Negotiating the Middle Waters: Oil and Water Among the Osage and Standing Rock Sioux


By Kevin Briceland:

The case of the Osage Nation of Oklahoma during the early nineteenth century illustrates how the expropriation and erosion of Indigenous landbases pose irrevocable threats to the sovereignty and survival of Indigenous peoples. Nearly a century after avaricious non-Osages murdered Osage tribal members over oil headrights, members of the Standing Rock Sioux Nation of North and South Dakota protested the dangers oil extraction and pipelines posed to the tribe’s water supply and sacred sites. The cases of the Osage and Standing Rock Sioux represent a historical continuum in which Indigenous claims to land, and by extension sovereignty, are contested via the channels of settler-colonialism and, its successor, American capitalism.

The physical environment has long played an integral role in the lives of the Osage. Historically, Osage ancestral homeland encompassed the watersheds of the “Missouri, Mississippi, Ohio, Tennessee, and Illinois” rivers.[1] The pervasive influence of water in Osage life is reflected in the Osage origin story. According to Osage citizen and scholar John Joseph Matthews, the Osage began as “Water People,” “Land People, and “Sky People.”[2] The Osage referred to themselves as Ni-U—Kon-Ska or “People of the Middle Waters.” [3] During the nineteenth century, the Osages ancestral land base was eroded via a series of treaties with the United States government, and the tribe endured relocation throughout the Upper South and Midwest, before finally settling in the region encompassing present day Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Missouri.

In 1906, the Osage Reservation encompassed approximately 1.5 million acres of rolling bluestem grasslands dotted with oak and hickory trees along the north-central portion of present day Oklahoma. Osage resettlement in Indian Territory was arranged in accordance with an 1866 U.S. treaty with the Cherokee Nation following the Civil War. The 1866 Reconstruction Treaty guaranteed the U.S. government the right to “settle friendly Indians in any part of the Cherokee country west of 96 degrees,” and, in 1868, the Osage negotiated purchase of their “new and permanent home” west of the ninety-sixth meridian for twenty-five cents per acre.[4] One hundred and forty-six years later, Osage tribal ownership of the original 1.5 million acre reservation was reduced to less than four percent.[5]

The systematic exploitation and dispossession of the Osage was the result of, what American Indian scholar Donald L. Fixico termed, “the accelerating demands for…natural resources and the pressures of capitalism.”[6] Between 1910 and 1930, the Osage accumulated more wealth from “black gold” than was produced by all nineteenth-century American gold rushes combined.[7] U.S. government intervention in the management of tribally held land and mineral rights, as outlined in the language of the Osage Allotment Act of 1906, precipitated a horrific episode in the 1920s in which Osage tribal members were deliberately targeted and murdered for their mineral headrights.

In their protest of the Dakota Access Pipeline, the Standing Rock Sioux sought to forestall any physical harm to tribal members because of mineral exploration. The Standing Rock Sioux occupy reservation lands guaranteed the tribe under the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie, lands in which the Missouri River provides the tribe’s primary source of drinking water. Similar to the Osage, oil formed the basis for broader discourse on tribal sovereignty, treaty-making, and competing conceptions of land possession and usage. However, in the case of the Standing Rock Sioux, tribal officials opposed to the construction of the pipeline on tribal land contend that to allow the pipeline is to compromise not only the sovereignty of the Standing Rock Sioux, but also challenges the basic survival needs of tribal members. In an interview with National Public Radio, Standing Rock Sioux Chairman Dave Archambault II asserted in response to proponents of the pipeline, “You are disturbing our sacred places, and you are threatening our way of life, threatening our water.”[8] One particularly significant aspect of the Standing Rock Sioux pipeline was the formation of a temporary prayer and peaceful resistance community known as Oceti Sakowin, the first gathering of its kind since “before the Battle at the Little Big Horn”[9]. Oceti Sakowin is emblematic of the cultural adaptations Indigenous communities employ in the defense of land and sovereignty.

The resistance and resilience displayed by Standing Rock Sioux in their opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline provides an insightful corollary to the hardships endured by the Osage during the “Osage Reign of Terror.” Historically, economic penetration has constituted an essential element of the settler-colonial process. The expropriation of oil in both cases represents a continuation of settler-colonialism in which resources as economic assets are prioritized over the health and safety of Indigenous communities. The two cases combine to demonstrate the intricate relationship Indigenous peoples maintain with the physical environment, as well as the threatening implications posed by greed and external exploitation. In the Standing Rock Sioux’s ongoing struggle over oil and water, Archambault II summarized the tribe’s (and by extension many other Indigenous nations’) perspective, stating; “We’ve given our Black Hills that had gold. We’ve given our lands for farming and agriculture. We have given our river bottoms… and it has been at our expense, so that the nation can benefit.”[10]  During the Standing Rock protests, the Osage nation volunteered support in the form of blankets, flashlights, and batteries. Osage Principal Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear offered his support and called on “people everywhere” to reconsider whether “ the earth be used up by the human race or should we respect the limits of the earth?”[11]


[1] Louis F. Burns, “Osage (tribe),” Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, accessed April 26, 2017,

[2] J. C. Mathews, The Osages: Children of the Middle Waters (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1961).

[3] Burns, Osage, Encyclopedia.

[4] W.S. Fitzpatrick, comp., Treaties and Laws of the Osage Nation (Cedar Vale, Kansas: Cedar Vale Commercial, 1895), 27-38, accessed March 25, 2017,

[5] Chris Casteel, “Oklahoma’s Osage Nation Signs Up for Land Buy-Back Program,” NewsOK, May 29, 2015, accessed March 25, 2017,

[6] Donald L. Fixico, The Invasion of Indian Country in the Twentieth Century: American Capitalism and Tribal Natural Resources (Niwot, Colorado: University Press of Colorado, 1998), Preface.

[7] Corey Bone, Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture (Oklahoma City, Oklahoma: Oklahoma Historical Society, 2009), s.v. “Osage Oil.”

[8] “Standing Rock Sioux Chairman Dave Archambault II On Army Corps Decision,” interview by Michael Martin, National Public Radio, December 4, 2016, accessed April 1, 2017,

[9] “Oceti Sakowin,” Stand With Standing Rock, accessed April 2, 2017,

[10] “Standing Rock Sioux Chairman Dave Archambault II, interview, National Public Radio.”

[11] “Osage Nation Joins Support Efforts for Sioux Tribe at Standing Rock in Pipeline Protest,” Osage Nation, January 30, 2017, , accessed April 28, 2017,


About the author: Brian King

Brian D. King lives in Oklahoma and is a writer and blogger who studies and teaches English. He earned his bachelor's degree in Political Science from Brigham Young University, and he is currently working on his graduate degree in English in Oklahoma.

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