Supernatural Among the Omaha Tribe of Indians
To comprehend the ideas of a people concerning the preternatural and the
manifestations of the supernatural among them, it is needful to know something
of their beliefs relating to the origin and the future of mankind; their notions
pertaining to the natural world and their religious ceremonies.
A clearly defined cosmogony does not exist among the Omaha tribe of Indians.
Myths tell of water animals being engaged in forming the earth, but how water
was created, or how life began, is left in definite.
The general belief of the Omaha Indians is, that in some way man has been
developed from animals. How this came about no myth and no man give any
explanation. No story exists where a man is born of an animal; yet, as the life
of man depends upon the animal as food, so in some mysterious manner the two are
bound together in the general continuity that pervades the universe.
In the myth telling of the birth of woman a younger brother is made the medium;
a strange thorn pierces his foot, he extracts it, and wraps it in coverings of
skin. When the older brothers return home they are startled by hearing a crying,
and upon examination of the bundle from which the sound proceeds, they find to
their astonishment a baby in the place of the thorn. The infant rapidly becomes
a woman; all the animals obey her call, and she enriches her brothers by her
skill and industry.
The myths seem to indicate a linking together of all forms of life throughout
nature. The various animals are endowed with speech, and address each other by
terms of relationship, and are so addressed by man. The beaver, eagle, and
others are called grandfather or grandmother, the titles of respect; but in the
various myths these terms are not always applied to the same animal.
The otter seems to be connected with the supernatural. Its skin is twisted about
the neck of a man in order to promote the swoon, which will bring prophetic
vision. Its skin is used in the sacred society when a part of the ceremony
consists in the simulation of death. In the myth telling of the introduction of
death the otter was sent as a decoy to bring about that event. The story is of a
mythical person named Ha-hea-ga, who had a younger brother. (It is noticeable
that here again it is a younger brother who introduces the new experience.) One
day, Ha-hea-ga warns his brother of the approach of some mysterious impending
trouble, and urges him not to venture forth from the tent. Ha-hea-ga goes out as
usual to hunt, and returns after a time to find his brother missing. He follows
the footprints of the youth until they lead to the water and out on the ice, to
where there is a hole; there they disappear, together with the marks of an
otter, which had evidently enticed the brother into danger. The myth describes
the grief of Ha-hea-ga, the present streams of the country being formed by his
tears. He goes among the animals seeking for tidings. At times he becomes
enraged and kills those who show no sympathy, but he rewards those that help
him. At last he discovers the abode of the strange water-monsters that have
caused his brother's death, and by stratagem kills them, and secures all that
remains of his brother, - his skin. Ha-hea-ga constructs a sweat lodge, using
serpents instead of boughs; they thrust their tails into the ground and twist
their necks together to make the framework for the coverings. Ha-hea-ga gathers
stones, and appeals to their ancient life for help; he puts them in the fire,
calling on this power for assistance; he invokes the aid of water, as he pours
it on the heated stones. This he does in the sweat lodge, having with him his
brother's skin. As the steam rises, amid prayerful songs, the brother stirs.
Four times Ha-hea-ga goes through these ceremonies before the youth responds to
the appeals to return once more to life; at last he says, " Ah, my brother, why
do you this? Death is far better." And Ha-hea-ga, filled with chagrin, turns his
brother into a stone, and himself becomes a wolf; but death had entered the
The Omahas believe that after death the spirit travels four days seeking for the
path that leads to the home of the dead. To find this road is not so hard for an
adult, but a child experiences much difficulty. The path is visible to us as the
" milky way." To assist the dead as they wander forth, a fire is kept burning at
the grave during four nights; by that time it is supposed that the path is
reached. The spirit then passes on to where the way divides; at. this fork an
old man sits; lie wears in his hair the sacred downy eagle feather and is clad
in a skin robe, the hair outside, the head of the animal resting on the left
arm, the tail on the right; the robe is always worn in this manner on occasions
of solemnity. As the spirit reaches the place where the old man sits, he looks
and smiles at those whose lives have been in accordance with the Indian ideal;
that is, men valiant, faithful to friends, relentless to foes, just, slow to
quarrel, unfailing in hospitality, and exact in all ceremonial observances. To
such a spirit the old man points the direction to be taken, indicating the short
branch of the " milky way." The spirit passes on, obeying the sign; no word is
spoken by either. Those whose lives have not been worthy, travel on, unheeding
the muffled figure, and are unnoticed by him; these do not turn aside toward the
short way, but continue over the zenith and wander on endlessly, always alone,
and with increasing sorrowfulness of heart.
