I walked into the museum and was greeted by her. She sat at the desk, surrounded by busts of ancient Osage warriors, maps, artifacts and tribal dress displayed in glass cases. “Do you have any questions?” she asked. “No,” I replied. “Not yet.” I made my way to the corner case and began mentally walking through Osage history. The voices of other visitors began to seep through my mental fog and I adjusted my angle to take on a better view. I gathered that stories were being told and wanted to hear them.
I glanced at her again as she sat behind her desk. She watched quietly as two aging white men seated on benches in the middle of the room leaned in to hear stories from the middle-aged Osage they had met in the museum. The Osage was seated on a second bench near them and was carrying two pieces of lumber. One of the white men clutched a knotted piece of Cyprus wood that had been polished by man or by Time, while the other held two books on his lap. The Osage was saying, “In order for children to properly speak the language, their pallets have to be broken. I remember my grandmother reaching her thumb up into my mouth. It hurt, but the pressure of her grip helped me bear the pain.” It appeared the meeting had been going on for a while. The stories coming from the Osage were developed and far past the getting-to-know-you stage. They had been there for a while. The woman quietly sat while the men continued to talk more. Perhaps a book was in the making. A website was mentioned. Contact information was exchanged. They stood up, shook hands, and continued to talk – the two older white men and the Osage made their way out the side door of the museum. As the glass door closed behind them a more peaceful atmosphere began to emerge. It was quiet, the voices were gone. I took in a deep breath to clear my mind and then turned my gaze back to the displays.
I couldn’t concentrate and instead turned and walked toward the woman behind the desk. “I do have a question now,” I began. “Could you please explain to me what that man meant when he talked of breaking children’s palates so they could speak Osage?” She looked into my face, smiled and sighed, then said, “Well…they don’t BREAK the palates of children. They are shaped, arched a bit by continuous prodding of their thumb so they can speak different words in Osage. There is a nasal area you have to use in order to say some of the words.” She demonstrated with two examples. “He was telling lots of stories about his grandmother, but she died when he was four. I don’t know if he could remember all the things he said right.”
I smiled. She was giving him the benefit of the doubt while trying to help me correct a misconception. “His grandmother’s funeral was special,” she continued. “The pastor was giving the sermon and while he did, a rain cloud made its way over the burial area. Then it rained, and when the sermon finished, it stopped raining. Rain means something to the Osage.”
I walked across the room, sat down my things, leaned on the glass case in front of her. “What do you mean?” I asked. Then she said…
There are special signs. They mean things to honor the dead.
My great-uncle was a chief. When he died, a flock of eagles circled in the sky
to tell him goodbye.
My grandmother got a double-rainbow.
Sometimes animals are sent. They are sent by spirits to do things.
One time a marmot came around here when the council was getting ready to change leadership.
He came around several times, and when they held the meeting outside, he stayed and
listened the entire time. After it was over, we didn’t see him anymore.
Sometimes it’s not animals, although most of the time it is. Sometimes
its just spirits. Our water fountain hasn’t worked for years.
When our new governor (tribal) was being elected, it started rattling and
making a terrible noise.
The day they had the assembly and he spoke, the pipes rattled
the entire time the meeting was taking place. When they
begin to moan, something’s going on. But it’s good that
he was elected, because our rolls at that time were down
to only one person. Now they’re back to 12 or 15 thousand.
If it weren’t for him, we might not have a tribe…
As she explained detail after detail my mind drifted back to an artist I had met earlier that day. He was of the Skywalker clan, and one of his clan symbols was the dragonfly. He had mentioned that you had to watch out for dragonflies because they were eavesdroppers. You needed to be careful about what you were saying if a dragonfly was around. All of the sudden, I felt like looking around the room to see if there were animals around.
I asked her name. “Pauline Allred,” she said. “Not the Al-r-e-d’s, but it’s A-L-L-r-e-d. My family is from Arkansas.” There were “no photograph” signs everywhere. I asked her if she would be willing to step outside so I could take her picture. She agreed. Earlier she had told me about an 80th birthday party recently thrown for her. About how a man came out with a big machine and played all kinds of music and taught them new dances. She dwelt on that memory several times while we talked. In my head I was wondering what the story was about her continuing to work at the museum. “If I were 80,” I thought to myself, “I wouldn’t be anywhere near work.”
I think Pauline Allred could have told me stories all day long. I know I would have listened to them. But we had to go. As I snapped the photo, I noticed white strands of her hair blowing in the breeze. She was beautiful in the sunlight and I’m so thankful I got a few minutes with her. I wanted more of her eighty years of wisdom and wasn’t satisfied with only a thirty-minute encounter. I told Pauline goodbye and thanked her again.
As for you…watch out for dragonflies. You never know if they’re on a listening mission. They might just fly back to Pauline and fill her in so she’ll have even more stories to share.
Note: This post was written by recall, so I may not be remembering the details precisely. However, I was moved by the encounter so much I had to retry and capture what I could. I’m grateful to Pauline for doing what she could to teach me during that moment ~ RDK
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