Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


The Otoe-Missourias were two separate peoples until they amalgamated in the last years of the eighteenth century. Members of the Chiwere group of Siouan speakers, they were driven westward from the Great Lakes region in the seventeenth century by the Sioux, who were also moving westward under pressure emanating from the expanding orbit of European colonization. By 1714 the Otoes were living in a village on the Salt Creek tributary of the Platte River in what is now eastern Nebraska. They occupied that vicinity for the remainder of the eighteenth century. The Missourias joined them there in 1798 after the Sauks and Foxes had driven them out of their former homeland of present-day northwest Missouri. From that time on the Otoe-Missourias were one nation, though the Missourias remained a distinctive constituent throughout the nineteenth century.

They lived, like the neighboring Pawnees and Omahas, in earth lodge villages and divided their subsistence activities between intensive farming at the villages, biannual bison hunts out on the Plains, and a wide array of food collection. They calibrated their annual cycle closely to the signs and rhythms of the physical environment, and they sanctified their activities with ceremonies that enlisted the support of sacred powers. Their way of life worked because they spread their subsistence base over a broad spectrum of Plains resources, and in 1800 they sustained a population of more than 1,000 people.

But the outside world crowded in, and with the fur traders, missionaries, Indian agents, and settlers came disease and resource depletion. By 1804, when Lewis and Clark passed by, the Otoe-Missouria population had been reduced by smallpox to fewer than 800; subsequent epidemics and depletion of game, bringing famine, continued the downward plunge to 600 by midcentury. Fur traders established a post at Bellevue in the 1820s, just to the east of the Otoe-Missouria village, and alcohol became a disruptive force in their society. Enmities that otherwise might have been settled peacefully erupted into violence. Head chief Big Kaw could not preserve unity, and by the 1840s the Otoe-Missourias had splintered into four separate villages.

Mired in poverty, and with starvation a constant companion, they were forced to sell their only resource, their land, merely to survive. The United States obliged, as it needed land on which to settle refugee Indians from the eastern United States in the 1830s and homes for settlers after 1854. The first sale came in 1830 when, at the Treaty of Prairie du Chien, the Otoe-Missourias surrendered their claims to any lands east of the Missouri and also sold a sliver of land in southeastern Nebraska (the Nemaha Half-Breed Reservation) for the resettlement there of mixed-bloods from various tribes. A cession of about one million acres in southeastern Nebraska followed in 1833. The Otoe-Missourias received 4.1 cents an acre for this prime agricultural land. As with subsequent payments for cessions, the money was used by the United States to provide annuities (blankets, farming equipment, and other items) and to finance its assimilation policy, which aimed to transform communal Indians into self-supporting farmers working on separate 160-acre allotments. Even in 1881, when the Otoe-Missourias abandoned Nebraska for Indian Territory, very few, if any, of their men were farming.

When the Kansas-Nebraska Act of May 30, 1854, opened Nebraska for settlement by European Americans, the Otoe-Missourias sold their remaining homeland for 42.6 cents an acre, retaining only a 162,000-acre reservation straddling the Kansas-Nebraska boundary. This was fertile country, and it soon became clear that, as surrounding population pressure mounted and land values escalated, the Otoe- Missourias would have difficulty retaining it. They lived there, poorly but still defiantly traditional, for twenty-five years. Their agents were generally corrupt until Quakers took over in 1869. Under great pressure to change, and with the old ways increasingly unfeasible, their society cleaved into two opposing segments: one, called the "stable faction" by the Quakers, paid at least lip service to the assimilation policy; the other, the "wild party," led by traditional chiefs Medicine Horse and Ar-ka-ke-ta, remained steadfastly traditional. When the Otoe-Missourias migrated to Oklahoma Territory, following the sale of their reservation in two parts in 1876 and 1881, the division persisted and was not healed until after 1890.

In Indian Territory, the Otoe-Missourias settled on a 129,113-acre reservation in what is now Noble County, Oklahoma. Their population continued to plummet, dropping to 340 in 1894. Thereafter, their numbers gradually rebounded to reach 1,550 by 1990. Their reservation was completely allotted in 1907, but when oil was discovered on their lands in 1912, the trust status of their allotments was abrogated, and fully 90 percent of their land base was lost.

The Otoe-Missourias continued to resist the United States' efforts to reshape them. They refused to set up a constitutional government. which would have abolished their traditional tribal government.until 1984, and they have used their resources to buy back some of their lost lands. In the late 1940s, like most other Plains tribes, they lodged their claims with the Indian Claims Commission, and in 1955 and 1964 received awards of $1,156,035 and $1,750,000 for lands that had been taken in 1830, 1833, and 1854 for payments "so low as to shock the conscience." These awards, large at first sight, diminished to small sums when allocated to individuals. Still, it is remarkable– in fact a triumph–that this small nation, despite the loss of their homeland and the assault on their way of life, has endured into the twenty-first century. Their annual powwow, held in July, and their continued coherence around kinship groups, ceremonies, and social gatherings, ensure the continuance of their tribal identity.

David J. Wishart

University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Chapman, Berlin Basil. The Otoes and Missourias: A Study of Indian Removal and the Legal Aftermath. Oklahoma City: Times Journal Publishing Co., 1965.

Edmunds, R. David. The Otoe-Missouria People. Phoenix: Indian Tribal Series, 1976.

Wishart, David J. An Unspeakable Sadness: The Dispossession of the Nebraska Indians. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994.

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