“The Finest Men We Have Ever Seen”: Reading Jefferson’s Osage Encounters through <i>Orientalism</i>

  • Robert Warrior


In 1804, a delegation of Osages traveled to Washington, DC to meet with President Thomas Jefferson. After their meeting, Jefferson remarked in a letter that Osages were “the finest men we have ever seen.” Using Jefferson’s comment as a starting point, this essay engages Edward Said’s Orientalism as a way of reconsidering how to account for the colonial context in interpreting a moment like this one. Rather than pointing to anything intrinsic about the Osages that might have prompted Jefferson’s remarks, the analysis here focuses on the tri-racial history of Virginia, the home state of not just Jefferson, but of his cousins Lewis and Clark, as well. Far from paying tribute to Osage greatness, Jefferson’s comment sets the stage for Osage dispossession and the importation into the Mississippi West of slavery and the racial capitalist system that made it possible, linking Jefferson’s comment to contemporary manifestations of resistance against this Jeffersonian inheritance, including the Movement for Black Lives, the movement to defend the Missouri River against the Dakota Access Pipeline, those who organized against the Unite the Right white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in August, 2017, and others.

Author Biography

Robert Warrior

Robert Warrior is Hall Distinguished Professor of American Literature and Culture at the University of Kansas and a member/citizen of the Osage Nation. He is the author of Tribal Secrets: Recovering American Indian Intellectual Traditions (University of Minnesota Press, 1995) and The People and the Word: Reading Native Nonfiction (University of Minnesota Press, 2006), and coauthor of Like a Hurricane: The Indian Movement from Alcatraz to Wounded Knee (New Press, 1996), American Indian Literary Nationalism (University of New Mexico Press, 2008), and Reasoning Together: the Native Critics Collective (University of Oklahoma Press, 2009). He is past president of the American Studies Association and was the founding president of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association (2009-10). Before moving to the University of Kansas, he taught at Stanford, the University of Oklahoma, and the University of Illinois. In 2018, he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Cluster Commemorating the 40th Anniversary of Edward Said's "Orientalism"