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Sacred Dance of the Omaha Tribe
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On June 12 Friedrich Kurz attended a sacred dance performed for the benefit of a wounded man. He referred to it in his journal as being given by the Buffalo Society, where all wore buffalo masks. It was held in a large earth lodge, and he was accompanied by the chief, Joseph La Flesche.
The site of the small village mentioned by Kurz was identified a few years ago by R. F. Gilder, and some of the ruins were examined. It stood in the forks of the Papillion about 4 miles in a direct line west of the Missouri. To quote from the brief narrative: “It was here the Omaha lived last before going on a reservation, and where they were visited by the Swiss artist, Kurz. It was found that the ruins were quite shallow and had left but slight depressions, while others left small circular mounds above the surrounding level. The Rock Island Railroad has cut through the village, and at least one cache was exposed from top to bottom-about fifteen feet. In all instances the caches were outside the lodge sites.
“The surface yielded fractured iron pots, delft or figured china of white man’s manufacture and rusty iron objects, besides flint scrapers and chips, potsherds, and the usual accumulations of a village prior to contact with white people. The writer cannot attribute the flint implements to the Omaha, but considers the favorable site on a plateau at the junction of two streams to have been used by another people long before the Omaha erected their lodges there.” 1
Innumerable ruins of earth lodges were to have been found in the vicinity of the present city of Omaha, the great majority of which stood in early clays before the arrival of Europeans in the valley of the Missouri, and it is not possible to say by which tribe the villages were erected. Many large ruins were discovered on Childs Point, in the extreme northeastern corner of Sarpy, County, just south of Omaha, and some 4 miles northeast of the small village visited by Kurz. Some of the ruins were carefully examined by Gilder. One, which appears to have been considered as possessing the typical characteristics of the group, was described by Gilder, who wrote: “In all house ruins similar to the one here described, the main fireplace, four or five feet in diameter, is situated near the exact center. From this fireplace the floor extends, nearly flat, to within ten feet of the extreme outer edge or periphery of the ruin. Here a platform, or step, twelve to fourteen inches high and almost vertical, rose from the floor and sloped rather sharply to the outer rim. Around the line of the inner circumference of the platform, at distances of approximately five feet the remains of posts six or seven inches in diameter were discovered. These were either in the form of charcoal or of wood dust. Sometimes bowlders lay about the remains of the posts, as if designed to aid in holding them in position. The grain of the charcoal posts indicated the wood to have been oak. About the posts, under the floor, and also under the platform, objects were more numerous than at other points in the ruin. The charred remains of four posts about eight feet apart surrounded the central fireplace. There were two features of house construction that stand out conspicuously:
(1) the floor was approximately six to eight feet lower than the level of the surrounding ridge;
(2) the angle at which the slabs, logs, or paling probably leaned inward from the periphery seems to indicate the highest part of the roof at about the same distance above the surrounding level as the floor was below, making the highest part of the roof about fifteen feet above the fireplace in the center of the dwelling.
Little besides broken flint instruments, flint chips, shells, potsherds, and fractured drift bowlders were found upon the floor itself; the major number of objects was beneath the floor surface, very often covered with bowlders, as if the latter had been placed to mark the spot. Small fireplaces were of frequent occurrence on all parts of the floor.
“Three caches were found in the first ruin. In one, fifteen feet west of the center of the dwelling were found flint blades, a score of Unio shells, a mano or muller made from a rounded drift bowlder, and a pottery pipe in form of a soaring bird. The bottom of this cache was six feet from the surface. The second cache lay at the southeastern side of the ruin. Its bottom was eight feet from the surface of the ground. It contained thirty shells, several large flint blades, other large flint implements of unknown use, animal bones, projectile points, and a small piece of galena. The third cache, in the northeastern part of the ruin, was the largest and deepest of the three, its bottom being nine feet and a half from the surface. On a small shelf, or niche, at its eastern side, two feet from the bottom, lay a small image of a human face carved from pink soapstone, a number of animal bones and skulls, fish bones and scales, and Unio shells.
“So many and varied were the objects found in the ruin, so abundant the charred sticks and grasses., that the impression is conveyed that the dwelling had been abandoned in haste and that it had burned to the ground.”2 The objects discovered in this ancient ruin were truly varied, as the discoverer remarked, and likewise of the greatest interest, including specimens of stone, bone. and pottery, with bones of animals which had probably served as food. But how interesting it would be to know the date of the construction of this large lodge, and the tribe to which its occupants belonged questions which may never be determined. However, it unquestionably belonged to people of a tribe who reared and occupied similar structures in the valley of the Missouri as late as the latter half of the nineteenth century.
