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story.lead_photo.caption Located in western Missouri near El Dorado Springs, Wah'Kon-Tah Prairie is the state's largest natural tall grass prairie. Of the 3,000 acres, roughly half is native, virgin grass that has never been plowed or heavily altered. Photo by Allen Fennewald / News Tribune.

W ah'Kon-Tah Prairie is a vision of the past. Standing in the massive expanse, a person can feel alone in the world.

The only sounds were of song birds and wind rustling through the prairie grass and wildflowers, the air fresh with approaching rain. It's easy to imagine a covered wagon rolling over the verdant countryside, maneuvering between broad-leafed sumac bushes.

The land is located in western Missouri, near El Dorado Springs. Of the approximately 3,000 acres that make up the state's largest natural tall grass prairie, 1,800 have never been developed by modern society, according to Missouri Department of Conservation wildlife biologist and Wah'Kon-Tah Prairie manager Matt Hill.

"Roughly half of it is what we would consider intact native, virgin tall-grass prairie," Hill said. "It's never been plowed, never been heavily altered in any way. Those places are as good an undisturbed native prairie as you're going to find in Missouri. The plant and wildlife, insect, bird diversity is as good there as anywhere on any prairies."

Hill said the rest of the prairie is under reconstruction after — like much of Missouri — it was used for row crop farming and ranching. A small section was even used as Minuteman nuclear silo during the Cold War. "A lot of the plant diversity is not there," Hill said.

Maintaining native plants

The prairie is also one of a few places where certain sensitive plant, insect and animals species can survive, such as federally endangered meads milkweed, regal fritillary butterflies and prairie chickens. Hill said regal fritillary butterflies are only found near growing violets, a plant closely tied to native prairies. Prairie chickens are even more dependent on Wah'Kon-Tah.

"They are the species that really have to have these large expanses of open grasslands," Hill said. "Their predators nest in trees, and they won't stay anywhere near a treeline."

Although Wah'Kon-Tah isn't the only native prairie in the state, Hill said it is the only one large enough to comfortably house these native hens that were just removed from the Federal List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife last year. "They are a very vulnerable species," Hill said.

Honoring the Osage

On a hill near the prairie, a tribe of 200 warriors used to build 100 wooden lodges every spring. The Village State Historic Site and representative trail remains to memorialize the home of the most powerful Native American tribe from the Grand Prairies to the Great Plains. The U.S. government seized the land beneath Jefferson City from the Osage in 1808. One of their primary hunting trails followed the Osage River to its mouth at the Missouri River outside Osage City, about 10 miles from the Capitol.

The Osage are believed to be descended from the mysterious mound builders who constructed America's largest prehistoric city in what is now Cahokia, Illinois. Ceremonial mounds are all that remain of their society throughout the Midwest.

About one-third of Missouri used to be prairie. Now, Wah'Kon-Tah's virgin grasslands are among the few that remain as if the Midwest had never been settled by Europeans, when the Osage tribe called it home. Before MDC began removing invasive plant species, the Osage were negotiating treaties with settlers. Prior to MDC's controlled burning and systematic cattle grazing, the Osage people set massive fires in the tall grasses — so stout a meadowlark can perch on a single blade — to promote new growth and attract buffalo. Where small farms and ranches fence in the landscape, the Osage planted pumpkins and hunted wild game.

"The Wah' Kon-Tah Prairie is about 20-25 miles east of the Osage Village State Historic Site. (It) was a very large Osage Village that was occupied in the late 1600s through about 1777," said Sarah O'Donnell, Osage Nation Historic Preservation office employee and Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) assistant. "So, this is an area that would have been occupied and almost continuously traversed by the Osage, but really, the entire state of Missouri is considered part of the homeland of the Osage National. And it is one of their longest occupied ancestral territories."

Wah'Kon-Tah is the Osage word for great spirit or great mystery. The Osage prayed to the spirit each morning and before battle, which became increasingly frequent as other tribes were pushed into their territory by European colonization. Wah'Kon-Tah makes up the world, guides life and led deceased to the happy hunting grounds.

But, after the Louisiana purchase, Eastern tribes were pushed west, and more Europeans were allowed to settle the new American land. The Osage ceded the vast majority of their territory in Missouri through several treaties in the 1800s made by Missouri Gov. William Clark (of the famous Lewis and Clark expedition). The Osage who didn't assimilate with European communities were banished to an Oklahoma reservation.

"The Osage ceded over 113 million acres of land, and the state of Missouri was a large portion of that," O'Donnell said. "When you actually add up all of the acreage from the treaties in 1808, 1818 and 1825, the amount that the Osage received for the cessions actually represents a payment of about one penny for every 6 acres."

Most of their ancestral mounds have been leveled. Many of these Native American grave sites were sacrificed to expand St. Louis. Maintaining Wah'Kon-Tah is important for the modern Osage who travel there to experience their heritage.

"Maintaining these spaces as they were originally used and occupied by the Osage allows modern day Osages to revisit those sites and to experience them as their ancestors did," O'Donnell said.

Balancing promotion with protection

Hundreds of people visit Wah'Kon-Tah Prairie every year. Although the MDC wants more visitors to enjoy the prairie's purple cone flowers, slender glass lizards and Henslow's sparrows — the project wouldn't get much funding otherwise — they also have to protect it. MDC wants hikers to inform the department if anybody finds some meads milkweed, but Hill hopes visitors stay on the trails to limit wildlife disturbance. Visitors should not alter the land in any way, like picking wildflowers or building campfires.

"It's a kind of balancing act to do my best to promote what we have and make sure we share that with the public, because these prairies are rare," Hill said. "We've got less than one-tenth of 1 percent of our prairies left in Missouri than what would have been here pre-European settlement. So, it's important for folks who are interested to be able to come out and learn more about them, and see them first-hand. In a special place like Wah'Kon-Tah, it's big enough you can get the feeling of what it would have felt like (centuries ago)."

Return of the Osage

Hill said representatives of Osage Nation — now numbering more than 13,000 — returned to Wah'Kon-Tah Prairie last year to bless the land. They've been gone a long time and experienced a lot since they were banished from the Missouri prairies.

The Osage were once known as the wealthiest people in America per capita after large oil fields were discovered beneath the Oklahoma reservation. Since the tribe maintained mineral rights, every member of the tribe became very rich.

Although the Osage enjoyed the spoils of luxury, they faced dangers of greed and prejudice. The Osage Massacre took place over several years in the 1920s, when area white people swindled, extorted or murdered for money. In a case highlighted in New York Times best-selling author David Grann's book "Killers of the Flower Moon," a white husband and his ruthless uncle conspired to inherit Osage money by killing his Osage wife's entire family before attempting to poison her, too.

By now, the black wells have dried up. The Osage's torrent of income has become a trickle. But, as they have proven throughout history, they are resilient.

The tribe has returned to Missouri to retake small pieces of their former homeland. In 2009, the Osage purchased Sugarloaf Mound, the last in St. Louis. The tribe plans to tear down a house and build an educational center on the grounds.

The Osage Nation has even broke into Missouri politics. The tribe announced it gifted more than $50,000 to Gov. Eric Greitens' nonprofit organization, Committee for A New Missouri Inc., which was used to fund the governor's inauguration. Chief Standing Bear said the donations were intended to establish a good relationship with Greitens while they look for a location to build a casino on Osage native lands. Cuba has voiced interest in the project. The city's largest highway, I-44, was an Osage trail when much of Missouri still looked like Wah'Kon-Tah Prairie.

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