The Omaha (also called Maha) are a Native American nation with a reservation in the northeastern corner of Nebraska, tribal headquarters in Macy, and a government-to-government relationship with the United States that was documented by the treaty of March 16, 1854. This treaty ratified reservation boundaries and recognized the Omaha as a sovereign nation governed by a constitution and elected tribal council.
Today, the Omaha farm private reservation holdings (allotments) and collectively operate a casino and resort. They have also entered the professional workforce, becoming attorneys, doctors, accountants, and administrative executives. For example, Susan La Flesche Picotte (1865-1915) was the first Native American woman physician. The Omaha also cooperatively own the Reservation Health Center, which provides food to the elderly and a youth program, among other services.
The Omaha speak English, though new activism encourages young people to study Omaha-Ponca (the Cegiha, Dhegia, branch of the Siouan language family). During the colonial period, forced removal of Omaha children to residential Protestant mission schools where they were forbidden to speak their language caused many to cease speaking Omaha-Ponca. Fortunately, due to the diligence of many anthropologists and linguists, there exist dictionaries, grammars, and Omaha-Ponca texts.
The Omaha intellectual Francis La Flesche (1857-1932) initiated both the Reverend James Owen Dorsey (missionary, linguist, and ethnographer for the Smithsonian Institution’s Bureau of Ethnology) and Alice Cunningham Fletcher (ethnographic researcher for Harvard’s Peabody Museum) into Omaha language and culture, which resulted in classic studies. Francis La Flesche also wrote a text of Omaha tales at the behest of Franz Boas that was never published, though La Flesche published other works. An ethnographer himself, La Flesche’s obituary appeared in the American Anthropologist. There are many excellent studies that focus on Omaha folklore and literature as well as biographical accounts of prominent Omaha.
Because Omaha-Ponca was an orally transmitted language, written documentation of the Omaha begins with the journals of French trader Louis Jolliet and French Jesuit Father Jacques Marquette in the latter part of the 17th century. Both men recorded that the Omaha were semi-nomadic hunters, gatherers, and horticulturalists of corn, squash, and beans who lived in earth-lodge villages during the spring and summer months. Women owned the earth-lodge houses, and following marriage a man resided in the household of his mother-in-law. In July, all the clans hunted the bison together with great ceremony, returning to their villages for the autumn harvest. After the harvest, Omaha villages broke up into small family bands to hunt game in the Upper Missouri Valley, which is the region now designated Iowa, Nebraska, and Minnesota, at which time the Omaha lived in portable, hide-covered tipis also traditionally constructed and set up by the women.
Throughout the U.S. colonial period (1776-1900), the government regarded these semi-nomadic subsistence patterns as evidence of the supposed “uncivilized” nature of Native American culture. Because earth-lodge horticultural villages were left unoccupied during the winter months, American authorities defined them as “abandoned.” In fact, Native American tradition did not recognize private ownership of land. The U.S. government used these semi-nomadic subsistence patterns to expropriate the North American continent from the Native Americans. However, prior to the expropriation of Omaha territory by the U. S. government, and in addition to hunting, gathering, and horticultural subsistence activities, by the late 1700s to the early 1800s the Omaha controlled Missouri River trade. Consequently, the Omaha were considered quite wealthy by the standards of the day.
In terms of social organization, the Omaha divided themselves into two moieties (Earth People and Sky People), subdivided further into ten clans. Among the ten clans, seven particular clans were the holders of the Seven Sacred Pipes of Omaha traditional religion. From these seven clans were drawn the Council of Seven Chiefs. The moieties and clans ensured (and continue to do so) a place for every individual within the Omaha nation, connecting the clans by means of social relations and obligations that regulate not only economic pursuits and conflict but also spiritual life.
Traditional Omaha religion is complex and subtle. An elaborate cosmology reflects the system of moieties, clans, and gender relations. The Sky People moiety represents the great cosmic Father Spirit or father principle symbolized by The Sacred Pole, “Umon-hon’ti,” also referred to as the “Venerable Man.” The Earth People moiety represents the great cosmic Mother Spirit. Her emblem is the Sacred White Buffalo Hide, “Tae-thon-ha.” The Omaha refer to Tae-thon-ha as Umon-hon’ti’s “companion.” Both Umon-hon’ti and Tae-thon-ha have a Sacred Pipe to connect the Omaha to these spiritual principles by means of “fragrant smoke,” which carries prayers to the world of spirit. Many Omaha continue to practice an amalgamation of traditional Omaha religion with various forms of Christianity.
Many excellent anthropological, historic, linguistic, and biographical works focus on the Omaha people.
- Ridington, R., & Hastings, D. [In’Aska] (1997). Blessing for a long time: The sacred pole of the Omaha tribe. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press.
- Smith, H. G. (1974). Ethno-historical report on the Omaha people: Commissions findings. New York and London: Garland Publishing.
- Tate, M. L. (1991). The upstream people: An annotated research bibliography of the Omaha tribe. Metuchen, NJ: The Scarecrow Press.