(If you happen to read some of these articles once, then read them again a month later, you’re liable to find some changes. My intent is to keep polishing them up in the coming months until the story feels worthy of Eugene and his people. This particular article contains many pictures and anecdotes and clarifications provided by his family in Oklahoma.)
Eugene Standing Bear, of the Lakota tribe in South Dakota, graduated from Haskell Indian Nations University (then called US Indian Industrial Training School) at Lawrence, Kansas, in 1926 at age 20. Also graduating from Haskell that year was 19-year-old Freddie B. Lookout. Freddie’s father, Charlie Lookout, had driven 200 miles from Oklahoma in one of the family’s Lincoln luxury cars to attend the ceremony… but he had another, more urgent matter that would change everything for Eugene.
It started out simple enough. Eugene was sitting on the lawn eating lunch when he heard Freddie B’s voice, “There he is!” Eugene looked up and saw Freddie running toward him, his father walking quickly behind. After the two Lookouts greeted Eugene, Freddie’s dad calmly took his lunch, gave it to some youngsters nearby, and invited him to dine with them at the best restaurant in town. Everyone knew that Freddie’s rich Osage family could afford just about anything they wanted, so Eugene happily accepted.
Over lunch Charlie invited him to spend the summer on the Osage reservation as a companion to Freddie B.
Well, Eugene thought these two invitations—enjoying this lunch and spending the summer among the Osage—were just kind gestures because his father (Luther Standing Bear) and Charlie’s father (Fred Lookout) had been friends at the Carlisle school. Little did he know that the two young men, 40 years earlier, had both committed themselves to help unify and revitalize the Native American people… and Eugene would play into the plan.
Shortly after arriving in Oklahoma, Eugene was called before a meeting of the elders, where he was introduced to the chief’s daughter, Mary Lookout, Charlie’s little sister who was about Eugene’s age. The two would be married that summer, the elders told him… and so by custom Eugene was now formally engaged.
And by custom he was expected not to speak to the Elders unless spoken to. He wasn’t spoken to, but he said later he was speechless in any case.
There were a few small problems to overcome:
- There was no immediate chemistry between the young couple, (but love and commitment often grow over time).
- Eugene had no long-term visions for himself in terms of family or career, (but that’s true of many 20-year-olds who reach the age of responsibility… just part of growing up).
- And then there was the fact that Mary already had a husband who was getting accustomed to the wealth and prestige of the Lookout family… (but that marriage was already in the process of being annulled).
(Mary would tell her grandkids later that her first husband, Bill McKinley, had died in a car accident, and that’s what ended the marriage. Eugene’s account is a little different, and as you’ll see below, there were serious safety issues involving young Osage women married to white men… which supports the idea that the Lookout family might have had the first marriage annulled.)
Within a week Mary and Eugene had a traditional Osage wedding ceremony followed by blessings by a Catholic priest on the reservation.
But these were just small problems. The Lookout family and the Osage people had been facing a much bigger problem in recent years, a problem that fell on the shoulders of Fred Lookout that year.
Years earlier an Osage chief named James Bigheart, a Catholic, had been one of the most future-thinking leaders in the tribe’s history, and he was either loved and revered or hated and feared by the tribe, depending on whether you were a liberal (progressive) member or a conservative (full-blood/traditionalist) member. When oil was discovered in Osage County in 1897, “Big Jim” lobbied successfully with the government to make sure the mineral rights remained in the possession of the Osage people. Thanks to Jim Bigheart’s life mission to care for and to protect the well-being of his people in the new America, the Osage became the richest per-capita community in the world. After his death, though, the gift became something of a curse for a while.
Whether it was…
- European Inquisitors torturing and killing the Incas in the 1500s for their precious metals and gems, or
- American miners pushing the Lakota tribes out of their sacred Black Hills during the gold rush of the 1870s, or
- Uncle Sam uprooting the Southeastern tribes from their fertile lands and sending them westward along the “trail of tears” onto the drylands of Oklahoma (also in the 1870s)…
… wealth often meant trouble for the Native Americans.
