Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


The Omahas have lived near the middle Missouri River since the early 1700s. Their Sacred Legend describes an origin in a wooded, gamefilled region near a large body of water, perhaps the Great Lakes. The Sacred Legend tells how the people developed many subsistence skills, implements, and social organizations with focused thought and keen observation. During the course of a slow migration westward, the people adapted to their changing environment. The language they developed is one of five related dialects in the Dhegiha branch of the Siouan language family that also includes the Poncas, Quapaws, Osages, and Kanzas (Kaws). The descriptive name "Omaha" (from umonhon, "against the current" or "upstream") indicates a parting of company from these related peoples during that migration.

After contact with Arikara and Pawnee peoples, the Omahas adopted earth lodge dwellings, bison skin tipis, and local varieties of maize. They settled into the region west of the Missouri between the Platte and Niobrara Rivers. Village sites were situated along running streams where the bottomlands provided tillable soil, fuel, and building materials. Ton'wontongathon, or "Big Village on Omaha Creek," was the principal Omaha village from 1775 until 1845, with a population estimated to have been more than 2,000 people in 1795. The Omahas created a complex schedule of seasonal movements that enabled them to produce substantial gardens of maize, beans, and other cultigens, while conducting large-scale communal bison hunts on the western plains of present-day Nebraska and Kansas.

It was during the summer bison hunts that Omaha social organization became graphically visible. When the people paused in their daily travels, all of the tipis were erected in a circle on the prairie. The Omahas are divided into ten patrilineal clans, each of which has one or more subclans. The ten clans camped in designated places around the circle.

The Omahas are further organized in a moiety system, or complementary halves, in which one half of the clans are associated with the earth-female cosmic forces, and the other half with sky-male cosmic forces. Each clan and subclan has a catalog of unique personal names for its members, as well as particular duties, rights, and prohibitions. Marriage is to a person outside the clan and, ideally, outside the moiety. Any tendencies toward factionalism are reduced because all ceremonial and political functions require the presence and assistance of multiple clans.

Seven of the ten clans traditionally provided an individual to sit on the tribal council, which deliberated on community affairs and arbitrated disputes. Their authority was sanctioned by the use of two Sacred Tribal Pipes. The eighth clan, as keepers of the Sacred Tent of War, provided military leadership during times of external assault. The two remaining clans did not have a seat on the council but performed important duties for the maintenance of the community.

The Omahas had several social societies that served to foster martial and civic responsibilities. One of the most important of these was the Hethúshka. Membership was restricted to men who had received public war honors. The distinctive dances, songs, and regalia of this society have become the foundation of the "War Dance" of the contemporary Great Plains powwow. Men performing acts of generosity could become members of a chief 's society. There were also several doctoring and secret societies.

The Sacred Legend describes the first meeting with Europeans while the Omaha were in the east. This first amicable encounter was followed by the establishment of relations with the French by 1724, the British by 1790, and American traders soon after. The Omahas have maintained a tradition of peaceful relations with European and American visitors ever since. An example of this peace can be seen in the material assistance Omahas rendered to Mormon emigrants residing at their Winter Quarters on the Missouri River in 1846–48.

Until the late nineteenth century amicable relations with nearby Native groups were not always the rule. The need to travel to the western bison-hunting grounds for provisions placed the Omahas in a vulnerable position on two fronts. A successful summer hunt required the presence of religious objects such as the Sacred Pole and the Sacred Buffalo Hide, their aged caretakers, and the entire tribal group. Such a slow-moving company of men, women, children, dogs, and horses burdened with gear made an easy target for enemies. Meanwhile, those people who were too old or infirm to make the journey remained in the earth lodge villages to tend the gardens. The few able-bodied men who stayed to protect them were at a disadvantage if a superior force attacked.

Contact and interaction with European Americans wrought many changes on Omaha society. Subsistence hunting and agriculture shifted to an international fur trade economy. Traditional skills, arts, and crafts declined in favor of the use of trade goods, including firearms. Political and social status shifted as men better able to negotiate trade or hunt successfully for marketable quantities of pelts and bison robes overshadowed customary leaders whose prestige had been gained through oratorical skills, consensus building, and acts of generosity. Women expended more energy in the preparation of furs and hides for market. Recurring epidemic diseases reduced the population several times, causing the Omahas to lose control of the fur trade in their region while becoming increasingly vulnerable to attack by their enemies. They were forced to finally abandonTon'wontongathon in 1845 and retreat to a village site closer to the mouth of the Platte.

Under such pressures the Omahas signed treaties relinquishing control of land. The 1830 Treaty of Prairie du Chien ceded their claims to land in the present state of Iowa. To protect their own future they signed an 1854 treaty establishing a reservation in exchange for the remainder of their Nebraska land. The Omahas moved to their present reservation in 1855–56.

Many Omahas embraced some of the more visible "Americanizing" efforts of the federal government by adopting frame houses, new farming techniques, Christianity, and English-language education for their children. Important institutions such as the Sacred Pole, Sacred Buffalo Hide, the Sacred Tribal Pipes, and the Sacred Tent of War were put to sleep. Some of the secret and social societies went underground. Other Native organizations, such as the Native American Church, emerged.

In 1882 some Omahas joined with various non-Indian interest groups to push for the allotment of land. Much of the allotted lands was later sold, or it was forfeited because the taxes could not be paid. Allotments that once blanketed the entire reservation at the turn of the century were eroded to a strip of Omaha holdings along the Missouri River bluffs by the 1950s.

The Omahas voted to accept the provisions of the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, creating a constitutional government with a tribal council elected by popular vote. The Omaha Tribal Council has emerged as the provider of services or space for many of the secular and sacred activities of the community. These efforts were given a boost in 1962 with a $2.9 million award from the Indian Claims Commission for Omaha lands taken in 1854. Reservation lands stranded east of the shifting Missouri River in Iowa were reclaimed and are being developed. Proceeds from these enterprises, including the Casino Omaha, have been applied to social and cultural revival efforts.

In 1994 about 2,000 of the 5,227 tribal members lived on the reservation, most in the Macy, Nebraska, area. A large number of Omahas make their homes in the surrounding urban centers of Omaha and Lincoln, Nebraska, and Sioux City, Iowa. An annual August encampment and powwow is held at Macy that serves as a homecoming opportunity for the off- reservation tribal members.

Many Omahas continue to negotiate their lives between the pressures of mainstream western society and the traditional values of Omaha culture. Leaders continue to emerge out of this struggle, men and women who emulate the values in the Sacred Legend of focused thought and keen observation. It is their strength and dignity that encourage the Omaha people to continue traveling upstream as a proud nation.

Mark J. Awakuni-Swetland

University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Dorsey, James Owen. "Omaha Sociology." In Third Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology (1881- 1882). Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1884.

Fletcher, Alice C., and Francis La Flesche. "The Omaha Tribe." Twenty-seventh Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology (1905-1906). Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1911.

Tate, Michael L. The Upstream People: An Annotated Research Bibliography of the Omaha Tribe. Metuchen NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1991.

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