Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 13, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 405

Although Sundown is a semiautobiographical novel, its author did not follow the sad route of his protagonist, Chal Windzer. Mathews, like fellow Osages Clarence Tinker, Sylvester Tinker, and Maria Tallchief, distinguished himself in several ways. He was a pilot in World War I. Early in the postwar years, he was graduated from the University of Oklahoma and pursued study at Sewanee, the University of Oxford, and the University of Geneva. After a few years in ranching and real estate, he rejoined the Oklahoma Osage, became a tribal councilman, and was soon recognized as one of the Osage’s principal spokespeople and their preeminent historian.

Publication of his Wah’Kon-Tah: The Osage and the White Man’s Road (1932) brought him and the Osage national attention. It was the first university press book to be chosen as a Book-of-the-Month Club selection. (A paperback edition was republished by the University of Oklahoma Press in 1981.) Appearing two years later, Sundown was a literary plea for public acknowledgment of the Osage’s fate and, by implication, of the plight of most American Indians. By the early 1930’s, the Osages, like millions of other Americans caught in the grip of the Great Depression, had fallen on hard times, though they remained far less impoverished than most American Indians. The “Great Frenzy,” the oil boom of the 1920’s, had collapsed, and royalties had diminished to a trickle. A series of related and widely publicized murders, the “Osage Reign of Terror,” deepened the pall over reservation life. However traumatic, these events posed opportunities for Mathews, since the entire nation was reexamining its traditional values.

Mathews’s literary and historical skills, joined to the talents of others such as John Collier, an American Indian whom President Franklin Roosevelt appointed Commissioner of Indian Affairs, and Sylvester Tinker, helped to win substantial appropriations for Indian Emergency Conservation Work. Far more important, particularly since Mathews was keenly aware of his tribe’s dissolution, were his contributions in setting the stage for passage of the Wheeler-Howard Bill, enacted in 1934 as the Indian Reorganization Act. Ostensibly repudiating past assimilationist policies, the act acknowledged the intrinsic worth of American Indian cultures and sought to reestablish tribal values and revitalize tribal life. To a considerable degree it was successful.

Meanwhile, Mathews continued with his Osage histories, which were completed in his beautiful and masterful The Osages: Children of the Middle Waters (1961), perhaps the finest American Indian history produced for any tribe.

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