| The Heath Anthology of
American Literature, Fifth Edition
John Joseph Mathews (Osage)
John Joseph Mathews appears on the tribal roll as
one-eighth Osage. He was acutely aware of his mixed-blood status as well as the
changes that were overtaking reservation life in Indian Territory, later
Oklahoma. After a varied youth during which he received degrees in natural
sciences from the University of Oklahoma and Oxford and served as a flight
instructor in aviation’s infancy during World War I, he returned to Pawhuska,
Oklahoma, and turned his intellect and talent to a life of public service and
writing. His first book, Wah'kon-tah: The Osage and The White Man’s Road
(1929), became a Book-of-the-Month Club bestseller.
title of his only novel, Sundown (1934), reflects Mathews’s judgment that the
traditional tribal life was passing away forever in Oklahoma. The novel is
about young Challenge “Chal” Windzer, born to a progressive-minded father who
hopes his son will be strong enough to make a very uncertain future full of
change. The novel’s plot is roughly autobiographical. Unlike Mathews, however,
Chal returns from the University of Oklahoma and flight training in World War I
and is unable to fit into his community, or find a meaningful vocation, or
resist the blandishments of alcohol and other Anglo corruptions. The black oil
derricks that ebb and flow ominously across Osage land symbolize the fatal
consequences of the instant wealth brought by the exploitation of Indian
resources. In the first of the passages that follows, Mathews draws a keenly
insightful picture of the kinds of changes that were coming to the reservation.
In the second, Chal has returned home to find his community expiring in the
last trickle of money and alcohol from the oil boom. Though he is inspired by
Roan Horse’s example, his mother’s sad but more knowledgeable evaluation of his
character suggests that there is little hope for her son to fulfill his dream.
Andrew O. Wiget|
New Mexico State University
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Native American Authors Project
Brief biography and a collection of digitized books available for reading online.
Terry P. Wilson, "Osage Oxonian: The Heritage of John Joseph Mathews," Chronicles of Oklahoma 59, 1981: 264-93