Published on September 4, 2013 by Amy
John Joseph Mathews (c. 1894 – 1979) became one of the Osage Nation’s most important spokespeople and writers, and served on the Osage Tribal Council during the 1930s. He studied at the University of Oklahoma, Oxford University and theUniversity of Geneva after serving as a flight instructor during World War I.
Matthews’ first book was Wah’kon-tah: The Osage and The White Man’s Road (1929), which was selected by the Book-of-the-Month Club as their first by an academic press; it became a bestseller. His book The Osages: Children of the Middle Waters (1961) was a life work, preserving many collected stories and the oral history of the Osage.
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Mathews was born at Pawhuska, Oklahoma as the only son among five children of William Shirley and Eugenia (Girard) Mathews. His banker father was the son of John Allan Mathews, a noted trader, and Sarah Williams, the mixed-race daughter of A-Ci’n-Ga, a full-blood Osage, and “Old Bill” Williams, a noted missionary and later Mountain Man who lived with the Osage. Mathews grandparents had met in Kentucky where “Old Bill” Williams had sent his daguthers for school after A-Ci’n-Ga had died. John Joseph Mathews’ mother was Pauline Eugenia Girard, whose family had emigrated from France. One-eighth Osage by ancestry, as well as Anglo-Scots-Irish and French, the Mathews children all attended local schools in Pawhuska.
Service in World War I came before college, and John Mathews became a flight instructor and second lieutenant after time in the cavalry. Afterward, he went on to the University of Oklahoma, then studied at his own expense at Oxford University in England, graduating in 1923. He studied international relations at the University of Geneva and traveled in Africa before returning to the United States, determined to study the culture and traditions of the Osage.
In 1924 in Geneva, Mathews married Virginia Winslow Hopper. They first settled in California, where they had two children, John and Virginia. The couple divorced.
After returning to Oklahoma, where he stayed the rest of his life, Mathews married Elizabeth Hunt in 1945. She worked with him on much of his research related to the Osage and their forced migration from Missouri to Oklahoma. He considered her son John Hunt a stepson.
After his return to Oklahoma, Mathews began writing in the late 1920s and published his first book, a work of literary non-fiction, Wah’kon-tah: The Osage and The White Man’s Road (1932), with the University of Oklahoma Press. The first work by an academic press to be selected by the new Book-of-the-Month Club, the book became a bestseller through that secondary publication.
His most famous work is Sundown (1934), his only novel. The semi-autobiographical work is about Challenge “Chal” Windzer, a young Osage. After leaving home to study at the University of Oklahoma and serve in the military, Chal feels estranged when he returns to his tribal community. He suffers from alienation and hopelessness as his life takes a downward swerve. The novel is set during the turbulence of the oil boom that took place on Osage land in Oklahoma beginning in the first two decades of the 20th century, bringing great wealth to the people who had headrights. It depicts the frictions within the tribal community resulting from the bonanza, as well as the swindles and numerousmurders of Osage during the 1920s as white opportunists tried to get control of the Osage headrights.
During the 1930s and the Great Depression, Mathews was politically active within the Osage Nation. As the people took advantage of the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 and the Oklahoma Indian Welfare Act, Mathews helped the Osage Nation restore its self-government. He was elected to the Tribal Council, serving from 1934-1942. He helped found the Osage Tribal Museum, which opened in 1938 in Pawhuska.
In 1940, Mathews served as the United States representative to the Indians of the Americas Conference at Michoacan, Mexico. From 1939-1940 he lived and studied in Mexico on a Guggenheim Fellowship.
Later, he concentrated again on his writing. His work Talking to the Moon (1945) is a narrative of the ten years he spent in the “blackjacks” of his homeland, observing nature and reflecting on the influence of the environment on Osage culture. It is a combination of autobiography, philosophical treatise and the work of an amateur naturalist. Some critics compared it to Henry David Thoreau’s Walden among that author’s works.
In The Osages: Children of the Middle Waters (1961), Mathews combined his research with many oral histories collected from his people, as a way of preserving and interpreting their common culture. His Life and Death of an Oilman: The Career of E. W. Marland (1951) was his only biography; it recounts a notable figure of the oil boom who also served as governor of the state.