Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Mathews’s objective, realized as far as his readers are concerned with some grace and a high level of interest, is to depict the victimization of a vulnerable American Indian culture by forces that a majority of non-Indian Americans historically have defined as progress. Repeated descriptions of the march of the oil derricks through Osage lands symbolically traces the flight of an arrow that lodges ever more deeply and fatally in the heart of Osage society.

As Mathews constantly reminds his readers, accompanying the inexorable march of the derricks came the white men who mined the earth. Whether motivated by good intentions aimed at bringing the Osage into conformity with mainstream American society or driven by witless adventuring and greed, their impact was devastating. During the latter part of the nineteenth century, as a consequence of intermarriages, whites had already divided the Osage among themselves. There were mixed-bloods, such as Chal, whose acceptance by full-bloods was at best grudging, however appreciative mixed-bloods were of the tribe’s ways and the beauty of its perception of the world of the Osage gods. Children of intermarriage such as Chal were almost predestined to inferior status in the culture of each parent.

For the Osage, Mathews emphasizes, the fruits of white technological progress proved as catastrophic as did the planting of their personal seeds. Oil royalties appended to the annuities that the Osage already received from the federal government reportedly made them the wealthiest tribe in the world. In this regard, their situation differed dramatically from that of most American Indian groups. Most American Indians who clung to tribal customs were impoverished by contact with white society. The results of Osage wealth, nevertheless, were equally calamitous.

Mathews’s descriptive powers evoke a sense of loss, a feeling that inevitable change is not necessarily for the better. The price paid for the Osage’s share of progress was a loss of intimacy with the world of living things and sentient objects surrounding them. The fact that the choices between their traditional worldview and “the white man’s road” confused and disillusioned many of the Osage reinforces Mathews’s implication that white people too have frequently apprehended their losses and have often been confused and distraught by the many forks in the road.