Fire, Food, Fun and Dancing

By Kyle Walker / Originally published July 2, 2015 in The Bigheart Times

PAWHUSKA, Okla.—“Like a well-oiled machine” doesn’t begin to describe the efficiency with which Osage cooks prepare and deliver a hot meal for hundreds of people, indeed they’ve worked out an assembly line that would give Henry Ford a run for his money.

Cadres of women prepare many pounds of vegetables and haul out two-gallon bags of meat. The young ones set the table. On Saturday, they put out 400 places for the Pawhuska committee dinner.

Outside, other women prepare frybread while men tend to a blazing fire. Wielding long, wooden paddles, they stir the sometimes boiling contents of great metal pots, pots which must weigh 60 pounds full and are always carried by two people.

My guide to all things Osage cooking was Raymond Red Corn [Assistant Chief of the Osage Nation].

“With all these men out here, you might think they were in charge,” he told me. “But in fact this whole show is run by women. That six-foot Osage man over there—if the head cook told him to do something, he’d do it.”

The head cook in the Pawhuska camp is Asa Cunningham, who kindly let me stick my nose in the process on Friday, but was smart enough to keep me away from the important jobs.

No doubt she had a keen memory for my first appearance at the Gray Horse dances. Here I was given the simple job of chopping some cilantro for Ray’s pico de gallo, but had to be cajoled into doing it properly. This of course became a running joke.

“Ah, this pico is delicious,” someone would say. “It’s probably how the cilantro is cut!”

At the Pawhuska dances on Friday I kept to the simple things: sorting spoons, snapping green beans.

As I sorted spoons with a young woman named Lauren and her sister, they told me that normally the men work outside.

“But any help is appreciated,” they reassured me.

When I moved to the green beans, I took up a position that I wouldn’t leave for the next hour. Standing and breaking the ends off the beans, I found myself whistling absent-mindedly, something which did not go unnoticed by the rest of the group. Soon, others began to follow suit.

“Where’d you learn to whistle like that?” Jodie asked.

The only honest answer to that question was “from years of irritating my family.”

After some time, the bean team was joined by a few 12- or 13-year-olds and I began to take requests.

“Can you whistle the Harry Potter theme?”

“What about that bit from Kill Bill?”

The next day, I arrived just after sunrise and watched the men kindle a spate of fires: one massive fire that might have consumed a half cord of firewood, and four smaller fires for cooking thin strips of meat.

Henry Ford is famous for saying, “People may have the Model T in any color they like—so long as it’s black.” The operative principle at an Osage cookout seems to be, “Give the people what they want—so long as they want meat gravy, pork stream fry, corn soup and fry bread.”

And boy, do they.

Sitting with the cooks as dancers and guests finish their meals, it’s obvious that they relish the food. But then again, the cooks do have one major advantage: many of their charges have been dancing for hours in the 90-degree Oklahoma heat.