note at the bottom of one of the stained-glass windows, the one endowed to honor the memory of a woman named Sybil Bolton. She pointed, stared. “She was one of them.”

Later I read that Sybil Bolton was a young Osage girl who learned to play the harp at the exclusive East Coast boarding school she’d attended. Back home, at the age of 21, Ms. Bolton died mysteriously with her baby at her side. She was buried in an ermine coat.

The silver-haired docent said only that “Sybil Bolton was one of those who was killed.” 

The continuing horror of the Osage “reign of terror,” almost a century ago is that the whole community lives with it. Great-grandchildren of killers go to school with the great-grandchildren of victims. It’s not a story that’s easy to hear, nor easy to tell.

Next week, Martin Scorsese will be there, as will Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro, and, most recently, Jesse Plemons. They will be making a movie. When it comes out, keep an eye out for the stained glass at Immaculate Conception.

I can’t but wonder if a movie with the billing created by those stars will help the people of Pawhuska talk about what happened 100 years ago. Maybe. Then again, maybe not.

Justice, like forgiveness, is most often at the far end of a long and winding road.

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.

11 Comments

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    Thank you. Another wonderful and terrible story of original Americans, first nations. Those windows must be Munich-style Mayer windows, although they aren’t listed on the Franz Mayer page, but I can think of at least one other church with Mayer windows not on the Mayer page. Look at the face painting, that’s Mayer work.

  • Helen P says:

    I’m still trying to get past the need for a papal edict to portray God’s native peoples who were still alive.

    This story wrenched my heart…again.

  • Jon Lunderberg says:

    You’re essay brought tears to my eyes. Thank you for helping us see the stories.

  • Jan Zuidema says:

    Thank you for linking a heartbreaking story of murder and greed, as told in the book, to the lingering scars that still remain. Yet there is pride and solace found in faith and place. Beautiful.

  • David E Stravers says:

    Wow. A story we need to hear.

  • Lori Keen says:

    I recently read Flowers of the Killer Moon and once again found myself thinking “they didn’t teach us this in school.” So many murdered and “we” didn’t think it was worth telling the story. Thank you for sharing the story here.

  • CHARLES W VANNETTE says:

    Thank you Jim.

  • Pam Adams says:

    Jim, Thank your for another story where we are made to reflect on our white singlemindedness to keep out others who are children of God.

  • AnitA Cirulis says:

    I read that book, Jim. Thank you for telling us about this church. I hope to visit it someday.

  • Rowland Van Es, Jr. says:

    All they taught us about “Indians” in school every year is that they gave us some food for thanksgiving.

  • Christopher Poest says:

    Thank you.

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