A suicide ceases to exist: for him there is no hereafter.
Heaven is thought to be a place like this world, having mountains, streams,
valleys, prairies, and woods filled with game and beautiful with verdure. The
vocations are the same as here; the men hunt, the women weave, the children
play. Each one enters heaven as he left this world; the adult is still an adult,
the child a child. Friends welcome each other and relations are reunited.
Enmities are at an end. Sickness and hunger are not suffered there; but sorrow
comes when the second death sunders those who are dear to each other. There is
said to be a succession of heavens, each one better than the preceding. How many
of these heavens there are, no one could state to me. Each succeeding heaven is
reached as was the first, the person dying in the heaven where he may he, and
entering the next above him; those whom he has left behind, wailing over his
The knowledge of the hereafter seems to have been received by visions coming to
persons in a swoon. Those having such visions declare they remain several days
where the dead live, but are finally forced to return from loneliness; for,
although they see their friends and watch them at their occupations, these will
not speak to the new-comer, and ignore his presence; even the animals fail to
take cognizance of the visitor.
According to the cosmography of the Omaha the earth is a vast plain, broken by
mountains, valleys, rivers, and lakes; the heavens, a great canopy, held up by
the four winds. The sun travels across the sky from east to west, and returns by
way of the north, passing below the rim of the earth, the aurora being the light
thrown up during this passage. The moon follows the course of the sun, and is
made new every month; the period between the death of the old and the birth of
the new is marked by a storm, which comes to cover the generation of the moon.
The stars are seen to move, and the stationary North Star is used as a guide on
journeys. No explanation is given of the difference between the stars. Thunder
and lightning come from a strange, undefined being in the form of a bird. The
napping of its wings makes the thunder, and the winking of its eyes the heat
lightning. It hurls on men the thunderbolts, and feeds upon the compass-plant
In the sacred ceremonies the earth, winds, sun, and the thunder are commemorated
by certain symbols peculiar to each of the fore going.
The annual festival of Thanksgiving always took place when the tribe were within
a few days' march of their permanent village, on their return from the summer
tribal hunt, which was always con-ducted under rigid rules and ceremonies. At a
certain part of the proceedings, this figure is marked upon the ground, and
within its limits the earth is mellowed and made fine. Some say the form
typifies the fireplace, but many agree that it is an emblem of thankfulness,
recognizing the earth as the giver of food, the sustainer of life, and that
whereon the home is founded. The ground plan of the earth lodge, the permanent
dwellings of the tribe, gives the same outline; the circle being the lodge, the
projection, the entrance. When a man is about to prophesy concerning the success
of a party going forth to another tribe to perform the ceremonies connected with
the sacred peace pipes, this figure is drawn upon the ground. In the distance
beyond this outline the man sees prefigured the manner of reception awaiting the
party and the gifts that will be brought forth. These gifts are used to assist
the poor, and at the same time they bring honors to the donor in his tribe and
home. I have seen this same figure cut in the earth to the depth of three
inches, upon a high bluff overlooking the surrounding country. My compass showed
the projection to face due east; so does the opening of the lodge and tent. The
figure was kept clear of weeds and underbrush by some secret hand. Such
excavations were said to be made in accordance with visions or dreams that
represented the earth.
The four winds1 are recognized when the hair of a child is cat for the first
time by the old man whose duty it is to perform the ceremony. He lifts the child
from its feet and turns it slowly around four times, letting the child's feet
touch the ground at each of the four quarters, in honor of the four winds. After
that the child is urged forward a few steps, and has thus entered upon the path
of life. When a pipe is smoked ceremonially it is lifted to the four quarters.