Now, in the 1920s, a new “reign of terror” had befallen the Osage people as white treasure-seekers devised ways to take their oil money, including inter-marriage, murder, and a combination of the two. More than 60 murders of full-blood Osage went mostly unsolved, some perpetrated blatantly by white ranchers, businessmen, and opportunists in the area (especially around the reservation town of Fairfax). Jesse James, the Daltons, the Doolins, the Martins, Al Spencer, Frank Nash, Henry Wells, Belle Starr, Cattle Annie, and other outlaws moved to or through Osage County to grab their share of the riches. (Read more… )
Most of the bloodshed and mayhem came to an end in 1926, when the young FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) began unraveling its first big case: the Osage murders. It’s also the year that Fred Lookout, known for wisdom, integrity and faithfulness, began his 23-year stint as principal chief of the tribe, and peace and prosperity started to come together, at last, for the Osage people.
1926 is also the year when “Standingbear” and “Standing Bear” became prominent names among the Osage.
Not long after the wedding, a bank officer told Eugene George Standing Bear that he couldn’t open an account with two last names, so from that point on, for the rest of his life, he called himself Eugene George Standingbear.
(Banks: 1 Standing Bear: 0)
He and Mary had a son, George Eugene Standingbear, in 1929, who would later marry Barbara Wright and together raise four children: Geoffrey Mongrain, Eugene Sean, Patrick Spencer, and Margaret Mary Rebecca (Meg) Standingbear.
Over the years various family members would begin to reclaim the original surname, and today (2018) Geoffrey M Standing Bear is principal chief of the Osage.
After writing Eugene’s story 40 years ago, digesting it all since then, and especially while rewriting it now, it becomes clear to me that his time among the Osage was the anchor of his restless life. The Osage were not only the richest people in the world, but were also reputed to have been the tallest and finest-looking people in North America, often 6½ to 7 feet in height (according to painter George Catlin and missionary Isaac McCoy). Eugene was about 5’10” tall, his son George would be 6’2, and his grandsons would be 6’8, 6’2, and 6’1. There was some concern early on that his granddaughter Meg might grow up to be over six feet tall, too, but that didn’t happen. Meg, who was 19 years old when her dad died in 1974, is just 5’3″ today.
Eugene was welcomed into the Osage tribe with love and friendship, though it wasn’t always an easy transition.
So here are some of his anecdotes that offer insights into the man Eugene Standingbear and the Osage people.
Honeymoon night was spent in a small house on the Lookout estate. It was a red brick home with red-tiled roof and beautiful inlaid tile imported from Italy… what the Lookouts called their “family farm.” The farmhouse would soon be equipped with gas, electricity, and indoor plumbing… rare signs of wealth in those days.
Mary and Eugene were both nervous; neither had particularly wanted the wedding. There was only one bed, and neither was inclined to sleep together, so for hours they sat fully dressed on the bed, talking.
Eugene wanted to run away, and Mary could sense it. She rose, limped to the window, pulled back the shades, and said in a slow monotone, “Look there. See that car? I hope you don’t have the notion to run away. That’s my husband.”
(As a little girl, Mary had been sent to the St. Louis Mission School in Pawhuska, where she’d fallen out of a three-story window and crushed her left side, resulting in a painful limp and other physical problems.)
Eugene peered out the window to see the silhouette of a car parked in the street. Behind the wheel was a fluctuating glow from the ember of a cigarette being angrily puffed. Occasionally the ember would float downward out of view to be replaced by the dark shape of a pint bottle of whiskey.
Eugene returned to the bed, kept his clothes on, and didn’t sleep that night. By morning the car was gone.
The rich life. Soon the couple bought a $90,000 home in Pawhuska, and Eugene entered a decade of black-tie-and-tuxedo parties, bridge tournaments, and summer-long vacations in a fleet of Lincoln limousines to Colorado Springs, with stops along the way at various reservations at powwow time and at golf courses to compete in tournaments. Years later Mary would tell her kids and grandkids that she and Eugene had traveled to nearly all of the 50 states. Mary and Eugene both enjoyed drinking, but Eugene had “the alcoholic gene” that would eventually break the marriage and pull him into a life-and-death struggle in back-alley America… subject of a later article.
Golf came easy to Eugene. For several years he held the reputation of one of the top competitors on the Indian golf circuit. Every year Indians converged on Oklahoma from all across the country to vie for the Lookout Golf Trophy. Eugene won the trophy two years and was runner-up three times. Every summer he competed in the Broadmoor tournament in Colorado Springs.
