Osage Women and Empire: Gender and Power by Tai S. Edwards
By Tai S. Edwards. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2018. vii + 199 pp. Illustrations, maps, bibliography, index. $24.95, paper.
Tai S. Edwards's Osage Women and Empire is a strong example of reading against the archival grain to challenge common narratives. Her book weaves together core texts in Osage Nation history, including Francis La Flesche, James Dorsey, Willard Rollings, mission registers, expedition reports, and historical journals, to construct a picture of the contributions Osage women made to building and maintaining an empire during the nineteenth century. She argues that Osage women's contributions as creators, that is, through childbirth, farming, and preparing animal hides for clothing, offered them equal status, despite being part of a "warrior" society. She describes this gender complementarity, "where men and women performed typically separate but equally valued tasks" (3), as existing throughout Osage society, including in the "priesthood," as well as spanning hundreds of years and extensive colonial impositions.
In addition to her discussions of historical gender roles, Edwards's book also challenges some common stereotypes about Indigenous peoples. Her depiction of an Osage empire as relying on territorial occupation, diplomacy, land cultivation, and trade powerfully challenges [End Page 111] narratives of terra nullius, which continue to prevail in American popular culture and are enshrined in US constitutional law. Furthermore, her discussion of Osages' ability to continuously adapt yet maintain both a core sense of themselves as a people, and a core set of values, is a powerful blow to colonial narratives of erasure and assimilation.
While Edwards's book is a compelling read in its narrative cohesion, such a singular account creates an overly simplified narrative of who the Osage were during this period. The work does glean a great deal from the archives, but it relies too much on refuted secondary sources and includes material that needs far more context and analysis. Furthermore, it does not appear to include any oral history with living Osages. Oral histories could have provided Edwards with additional insight not only into a broader set of historical practices and values, but also into contemporary Osage women's dances, which have taken place in the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Edwards's book does ultimately contribute to Osage survivance, as she fundamentally demonstrates how colonially imposed "changes did not indicate the elimination of Osage identity or nationhood" (130).
University of Washington