The rattles and tobacco-pouch which accompany the sacred peace-pipes have
painted around them a green band with four projecting lines. The same device is
tattooed upon the breast and hack of a young girl, whose father has acquired
certain honors derived through these pipes.
In these same ceremonies the sun is symbolized by a small blue spot tattooed on
the forehead of the girl who has the mark of the four winds put upon her. A
circle is painted in red upon the breasts of two men, whose duty it is to take a
certain part in the ceremonies connected with the pipes. The sun is also
typified in the streamers on the sacred peace pipes, and by the head of the
large redheaded woodpecker.
When the first thunder is heard in the spring, members of certain gentes, which
possess a peculiar pack, filled with the skins of certain birds, open their pack
and chant the sacred songs pertaining to it.
2These packs are used on the occasion when a warrior recounts his deeds, in
order to secure the right to count his honors. At a signal from the master of
ceremonies the man ceases his narrative, and lets fall from his hand, which is
extended over the pack, a small reed; if he has spoken truthfully, the reed
rests upon the pack; but if he has boasted or falsified, it rolls to the ground.
The skins within the pack represent the observing power of the birds during
life. These fly over the country, watching all the events that are taking place.
By this omniscience they are supposed to be fitted to judge of the veracity of
men when narrating their deeds.
The penalty for sacrilegious acts, such as neglect by those in charge of the
articles belonging to the sacred tent of war, which include one of these
bird-packs, is that the offender will be struck by
<hr color="#008080" width="50%" size="1">
1. For the further elaboration of these and kindred ceremonies see several
papers of mine published in the Sixteenth Annual Report of the Peabody Museum of
American Archaeology and Ethnology, Cambridge, Mass., 1884.
2. For an account of the sacred tent of war containing one of these honor-packs,
see Eighteenth Report of the Peabody Museum, page 411, 1886.
lightning. A similar punishment will fall on those who neglect to do their share
in the great tribal ceremonies. A man who is struck by lightning is buried just
as he falls; if he is thrown on his face he is suffered so to lie. No man would
dare touch one who had been thus killed. Over such a one the customary mound is
not raised; the ground is left flat and unmarked. These ceremonies and
penalties, as well as the myths, give evidence that thunder find certain birds
are allies. The Instasunda gens, which, from its name, - the flashing eye, - as
well as from the names bestowed upon the members of this gens, and some of the
ceremonies peculiar to it, refers to thunder and lightning, and has for its
symbol and taboo worms and insects.
The ten gentes into which the Omaha tribe is divided have each an animal symbol,
and the members of a gens do not touch the animal, or certain portions of it,
that is mythically connected with that gens. For example: the Waeginsta gens has
the elk: members of the gens do not touch the male elk, under pain of penalties
which would follow supernaturally, as sores on the mouth or eyes, or a permanent
mottling of the skin with white spots. This gens has a series of names referring
to the elk. When a child's hair is cut for the first time, at three years of
age, it is trimmed in a manner to symbolize the elk.
A person is born into his gens, and he cannot change it or escape its
limitations; but he is not supposed to receive any benefit from the animal
connected with his gens or name, because of his birthplace. Animals, however,
are supposed to be able to help men; but this help comes through visions or
dreams, and is entirely independent of the symbol of the gens or the name of the
Medicines are sometimes revealed by animals, as well as the modes of
application. The buffalo is thought to have remarkable recuperative power, and
this animal made known to a certain man a root useful to heal wounds. A society
of men exists who are instructed traditionally concerning this herb and how to
use it. The men who dream of the buffalo, on occasions of importance or danger
recall their vision, and put a band of black earth across their mouth from cheek
to cheek, and a willow twig in their scalp-lock. The band of black typifies the
nosing of the buffalo in the earth, and the twig the root thrown up which has
the healing power.
There are men in the tribe who spend much of their time in seeking by fasts and
other rites to have visions, and a few persons become adepts in obtaining them.
Their dreams are supposed to have a peculiar hold upon the supernatural, and
there are those among them who profess to have constant dealings with the
spirits of animals and men.