One summer the Lookouts drove to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, where William and Charles Mayo performed a miraculous, first-of-its-kind series of operations on Mary’s knee, after which there was no pain and hardly any trace of a limp in her walk. Mary told her grandkids later, “I spent many months in Rochester, Minnesota, with those Mayo boys.”
Pulp magazines became all the rage in the 1920s by challenging readers’ imaginations, stirring up their hormones, and stroking their egos. Some of the more popular magazines (Argosy, Adventure, Blue Book…) sold over a million copies per issue.
Early in life Eugene loved to read stories in pulp magazines about brave pilots like flying aces of the first world war, so shortly into his first marriage he became part owner of an OX-5 biplane, the most popular airplane at the time among air force student pilots, bush pilots, corporate executives… and barnstormers.
He quickly learned to fly the plane and got into barnstorming and performing aerial stunts at airshows with his partner, Jess Smith. Flying low over towns brought people swarming out of their homes to follow the plane as it barrel-rolled toward a field outside town and descended for a smooth landing. By the time the crowd arrived, the two partners were already offering a free ride to the first excited spectator to arrive. One of them took the lucky passenger up, over the town, and back to the field… while the other partner talked the crowd up and started collecting money. Rides were a dollar apiece.
Eugene and Jess often attended air shows in Kansas and Oklahoma, taking turns doing aerial stunts for the crowds below. Climbing out of the cockpit onto the lower wing for the first time, Eugene’s legs were shaking as he grabbed the struts with an iron grip. With wind buffeting his face, it was the scariest and most exhilarating moment of his life. As he got acclimated to wing-walking, he was soon standing on the top wing… king of the world!
Oilman Frank Phillips had been fair and supportive of the Osage people during the recent “reign of terror,” and the tribe gave him the names “Gray Eagle” and “Eagle Chief” as an honorary member. Phillips offered Eugene a job as “Standingbear, pilot of Gray Eagle.” He’d first have to go through training in multi-engine aircraft… but his mother-in-law Julia put her foot down. She felt the same way most people felt at the time… that you were nuts to fly. Eugene had a family to consider, and flying big planes was too dangerous.
Eugene couldn’t argue… not just out of respect, but also because he had no say about family spending. By federal law, Osage wealth could not be controlled by non-Osage spouses of Osage tribal members; it could only be controlled by the Osage people themselves (or by their often brutal and murderous, government-appointed guardians… the main cause of the Reign of Terror mentioned earlier).
As a compromise, Eugene was allowed to get formal training on smaller, single-engine planes at nearby Garland School of Aeronautics. So every Monday he drove 60 short miles to Tulsa, spent the week there, and returned home to Pawhuska on the weekends. His flight instructor was Captain McLaughlin, 6’3 and scrappy.
The two men quickly developed a practical joke friendship. The captain would sneak into the barracks early mornings while all the students were sleeping and tip Eugene’s bed until “the Chief” tumbled to the floor. He’d jump to his feet and they’d scuffle.
Eugene quietly held a trump card, though. McLaughlin didn’t know that Eugene had arrived at the school with a year of flying experience as a barnstormer. No one at the school knew… except Eugene and the school superintendent. McLaughlin just thought Eugene was a quick learner.
When the day came for Eugene’s first solo flight, McLaughlin stood by the hangar with some last-minute advice. As the props sputtered to a roar, McLaughlin walked up to the cockpit and shouted, “Okay, Chief, take ‘er up, make a nice, easy turn, and bring ‘er in pretty!”
Eugene nodded, taxied to the end of the runway, turned around, and gunned it. Now was the time to play his trump card. He brought the plane 10 feet off the ground and headed straight for the hangar and his wide-eyed instructor. About 100 feet from the McLaughlin, he pulled back on the stick and shot up like a rocket. It was a good little stunt ship, a Great Lakes Trainer. He spiraled upward until he had enough altitude for some maneuvers, then flew a tightened loop to lose some altitude, made a turn-and-a-half spin at the end of the field to get even lower, and then fishtailed in for a shortstop landing.
As Eugene taxied slowly up to the hangar and climbed out of the cockpit, McLaughlin was furious. “That’s the stupidest gawdammed thing I ever saw! Soloing like that’ll kill ya!….”