Other quite similar ruins a short distance north of the city of Omaha were examined by Gilder. Many objects of bone, stone, and pottery were discovered. Caches were encountered, and to quote from his account of the work: “The caches within the house sites are smaller in diameter near the top than at the bottom, the latter part flaring out somewhat in the manner of a large earthen pot. The bottom of the caches are rounded, and the walls are almost as hard as fired clay. In the very bottom of each cache was a quantity of dust, or earth as fine as dust (not compact as at other points), in which were found small arrow points, flint blades, shell beads, and flint flakes. In each case where the cache was found within the house circle it occurred close under the western wall, back of the fireplace and exactly opposite the entrance to the lodge, the latter in every instance facing the east.”3
Before closing this brief sketch of the Omaha villages and forms of structures, it will be of interest to quote from the writings of one who was intimately acquainted with the people of whom he wrote. Referring to their various types of habitations, he says: “The primitive domiciles of the Omaha were chiefly
(1) lodges of earth or, more rarely, of bark or mats, and
(2) skin lodges or tents.
It may be observed that there were no sacred rites connected with the earth lodge-building or tent making among the Omaha and Ponka. When earth lodges were built, the people did not make them in a tribal circle, each man erecting his lodge where he wished; yet kindred commonly built near one another. The earth lodges were made by the women, and were intended principally for summer use, when the people were not migrating or going on the hunt. Earth lodges were generally used for large gatherings, such as feasts, councils, or dances. On a bluff near the Omaha agency I found the remains of several ancient earth lodges, with entrances on the southern sides. Two of these were 75 feet and one was 100 feet in diameter. In the center of the largest there was a hollow about 3 feet deep and nearly 4 feet below the surface outside the lodge.
“The Omaha sometimes make bark lodges for summer occupancy, as did the Iowa and Sak.”4
Referring to the more temporary structure, the skin tipi: “The tent was used when the people were migrating, and also when they were traveling in search of the buffalo. It was also the favorite abode of a household during the winter season, as the earth lodge was generally erected in an exposed situation, selected on account of comfort in the summer. The tent could be pitched in the timber or brush, or down in wooded ravines, where the cold winds never had full sweep. Hence, many Indians abandoned their houses in winter and went into their tents, even when they were of canvas.
“The tent was commonly made of ten or a dozen dressed or tanned buffalo skins. It was in the shape of a sugar loaf, and was from 10 to 12 feet high, 10 or 15 feet in diameter at the bottom, and about a foot and a half in diameter at the top, which served as a smokehole. No totem posts were in use among the Omaha. The tent of the principal man of each gens was decorated on the outside with his gentile badge, which was painted on each side of the entrance as well as on the back of the tent.”5
In an earlier work, “A Study of Siouan Cults,” Dr. Dorsey showed the varied designs on ceremonial tipis of the different Siouan tribes. Among other interesting illustrations are pictures of lodges erected at the time of the Sun dance, with the great camp circle as formed at that time.6
A clear insight into the ways of life of the primitive Omaha of a century ago, before their native manners and customs had been changed through influence with the whites, may be obtained from the narrative of the Long expedition. A great part of the recorded information was imparted by John Dougherty, at that time deputy Indian agent for the tribes of the Missouri.
In 1819 and 1820, the period of the narrative, the permanent village of the tribe stood on the banks of Omaha Creek, about 21 miles from the right bank of the Missouri, in the present Dakota County, Nebraska. As told on preceding pages, this was the large, permanent village of the tribe, but nevertheless it was occupied for less than half the year, and as related by Dougherty: “The inhabitants occupy their village not longer than five months in the year. In April they arrive from their hunting excursions, and in the month of May they attend to their horticultural interests, and plant maize, beans, pumpkins, and watermelons, besides which they cultivate no other vegetable. They also, at this season, dress the bison skins, which have been procured during the winter hunt, for the traders, who generally appear for the purpose of obtaining them. The young men, in the mean time, are employed in hunting within the distance of seventy or eighty miles around, for beaver, otter, deer, muskrat, elk, &c.