The Omaha believe that animals have great recuperative power; they arc known to
live after being badly wounded, and are seen to breathe upon and lick the wound;
therefore there must be a peculiar virtue in the breath and saliva of the
animals. Consequently, if a man dreams of an animal and it comes near and speaks
to him, and its breath is felt by the man, the peculiar qualities of the animal
- its tenacity of life, speed, courage, or whatever may be its characteristics -
are transmitted to the dreamer, after he has performed certain rites, and
procured something belonging to the object seen in the vision. He may also, in
some mysterious way, take on the form of his animal visitant four times, and may
reverently recall the vision in times of danger or necessity, relying upon the
peculiar powers of the animal being given him for succor or success. For
instance: a youth dreams of an elk; he must observe certain rules in speaking of
his dream; he must make a collar with a fringe of hair from the dewlap of the
elk, and a whistle from one of its bones. By certain ceremonies and gifts lie
may join the society of those who have bad dreams of the elk. This animal is
noted for its speed, which enables it to escape from its pursuers, and the man
who dreams of an elk is supposed to be endowed thereby with the means to procure
this quality from the elk. Should this man lie challenged to a race or find
himself in danger he must put on his collar of elk hair, place the whistle in
his mouth, and call reverently upon his past vision for aid; his memory of the
dream thus becomes a present reality, and helps him to victory or escape.
All persons having similar dreams are affiliated, and as some have the power to
transform themselves four different times into the animal or bird that appeared
in visions, it is said that these men visit cognate tribes in this guise. On
their journey they stop to rest; if they stop on a rock they leave the impress
of their feet. Those, who are birds place their feet where other supernatural
birds have rested; those who are animals put their feet in the tracks left by
kindred visitants; and in the course of time these footprints deepen by use.
There are many rocks pointed out where these impressions are to be seen; one
near Ponca City has on it many markings, caused, if is said, by these
transformed men resting here when passing between the Ponca and Omaha tribes.
These metamorphosed beings sometimes have running and flying matches, to test
their strength received by visions; on these occasions, if one should leap over,
or fly over, another, the one so passed over would speedily die.
A similar notion seems to prevail among the people. When persons are taking a
bath in the sweat-lodge some one is stationed outside to prevent any thing
passing over the lodge, lest this bring sickness or death to one inside. If a
dog climbs upon the roof of an earth -lodge, and through the central opening for
the smoke, chances to look down upon the persons below, the animal must be
killed, in order to pre-vent a death occurring among the number present. A story
is told of an old man who had been gifted with visions. One day as he was
travelling with some hunters he fell behind to rest; as he sat motionless, a
pursued deer in its flight jumped over him. The old man was not able to rise
quickly enough to destroy the deer, so he exclaimed to the retreating animal, "
Once I was young; then I would have killed you; now I permit you to jump -over
me!" The old man thought his end near, on account of his years, and was incensed
at one who he supposed had turned himself into a deer to thus shorten another's
life. Young men throw one leg over a little child and say, "Now you will grow no
more! " A gun is rendered useless if it is stepped over, particularly by a
There are other omens of death. The sick, when about to die, see their deceased
relatives, who bid the dying ones to hasten and join them. To dream of seeing a
person moving about whose feet do not touch the ground is the precursor of that
person's death. If the one dreamed of is warned of such a dream, and he will
make a sweat lodge and bathe therein while one of the men gifted with visions
sings the sacred songs, the coming death may be averted. Death can also be
prevented by the person so dreamed of pouring hot water before the door of his
lodge every morning for four days. To accidentally touch any of the sacred
tribal articles, or to be neglectful of respect toward them, brings the
transgressor into danger of death or grave disaster, which can be averted by
sprinkling hot water with a spray of artemisia over the offender's person. If a
horse shies at a person it is because the animal sees or smells blood belonging
to the man, who is thereby warned of approaching death. He can avert this by an
ablution in the sweat lodge, or by making the oblation of hot water upon the
The word for ghost in the Omaha language is " "Wa-na-he," a trans-parent body.
Among this tribe ghosts are more frequently heard than seen. One is liable to
hear them at anytime, but particularly at night, that being: the ghost's
favorite hour for visiting; the living; although the visits are not confined to
that part of the day. The presence of a ghost is made known by a whistling
sound. I have seen old and young start when I whistled, thinking it was a ghost.