That afternoon, the school superintendent called McLaughlin to his office to say, “I guess I forgot to mention, Captain: the Chief’s done some flying before he came here.”
New to the Garland school was a young pilot who’d flown in the first world war. Shortly after Eugene’s solo flight, the lieutenant was scheduled to train him on pulling out of spins, but he seemed a little wary…. and not just because his student already had a lot of flying experience.
Eugene said, “I’ll bet this is the first time you met a real Injun.”
“Yes, it is.”
Eugene certainly didn’t look like the stereotypical “Indian” with buckskin, feathers, and war paint. He was wearing luxurious boots of cordovan (soft goat leather), a white scarf, and leather jacket.
The lieutenant climbed into the front cockpit, Eugene into the back, and they took off in the open-cockpit biplane to try some spins.
“Turn it over to the left side!” the lieutenant shouted over his left shoulder. “Fly it into a spin and pull around about three turns!”
Heading west, the plane went into a downward spiral, made three turns, and came back out heading west. They climbed to 6,000 feet and stalled for another left spin, but a gust of wind shoved them hard to the right… so Eugene instinctively reversed the controls to send the plane into a right spin. After three spins he pushed the stick forward to bring her out. Something didn’t feel right, but before he could figure out the problem the instructor pulled the stick back.
“She’s all right! Wind ‘er up!” he shouted.
Eugene’s uneasiness grew as he followed the lieutenant’s instructions. Something was wrong. The plane was spinning downward like a maple seed until the instructor finally yelled, “All right, bring ‘er out.”
Eugene pushed the stick forward and confirmed his fears… nothing happened. The plane continued to spin faster and faster, the tail began to shake, and the lieutenant tapped his head to signal, Hands off the controls; I’ll take over.
Eugene watched hopelessly as the stick swung forward and back with no effect. The plane kept spinning faster and shaking more violently as they plunged toward the ground.
Again by instinct, Eugene grasped the stick in an iron grip with both hands and shoved it forward with every ounce of muscle. He pushed so hard that he dented the aluminum backing on the front seat… and suddenly the plane snapped out of the spin. He gaped out over a cottonwood tree and saw the distinct veins of its leaves as the plane pulled into a level flight 40 feet above the ground.
Meanwhile the mechanics and pilots at the airstrip had gathered to watch the deadly spin beyond the horizon. Several people had run to call an ambulance… even though it was obvious to all that a coroner would have been more appropriate.
There was a stunned silence as the plane climbed slowly over the horizon, and Eugene cut the throttle to glide silently onto the runway. Then he let loose the most ear-splitting war victory whoop anyone had ever heard. It was the only sound at the Garland school at that moment, and it could probably be heard for miles.
The lieutenant turned his head slowly around, his face pale as a ghost, and gaped through eyes as big as dollars at the Indian who’d just saved his life.
Later the plane was inspected to find a seemingly insignificant but near-deadly flaw. Apparently a young mechanic had aligned the rudder straight back instead of tilting it to compensate for the turn of the propeller. That was the school’s official answer: mechanic error. It couldn’t have been the result of a near-deadly practical joke….
Maybe Julia was right: People were nuts to fly. But that didn’t stop Eugene. He kept flying for a few more years… until the Great Depression brought a sudden end to the wealth of the Osage, and to the subsistence of just about everyone else in America.
In the summer of 1927 the Lookouts visited the Pine Ridge reservation where Eugene had grown up. Their visit with the Lakotas happened to coincide with a visit by President Calvin Coolidge around powwow time. The Coolidge family and a small army of Secret Service agents had come to South Dakota for a three-week summer visit that turned into a three-month vacation in and around the Black Hills.
A crowd of Lakotas had gathered near the grandstand on the powwow grounds. Most of the people, especially the full-bloods, were standoffish whenever white people visited, so there was no cheering. Just whispers of nervous anticipation.
Eugene had always been curious, never bashful, and was always drawn to the center of activity, so as the limousine approached, he loaded up his old Cine movie camera, pushed his way through the crowd, and began shooting a movie.
