- Twenty Thousand Mornings: An Autobiography by John Joseph Mathews
by John Joseph Mathews , edited and
with an introduction by Susan Kalter
University of Oklahoma Press , 2012
At the time of his death in the spring of 1979, John Joseph Mathews had long been a cause célèbre on the Osage Nation Reservation, both for his sublime writing and for his activist work for the Nation. Not only did he serve on the Osage National Council, but he was instrumental in helping to create the first Indian community-run museum, one that continues to provide an important service to the Osage people today. Mathews’s memory continues to be strong among the Osage people. He was one of what was back then a very small cadre of American Indian authors during the early twentieth century.
Mathews wrote several books, both fiction and nonfiction, but left unfinished a projected three-volume autobiography. Now we have at least the first volume of that autobiography—or rather, a redacted draft of the first volume, rescued from the dusty bins of the Mathews archival deposit at the Western History Collections at the University of Oklahoma. Twenty Thousand Mornings is a delightful read, and we should be grateful to Susan Kalter for retrieving and editing Mathews’s manuscript(s) that detail his early life into young adulthood.
This is certainly not the book that Mathews himself would have published. Indeed, in her editorial work Kalter redacts several different versions of Mathews’s texts. Yet this is in no way a new “John Neihardt Speaks,” even if the final version bears Kalter’s own creative stamp, a fact we should never forget even as we enjoy the sophisticated prose that in every way reflects Mathews’s voice. Kalter’s lengthy introduction forthrightly traces some of her struggle in wrestling with the different extant versions of the manuscript.
In Twenty Thousand Mornings Mathews traces his life from his earliest memories on the Osage Reservation up to the moment he finally embarks for a belated matriculation into Oxford University, a semester late due to an impulsive decision to engage a last hunting trip before leaving. The story is a fascinating one of a young mixed-blood youth, raised on the reservation in a family that expected both an intense integration with the natural world of the reservation and a sophisticated intellectual life based on education into the ways of the white world that had swallowed up the Osages and their land.
Mathews’s narrative takes us from his early education in a one-room school, to riding over the Osage hills and prairies on horseback, [End Page 88] to his early academic experience at the University of Oklahoma, to the interruption of his education by the U.S. entrance into the European “World War” and his years in the Air Service of the U.S. Army. A large segment is dedicated to those years he spent both learning to fly and as an instructor pilot teaching others. Yet, even Mathews’s descriptions of his flying experiences always reminisce about his earlier years on the Osage prairies. His eye from the sky was the same eye that rode across the prairies of the Osage, only now he was looking down on coyotes and even the hawks that he had so admired from horseback as they soared above him.
This text concludes at the end of the second decade of the twentieth century and Mathews’s departure for Oxford University. Thus, it does not detail his close attention to the remaining Osage traditional elders and their oral traditions that consumed his middle years and enabled his writing of The Osages: Children of the Middle Waters, his 1961 opus magnum on the history and traditions of the Osage. We do, however, get glimpses of his attention to these traditions even at an early age, an attentiveness that fueled his adult interest upon his return to the Osage Reservation after his academic sojourn in England and Europe. And, of course, Mathews had already published a sublime volume that covered those middle years of his life in Talking to the Moon.