I do not recall any Indians whistling, as do white men and boys. This abstinence
may be caused by the notion that ghosts whistle, therefore men should not; or it
may be because the Indian music does not easily lend itself to such cadences as
can be whistled; or it may follow from physical reasons: the lips of the Indian
are less flexible than those of a people speaking a language which demands more
use of the labial muscles, and, as a consequence, whistling is a more difficult
accomplishment. The little, whirling eddies of wind, raising the dust in a
column, so frequently seen on the prairie or on the beaten trail, are said to be
ghosts, who are thus detected as they travel over the country.
When a man is murdered, the ghost of the murdered man pursues the man-slaver
until the act is avenged or the man has atoned for his violent deed, or else has
fulfilled the conditions and the term of his punishment. While the ghost of the
murdered pursues the offender, the waving of any garment worn by the man brings
added discomfort to the ghost, and, if the man receives punishment, during the
four years of his exile he is forbidden to speak aloud or to move rapidly, lest
he disturb the air and vex the ghost of his victim.
At one time the tribe moved out on their annual hunt in the sum-mer. For days
the people travelled, but no buffalo were to be seen. By-and-by the provisions
which they had taken from their village were all used, and the children began to
cry with hunger. The runners were sent out far and wide, but no game was found.
Because of weakness the tribe could travel but a short distance, and finally
they carried the grass of one camp to another, and used it over and over for
their bedding, as they were too feeble to cut grass at each camp. The older men
and the leaders protested against this act, as to carry straw from camp to camp
was a forerunner of famine. At last one of the men, who was gifted with the
power of visions, Sha-gãe-ska, being called on to tell why the tribe was thus
bereft of food, declared "I see the ghost of the man murdered by Ma-chu-num-ba
following the camp. He walks yonder, with bowed head, as if in great grief."
Then the tribe knew that the wind which attended the ghost blew toward the game,
causing it to scent the people and to flee before them, and they blamed
Ma-chu-num-ba and his sons for presuming to join the hunt when their misdeeds
were unpunished. The offenders were sent back, and soon the people were able to
Other tales are told of ghosts following the wrongdoer, and, although the people
had provisions, every one was unsatisfied and hungry even after he had eaten.
The presence of the ghost took the taste and nourishment out of the food,
leaving the people weak.
The story is told that one day a woman made Um-ba-gthe. This dish is composed of
a stiff mush of corn and beans; it is always made overnight, and the next day
sliced and eaten cold. That night her husband dreamed that he saw a company of
strange men, ghosts, enter his lodge, each one bearing a dish. They seated
themselves, and had a feast off the Um-ba-gthe. Next morning the husband bade
his wife throw away the food, as the ghosts had meddled with it. The next time
the wife made Um-ba-gthe the husband placed a knife over the pot containing it
and that night he dreamed again of the "time company of ghosts coming with their
dishes to feast on the favorite food. but finding a knife over it. they were
unable to touch it and went away disappointed. 'When eatables are left overnight
a knife is placed on the pot or dish: this prevents ghosts from meddling with
the content-, for one must never eat anything a ghost has touched.
Ghosts are supposed to hover about the places formerly occupied by them, and to
return to their old hunting grounds and villages. One fall Sin-de-ha-ha was
hunting in company with several men. Evening came on, and they put their horses
out to graze, and made camp in a grove. It was a bright starlight night. After
they had lain down to sleep they heard footsteps and the cracking of twigs, as
if these caught in the hair of the robes worn by those walking. Sin-de-ha-ha and
his companion- picked up their bow- and arrows and stealthily followed the
footsteps, which moved faster and faster in the direction of the horses. As the
hunters drew near the grazing-ground they saw little whirlwinds of dust travel
towards the horses, and as soon as these reached the animals, they snorted,
then, tossing their heads, began to run. The men followed hard after them, but
the horses were soon far out of sight, and the battled hunters returned to camp
to await the morning. When daylight came the search was renewed. They looked for
the footprints of the intruders, as the ground passed over the night before was
burnt prairie; the men found their own footprints and the marks of the horses'
feet, but nothing else. Following the tracks of the horses, they found them
quietly feeding some two miles from the camp. "It was ghosts that drove off the
horses." said the narrator, as he finished the story.