(Eugene had been using his fancy movie camera to film Pawhuska in its oil-rich heyday, along with dances, football games, planes flying, and relatives visiting, eventually leaving Mary with a big box of Super 8 films in her closet, which her granddaughter Meg would lend in 2018 to director Martin Scorcese for the filming of David Grann’s book, Killers of the Flower Moon; the Osage Murders.)
A Secret Service agent, seeing the young man lurch to the front of the crowd and aim something at the President, yanked the camera out of his hand. Everyone froze. After inspecting it to be sure it wasn’t a weapon, he returned it. Eugene was no more startled than the President and the crowd.
After everyone relaxed, Eugene was told that the President’s son, John Coolidge, was a camera buff, too, and happened to be the same age as Eugene. With that in common, Eugene was offered the job of driving John around the reservation for snapshots of local color. Eugene was happy to oblige. He owned a Lincoln roadster—a long, low-built, streamlined sports car with a custom golf rack on the running board… well suited for chauffeuring the son of a President.
They toured the Kyle district without bodyguards for about two hours. Eugene explained the scenes while John asked him to stop occasionally for pictures of children, small log cabins, teepees, covered wagons, and old people. At one point Eugene led John into a teepee to get pictures of an old couple eating.
President Coolidge at Mount Rushmore, summer 1927.
In 1929 Chief Lookout and his people were invited to attend Herbert Hoover’s presidential inauguration, so the Osage tribe leased a train and left for Washington. They loved to travel, but found ceremonies of the white man to be tedious, so most of the men stayed on the train to play poker during the inauguration.
Not Eugene. By the time he arrived in Washington, his stepfather had arranged for Eugene to organize a group of cowboys and Indians to ride horseback in the inaugural parade. He took a blank government check and a taxi to rent all the costumes, horses, and saddles he could find, then rounded up a crowd of Plains Indians and cowboys.
In my old notes, Gene told me his stepfather was Whirlwind Soldier, a Rosebud Lakota and a friend of a BIA official named RT Frazier. Apparently his stepfather’s name was really “Three Soldiers” (not Whirlwind Soldier), and the Indian Affairs friend was probably North Dakota Senator Lynn Frazier, who was head of a subcommittee studying the plight of Native Americans (Committee on Indian Affairs). Apparently Lynn Frazier had arranged the White House job for Gene’s stepfather, Three Soldiers, who now asked Gene to arrange a cowboys-and-Indians contingent for the inaugural parade.
It was a cold, overcast March day, so Eugene worried that he’d have a hard time finding someone to lead the Indians on horseback wearing nothing but breech cloth and moccasins through the chilly streets. No problem. He found a handsome, muscular Lakota brave with long, braided hair. Eugene told him he’d be right behind him throughout the parade with a pint of whiskey in his pocket to help keep the young man warm. Also, a taxi would drive alongside the Indians to pick up the young man at the end of the parade. He accepted without hesitation.
Also in the parade would be Deafie Brown Thunder, the best wild horse breeder at Pine Ridge. Unable to hear or speak, Deafie had a magical rapport with animals.
As the Indians lined up there was suddenly a disturbance along the side of the street. A young white man lunged out of the crowd and began dancing wild gyrations, whooping, and slapping his lips to mimic a “wild Indian.” The Indians were taken aback, the on-lookers were slightly amused but mostly embarrassed, and the horses grew nervous.
Aware that things could fly quickly out of control, Eugene rode up alongside Deafie and signaled in Plains Indian sign language, “Get your rope out.”
Deafie nodded, knowing immediately what Eugene was planning. The two men drew their ropes, separated their horses, and moved slowly toward the white clown from two different directions as they began twirling their lassos above their heads. Ten feet away they let their ropes fly at the same time, and both hit the mark. The white man continued to dance and whoop as though oblivious to the ropes tightening around his chest and stomach.
Eugene and Deafie jumped from their horses, dragged the clown onto the sidewalk, and tied him to a lamppost with Deafie’s rope. Everyone enjoyed the show, some laughing, some applauding, others staring in wide-eyed wonder.
As the parade began, Eugene and Deafie fell in behind the lead horse, Deafie sitting tall and proud in his saddle and Eugene twirling his rope in a wide circle. Every so often the young brave would climb down from the lead horse, move in between the horses of Eugene and Deafie, drape a broadcloth blanket over his head, and take two swallows of whiskey to warm up.