“When the trading and planting occupations of the people are terminated, and provisions begin to fail them, which occurs generally in June, the chiefs assemble a council for the purpose of deliberating upon the further arrangements necessary to be made. “A feast is prepared, and all gather to determine where and when the next hunt shall take place. These important questions being settled, all are in readiness, and “The day assigned for their departure having arrived, the squaws load their horses and dogs, and take as great a weight upon their own backs, as they can conveniently transport, and, after having closed the entrances to their several habitations, by placing a considerable quantity of brushwood before them, the whole nation departs from the village.” And thus they continue to move until word is brought that herds of buffalo are near, then they encamp at the nearest watercourse. The skin lodges, having been conveyed by means of the travois, are soon set up, to be occupied during the period of the hunt. These “are often fancifully ornamented on the exterior, with figures, in blue and red paint, rudely executed, though sometimes depicted with no small degree of taste.” The buffalo skins obtained during the summer hunt were known as summer skins, and were used especially for the covering of their lodges and also for their garments. After a successful hunt all parts of the buffalo were carried to the camp and the vertebrae were crushed “by means of stone axes, similar to those which are not unfrequently ploughed up out of the earth in the Atlantic states.”
After the summer hunt “The nation return towards their village in the month of August, having visited for a short time the Pawnee villages for the purpose of trading their guns for horses. They are sometimes so successful, in their expedition, in the accumulation of meat, as to be obliged to make double trips, returning about midday for half the whole quantity, which was left in the morning. When within two or three days journey of their own village, runners are dispatched to it, charged with the duty of ascertaining the safety of it, and the state of the maize.
“On the return of, the nation, which is generally early in September, a different kind of employment awaits the ever industrious squaws. The property buried in the earth is to he taken up and arranged in the lodges, which are cleaned out, and put in order. The weeds which during their absence had grown up, in every direction through the village, are cut down and removed. A sufficient quantity of sweet corn is next to he prepared, for present and future use.”
Being now plentifully supplied with food, unless for some unforeseen cause having an ample quantity of buffalo meat and corn, together with the other products of the gardens, they would “content themselves in their village until the latter part of October, when, without the formality of a council. or other ceremony, they again depart from the village, and move in separate parties to various situations on both sides of the Missouri, and its tributaries, as far down as the Platte. Their primary object at this time, is to obtain on credit from the traders, various articles, indispensably necessary to their fall, winter, and spring hunts; such as guns, particularly those of Mackinaw, powder, ball, and flints, beaver traps, brass, tin, and camp-kettles, knives, hoes, squaw-axes and tomahawks.
“Having obtained these implements, they go in pursuit of deer, or apply themselves to trapping for beaver and otter. Elk was some time since an object of pursuit, but these animals are now rather rare in the Omawhaw territories.
“This hunt continues until towards the close of December, and during the rigors of the season they experience an alternation of abundance and scarcity of food.”
The skins secured during the late autumn hunt would be carried to the traders and left as payment for the goods previously obtained on credit, and also given in exchange for blankets, wampum, and various other articles. Thence they would return to their permanent village in order to procure a supply-of maize from their places of concealment, after which they continue their journey, in pursuit of bison. This expedition continues until the month of April, when they return to their village as before stated, loaded with provisions. It is during this expedition that they procure all the skins, of which the bison robes of commerce are made; the animals at this season having their perfect winter dress, the hair and wool of which are long and dense.”7
Such was the life of the Omaha a hundred years ago, and it may have been quite the same for many generations, omitting, of course, the visits made to the traders. But their systematic hunts had probably been performed ever since the Omaha reached the valley of the Missouri, and possibly long before.
Gilder. (1). p. 75. ↩
Gilder, R. F., Excavation of Earth-Lodge Ruins in Eastern Nebraska. In American Anthropologist, vol. 11, No. 1, Jan.- Mar. 1909, pp. 58-61. ↩
Gilder, R. F., Archeology of the Ponca Creek District, Eastern Nebraska. In American Anthropologist, vol. 9, No. 4, Oct.-Dec. 1907, p. 716. ↩
Dorsey, James Owen, Omaha dwellings, furniture, and implements. In Thirteenth Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology. Washington, 1896, pp. 269-271. ↩
Dorsey, James Owen, Omaha dwellings, furniture, and implements. In Thirteenth Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology. Washington, 1896, pp. 271-274. ↩
Dorsey, A Study of Siouan Cults. In Eleventh Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology. Washington, 1894. ↩
James, Edwin, Account of an Expedition from Pittsburgh to the Rocky Mountains, performed in the years 1819 and 1820. Philadelphia, 1823. 2 vols., I, pp. 200-221. ↩
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