Some years since a middle-aged man, a young man and a lad were out hunting: the
latter had with him two white hunting-dogs. In the afternoon the eldest of the
party wounded a deer, but failed to capture the animal. He came to the lad and
requested to have the dogs put on the trail of the deer. This was done: the
hunters followed the dogs, secured the game, cut it up and the two younger ones
were for starting back at once, although it was late: but the eldest said. "Let
us stay here tonight, we shall find our trail better in the morning." So they
camped under a walnut tree, the young man and the lad gathering twigs and wood
for the fire, and picking up walnuts for their own pleasure. Just as they were
about to kindle the fire they heard a boy's voice call, Wha-ae! " An older
voice, answered. "Wha-ah!" and a third and more distant voice, belonging to a
mature man. shouted, "Wha-o-o!" - the call lor a dog. The hunting-dogs dropped
their tails between their Legs, shivered, growled, and huddled close to the men.
The eldest hunter at once hailed the newcomers. The three voices paid no
attention to the greeting, hut kept up their calls to each other, which
increased the distress of the dogs. After a time the eldest hunter said. "Build
the fire: it is ghosts that we hear." The fire was lighted, the meal cooked and
eaten; then the party lay down to rest. The two younger hunters fell asleep, but
the elder kept awake until midnight when the ghosts ceased their calling. "It
was strange that the ghosts corresponded in age to our party," remarked the man
who told the story, and who was one of the younger hunters.
Once, in the fall, a large number of families started out on a hunt. While they
were camped on the south side of the Platte River, nearly opposite the place now
known as Grand Island. Nebraska, a woman fell ill. The family to which she
belonged and that of a near relative remained behind when the rest of the people
moved on. After they had been gone a few hours, and it was about noon, the two
families which had remained behind sat down to their dinner. Suddenly the dog
began to growl; then it ran out and barked violently; shortly after the laugh of
a girl was heard, then a woman's voice. One of the men at dinner exclaimed,
"Some of the people have returned!" and he sent his little daughter to see who
the folk were. The child came back, saying she could not see any one. So the
families resumed their meal. In a moment the voices were heard once more, first
as if at a distance, then nearer, until finally words could be distinguished;
these sounds were accompanied by the rattling of tent-poles, as when a camp is
being set up. Thinking there could be no mistake as to the return of the people
who had left in the morning, the head of one of the families that had stayed
behind rose from his dinner and went out to greet his friends. As he emerged
from his tent he could see nothing but the smoking circles left by the late
camp. As he stood wondering he continued to hear voices, the setting-up of
tent-poles, the playing of children, and the barking of dogs, his own dog
responding vigorously. He knew then that, the camping place had been taken
possession of by ghosts. He returned to his tent and told the inmates his
conviction; they continued their meal, without further attention to the outside
voices. The footsteps of the ghosts and their talking, as they pursued the
ordinary occupations of the camp, continued to be heard by the families during
their stay; but no one was oppressed by fear of the supernatural visitors.
Num-ba-dou-ba and his family were returning from a hunt, and went into camp on
the Logan creek; the moon was shining brightly. As the people sat at supper
their large dog suddenly began to bark, and rushed out of the tent as if to
attack some one; in a moment he returned, howling, as if from the pain of a
blow. Soon the inmates of the tent heard a sound like a coming breeze; then they
distinguished whistles; these were followed by footsteps and whisperings, and
shortly the tent was struck, as if with sticks. The wind increased in violence;
the dog manifested great fear; and the men of the party determined to fire off
their guns, hoping thereby to frighten away the ghosts which they were sure
surrounded them. The guns produced no effect; the steps, whistling, and whipping
of the tent continued. At last a cloud covered the moon; as it passed by, with
lightning, the ghosts disappeared with it, and all was peace-ful once more.