Thousands of years of real American freedom were tied up in the genetic fabric of the Plains Indians, and it would take more than a few hundred years of barbed wire, Indian schools, and private ownership to extinguish it. Tradition would remain an integral part of Native American life, which would become a blend of old and new.
On powwow grounds a baseball diamond often sat near a brush arbor. Reservations were dotted with churches and dancing lodges and sweat lodges, often side by side. Choke cherry gravy, wild turnips, and meat were supplemented with bread and ketchup.
Sometimes, though, change came too quickly, and things turned upside down for a while. Among the Osage, instant wealth created a strange culture of black maids, butlers, and chauffeurs doing the women’s work, leaving women with idle time. Gambling among many of the men became more popular than ceremony. Touring the country in limousines was more exciting than staying on the reservation.
One day Eugene accompanied Chief and Mrs Lookout to the bank in Pawhuska to get some money. As the chauffeur pulled up to the front door, the bank president emerged with a big wave and patronizing smile.
“Hello, Chief! Hello, Mrs Lookout!”
Julia, Eugene’s mother-in-law, rolled down her window and remained aloof. “We’d like to cash our checks,” she said, handing them to the bank president.
“Certainly,” the man replied seriously. He disappeared inside the bank and reappeared a few minutes later with a big stack of bills, which he handed through the rear window to Mrs Lookout. She thumbed through the stack and jerked her head up, glaring at the bank president.
“These bills are dirty!” she yelled. “I want some clean ones!” She hurled them out the window, and they went scattering across the dirt street.
“Certainly,” said the man. The chauffeur climbed out of the limo to help the bank president gather up all the bills, which he carried into the bank and replaced with a stack of crisp, new bills.
Mrs Lookout once again thumbed through the money, nodded her approval, and the Lookouts drove away. Eugene burst out laughing in the front seat.
(Banks: 1 Standingbear: 1)
There was good reason for Julia’s aloofness with the banker. During the recent Reign of Terror in which scores of Osage were killed for their oil wealth, one particular banker was known but never proved to be among those at the center of the conspiracy… as David Grann mentions in his book.
Wealth can add joy and wonder to the world when it’s earned and spent nobly. When savagely earned and spent, money can create murder and mayhem, the decay of noble tradition, environmental destruction, and general suffering. I think we all know that’s true at the center of our being, but it can be frustrating as we each try to reconcile “clean money” and “dirty money” in our own way. Not an easy task!
Later in life, Mary would often repeat her mother Julia’s warning to the family, “When you go to the bank for money, be sure to always get brand new bills, not dirty, used bills.”
After the oil boom in Oklahoma, the next big bonanza for Native Americans has been the proliferation of casinos on tribal lands. Casino revenue isn’t always nobly earned (many of us carnal humans have a destructive weakness to gambling, alcohol, drugs…) but if the casino revenues are nobly used (for example, fostering services, support, and general well-being of the community, as in the case of Osage casino revenues) it could probably be considered “clean money” nobly spent.
Later in Eugene’s own life, after the death of his son George (pictured below in 1974, the year he died) and after Eugene’s estrangement from his wife Mary, he would often visit his daughter-in-law Barbara and her second husband, Dr Arthur Hoge. He’d usually bring his granddaughter Meg a gift, spend a month or two with the family, and always create a canvas painting as a gift before leaving on his next adventure.
George Standingbear, the son of Eugene and Mary, was raised mostly by black and Hispanic nannies. Eventually he was sent to the Oklahoma Military Academy, and through the years he grew bitter by the fact that the other boys got to go home for the holidays while he was often stuck at school because his parents were off traveling around the country.
Finally, here’s a portrait that Eugene gave to his granddaughter Meg for her graduation.
Since the Black Hills gold rush, the Trail of Tears land grab, and the Osage murders, Uncle Sam’s craving for other people’s wealth hasn’t really calmed down. It’s just spread to the oil-rich, war-torn Middle East. That’s where the army bugle blows today, trying to justify itself with the term “Islamic terrorist” instead of “Indian savage.”
Profiteering and theft usually cause pain and resentment, but when they become a way of life or a driving force of economics, they often cause devastation, swallowing up and destroying noble systems built on honor, respect, and generosity.
(More to come… )