John Joseph Mathews

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 683

John Joseph Mathews won critical acclaim for his novel and historical works written from an Indian point of view. Mathews grew up on the Osage reservation in comfortable circumstances. His father, a quarter-blood Osage, operated a successful trading post and later founded a bank in Pawhuska; his mother was of French descent. The boy associated with traditional Osages, absorbing their culture, and learned to speak Osage. He attended private and parochial schools before enrolling in Pawhuska’s predominantly white public high school. In 1914 Mathews entered the University of Oklahoma, majoring in geology. His studies were interrupted by overseas service as an aviator during World War I, and he did not graduate until 1920.

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Although offered a Rhodes scholarship, Mathews preferred to pay his own way at Oxford, using his income from Osage oil. The Osages successfully resisted pressure to divide their reservation into individual allotments until 1906. They insisted on retaining subsurface mineral rights as communal property; income from oil royalties would be shared equally by all enrolled tribal members. Mathews’s one full-blooded Osage great-grandmother entitled him to tribal registry. Bringing in only a few hundred dollars per member initially, oil leases by 1920 returned over eight thousand dollars annually. At its peak in 1925, the year’s payment of $13,200 per headright made the Osage the richest nation on earth.

After earning a B.A. in natural science from Oxford in 1923, Mathews spent a year at the University of Geneva’s School of International Relations. He traveled widely in Europe and North Africa before returning to Pawhuska in 1929. Laban J. Miles, federal agent to the Osages during the early reservation years, willed Mathews his diaries and notes. Mathews’s first book, Wah’Kon-Tah, combined Miles’s documents with Osage oral remembrances to present a nostalgic, anecdotal portrait of differing—sometimes clashing—white and Indian cultural perspectives. A Book-of-the-Month-Club selection in November, 1932, Wah’Kon-Tah sold fifty thousand copies through the club and several thousand more in bookstores.

The commercial success of Wah’Kon-Tah led the publishing house of Longmans, Green to offer Mathews a contract for a novel. Sundown, whose mixed-blood Osage protagonist resembles Mathews, portrays younger, college-educated Indians as ambivalent toward both traditional tribal life and the surrounding white society. The novel’s hero, unable to feel at home among whites and alienated from full-bloods, vacillates between the two groups, drawn to each, yet at home in neither community. Published during the Great Depression, the novel sold few copies.

Mathews was elected to the Osage tribal council in 1932 and served two four-year terms. Because of his education and knowledge of the outside world, he was frequently chosen as council spokesman, greeting visiting dignitaries and leading delegations to Washington. Mathews was especially proud of his role in establishing the Osage Tribal Museum, the first tribally owned and operated American Indian museum.

Talking to the Moon chronicles ten years at Mathews’s home on a forest-covered ridge not far from Pawhuska. Twelve chapters, whose titles are the Osage names for moons or months, describe the natural flow of the seasons in evocative language which critics have compared to Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. In 1951 Mathews published a biography of his lifelong friend, E. W. Marland, governor of Oklahoma from 1935 to 1939.

Mathews’s most impressive book is his 826-page tribal history, The Osages. An epic, rather than a monographic study, it begins with the Osage creation story and continues to the early twentieth century. Mathews blends oral traditions from tribal informants with documentary evidence collected through extensive archival research to depict Osage history and culture. Mathews’s poetic language, his avoidance of footnotes, and his use of “inherent knowledge” irritated scholarly reviewers. In his introduction, Mathews defends his methodology by comparing himself to a paleontologist reconstructing an incomplete fossil skeleton. He asserts that both he and the paleontologist use knowledge and intuition in their work, but his personal knowledge of traditional Osage life gave him an advantage over the paleontologist, because “I, myself, had seen my dinosaur walking.” Mathews created a history of the Osages, written by an Osage, that successfully narrated Osage-white relations from an Osage cultural perspective.

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