Ka-hea-num-ba's mother had a quarrel with her husband when the tribe were moving
out on the annual summer hunt, and were already some days distant from the
permanent village of the people. She determined not to accompany her husband,
but to return to her lodge in the village. Her three sons were absent at the
time the woman started across the prairie; when they returned to camp and
learned of their mother's departure they put saddles on their horses and set out
in pursuit. They sought in vain for any trace of her, and after a time she was
given up for lost. The woman when she left the camp hid by day and travelled by
night, for she was afraid of the Sioux, who were at war with the Omaha; and she
also feared lest her relatives should track her and take her back to the camp.
At last she reached the village; the lodges were empty, for everything had been
cached. She entered her own lodge; she was hungry and weary, and lay down on one
of the reed platforms which are used as seat and a bed; as she lay she heard
some one on the roof shout her father's name, as if to the assembled village,
saying that his daughter had returned; she also heard people moving about. Her
own lodge, she soon found, was inhabited by ghostly beings. One afternoon, as
she sat in her lodge, she heard a child's feet run past and pause near by; then
the voice of a little girl said, "Mother, the people are coming this way, right
into our house!" Soon footsteps were heard entering the long projecting
entranceway to the lodge, and the number increased until a large company was
present. The drum was brought in and put down in its proper place; the ghostly
women as they chatted took their seats in the rear, and the men their accustomed
stations. By-and-by the men began to sing and to dance. They belonged to the
Hae-thu-ska, - a society of warriors only. The woman. as she sat on the
platform, heard it all, and she could even see the dust raised from the earthen
floor by the men as they danced around the fireplace. As she became familiarized
with the scene she tried hard to discern the individuals dancing. At last she
was able to distinguish their feet, and finally they became visible as high as
the knees. She was never able to see any more of their persons, although they
came frequently to her lodge, holding feasts and dancing the Hae-thu-ska. No one
spoke to her, though they talked of her, as well as of their hunting and other
matters connected with their daily affairs. One morning she heard an old man on
the roof of the house calling out that a runner had come in, bringing news that
the Omaha were returning home. Then the ghosts were heard departing, and that
afternoon the tribe came back to the village. When the woman heard the ghosts go
away she became dejected and homesick, and, when her own family found her, she
would neither eat nor speak. She was very thin and haggard, and no one knew what
to make of her conduct. It was noticed that she plucked and ate the wild sage.
After a time she was persuaded to partake of some corn, and at last she
consented to eat meat. It was some time before she became reconciled and willing
to resume her old life, for she still mourned for the company of the ghosts.
Finally she narrated her experience to her sons, and the people understood what
had happened to change her so much.
The Ma-wa-da-ne society is said to have been instituted in the following manner:
A long time ago a party were out on the warpath. One night the servers had
cooked the meal, called the leader, and placed the food before him for
distribution among the party, when a voice was heard singing. The fires were at
once extinguished, and the men picked up their bows and arrows. The voice
continued to sing, but it was evident at a distance. The leader started with his
warriors to capture the singer. He sent the men forth so as to form a circle
around the voice, and then to gradually close in upon the place whence it
proceeded. This was done. In the starlight the men silently drew closer and
closer together, while the voice rang out clearer and clearer from under a large
tree. When the men reached the tree they found lying at its foot the whitened
skeleton of a man long since dead. The voice ceased with the sight of the bones.
The warriors, when they returned to their tribe, formed a society to give gilts
to the poor and to each other. They preserved the song of the ghost, and it has
been transmitted to different generations. The songs of this society are marked
by their peculiar opening and closing cadences, which are fashioned to resemble
the song of the ghost. The Ma-wa-da-ne society came to be considered the most
honorable among the tribe; its members at times rode together in the rear of the
camp, when the people were moving on the annual hunt, this being one of the
posts of danger, as well as of honor. After the tents were set up these men rode
slowly around the tribal circle, singing their songs, their dignity and bearing
exciting the admiration of the youth of the tribe.
Many stories are told of hearing ghosts wail at night, and these sounds were
always found to proceed from graves; hence the people say that ghosts cry at
their own graves.
Ghosts are said to chase persons at night. A man who is out walking suddenly
hears footsteps behind him, and he also hears the robe of the ghost catch on the
twigs and branches of trees or shrubs, as the wearer moves rapidly on. When a
person is so pursued he makes all speed to reach a creek and to cross it: then
he is safe, for ghosts cannot cross any running stream.
