Osage artist Anita Fields has heard the origin story of how military style coats once worn by presidents, French officers and Spanish diplomats in the 1800s made their way into Osage wedding ceremonies.
“During times of foreign powers negotiating with us, as very early 1800s, the very late 1700s after the Louisiana Purchase, they were an item that they used in terms of gift when they would come to negotiate,” Fields said.
Osage men admired the coats. But, she said there was a slight problem.
“Osage men today and then were very large men with very broad shoulders,” Field said it was common for Osage men to be pushing seven feet tall. These coats, fashioned and designed for smaller men were then given to wives, daughters and sisters.
Fields wore one of these wedding coats at one time.
“My interest in the Osage wedding coat goes very far back,” Fields said.
Fast-forward more than 200 years after those initial meetings between the Osage and French and these same military style coats show up in an Osage wedding ceremony in Martin Scorsese’s movie Killers of the Flower Moon, based on David Grann’s bestselling book.
Today, Osage brides don’t wear the old wedding coats along with brightly plumed top hats. Instead, they’re given as gifts during what’s known as “paying for the drum” during the annual In-Lon-Schka dances that happen every summer.
When you get one, it’s a pretty big deal.
“Your name is called… whoever is the recipient comes up and receives the coat, takes the young lady who is wearing the coat and undresses them and underneath is a full set of Osage clothing,” Fields said, noting that the recipient then gets to keep the clothes-blanket, shirt, belt, jewelry and all.
“It’s one of the highlights for Osage people.”
Anthropologist Dan Swan wrote a book called Wedding Clothes and the Osage Community. He worked at the White Hair Memorial, Lillie Morrell Burkhart’s former home.
Paying for a drum happens when a new family is chosen as the drumkeeper for their district.
“They’re not really buying the drum or paying some sort of set fee,” Swan explained. “What they’re doing is they’re acknowledging this great privilege and honor that their family has received. And they’re recognizing both the previous drum keeper and his committee for bestowing that great honor on them.”
He says this practice of gift exchange is a social principle that undergirds almost every aspect of Osage society and community.
During last summer’s In-Lon-Schka, Osage elder Billie Ponca received one of those gifts when Shannon Shaw Duty and her family paid for the drum at Gray Horse. Ponca said she was not expecting to be honored.
“ I was just shocked. And I said pleasantly shocked and grateful. And I just don’t know what else to say except thank you, you know, tremendously, because I really wanted one.”
The coat Billie received belonged to Geoffrey Standing Bear’s grandmother.
Fields is making her own wedding coats that feature Osage culture and history.
One coat is at the Eiteljorg Museum in Indiana and another is part of a traveling exhibit called Hearts of Our People.
A chartreuse colored coat tells the origin of Osage people-pictured on the inside of the coat are Osage maps, an elk and beaded figures falling from the sky.
“In a lot of versions of our creation story, you know, we came from the sky,” Fields said.
Fields also beaded stars and used ribbon work and a picture of an elk-which is another thing she noted is part of Osage creation stories.
Another bright red coat has handstitched strands of DNA onto the lapels and a photo of her great-grandfather on the inside. She also wove gold grasses at the bottom of the coat.
“It’s who makes us what we are and who we are and how we understand things,” Fields said about the DNA strands. “Our worldview is very much apparent in our clothing.“
Fields collected research, including newspaper clippings she found about anything Osage and filed them away. She also has hundreds of photographs to draw inspiration from when creating her work.
By far the biggest influence were things her grandmother Nettie White Luttrell saved. Osage women, Field says, have trunks of some of their most prized possessions like blankets, brooches and moccasins, which could be things they made or were gifts from friends.
Fields drew upon these inspirations for a blanket she made for the movie and the work like the wedding coats she creates.
The wedding coat’s place has evolved over time, but to Osages, like Anita, her family, and other Osage families, it maintains a connection to the past, present and future.
“To me, they represent our history,” Fields said.