Certain diseases are caused by ghosts. A paralytic has been touched by a ghost,
and the side or part of the body over which the afflicted person has no control
is the part which came in contact with the ghost. Sometimes children's eyes
become fixed, because of a sudden fright; this is said to be caused by their
seeing a ghost.
That which has belonged to an individual, as his garments, or the hair which is
cut from or falls from his head, has still some connection with this person, and
may be used as a means to influence him. If a man can become possessed of a lock
of a woman's hair he can have certain charms and spells wrought upon her Women
are therefore very careful to burn their combings in order to prevent their
falling into any one's hands. Similar spells can be worked if the blanket or any
garment touching the person can be secured. It is dangerous, however, to employ
these charms unskillfully, for in such a case the spell turns upon the user, and
he suffers blindness and loss of reason.
A father, going on a long journey, may if he has a male child, for whom he is
ambitious, take his son's moccasons with him. When the farthest point is reached
he places the child's moccasons on the prairie that they may draw their owner
thither, believing this will cause his child to live and walk far and bravely
over the land. If a child dies, and the father in his grief goes upon the
warpath he sometimes takes in his belt his dear child's moccasons. If he slays a
man the moccasons are placed beside the corpse, that the man's spirit may know
the child and help it to find its way to the path leading to the land of
spirits. The clothing of the dead is always buried with the body; nothing
belonging to a deceased person is ever worn by the living.
From the foregoing sketch of the ideas of the preternatural among the Omaha and
of the manifestations of the supernatural among them the following deductions
may be made:
The Indian has a vague belief in the unity of nature and the interdependence of
the various forms of life, but he has no knowledge of the laws which govern the
universe, or of his place and share in the great economy. As a result of this
ignorance all manifestations of power or of life are regarded as upon a general
level, and are recognized, appealed to, and propitiated; for he believes that
everything has the ability, in a greater or less degree, to help or hinder the
happiness and comfort of man. He is equally ignorant of the law which govern his
mental states; he regards his dreams, his vivid fancies, as actualities. As a
consequence he classes as evidence equally trustworthy the pictures of his
imagination and the tested observations of his senses. His ignorance of the laws
of physiology and hygiene tend to still farther obscure his powers of
The myths and legends which have crystallized about his beliefs concerning the
natural and the supernatural have had much to do in directing his fancies and
supplying the imagery of his thoughts when turned toward the invisible. The
names bestowed on men and women and the taboo customs of each gens, keep fresh
the memory of the animals so mysteriously connected with mankind. The graphic
stories of animals wherein are depicted the passions and experiences common
among men, bridge the distinctions between the two orders of creation, and tend
to form the habit of mind, that does not feel any incongruity in the belief that
men can turn into animals through the power of visions.
The desire to possess visions and to receive their mysterious benefits, which
will enable one to elude disaster, is inculcated in the child from his infancy;
not only has he the hereditary inclination, but his training leads him in that
line of thought. Children are sent forth by their parents to seek these
supernatural visitants, and these occasions are always reverently remembered.
The habit of seeking and resting upon visions makes it easy for the mind to
expect some-thing supernatural connected with the ordinary acts of life.
When a vision is called upon in time of need its efficacy depends upon the fact
that the person so appealing has about him something that was once a part of the
animal. It is also true that in older to charm an individual something personal
to him must be obtained to work the spell. The clothing of a person is believed
to become possessed of some subtle force that connects it with its owner, as in
the case of the moccasons of the dead or living child.
It may be stated as a rule, among this tribe of Indians that the potency of a
supernatural appearance depends upon the physical presence of something belonged
to the apparition in its natural existence. This, and the fact that the folklore
of the people has much to do with the peculiarities of the phantasms that appear
among them, may explain why the manifestations of the super natural fail to
transcend the experience and vocations of daily life.
Peabody Museum, Cambridge, Mass., Feb. 15, 1887.
Notes About the Book:
Source: The Supernatural Among the Omaha
Tribe of Indians, By Alice C. Fletcher,
1887, Reprinted from Vol. I., No. 3, of
Proceedings of the American Society of
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