Omaha Song Today
There are no more deer hoof rattles. The moccasin game exists only in memory. All that remains of the Warrior Society is the American Legion. The medicine bundles have been stolen, sold, or destroyed. The sacred Pole is gone. The last monolingual Omaha has died. Only fragments of the clans and rituals remain. There are no earth lodges and the tipis are canvas. Sometimes there is no blue corn for prayer meetings. In only two generations the stories of Rabbit and Coyote have been forgotten.
My first encounter with Omaha music was twenty years ago, but it is as vivid in my memory as if it had happened last night. My interest in folklore was only a few years old. I had training and no particular interest in American Indian music, but I was drawn to the Omahas nonetheless. I imagine it was the liberal Political atmosphere of the time, the "do-gooder" mood of the decade.
I had worked with some Omahas during my undergraduate and graduate years, collecting texts for linguistic analysis, so I had a couple of acquaintances in the Omaha community. But I had never had anything to do with the Omahas except on a one-to-one basis, mostly on my own ground.
A friend of mine had worked as a consultant with the Omaha Tribe and had described some features of Omaha culture to me, especially the hand game. I was fascinated by what he told me. Despite all those things that had faded from Omaha culture, even though I knew that the movie Indian no longer existed--if indeed he ever had--even though the Omahas were ordinary citizens, I had the impression that there was more to the Omahas than met my eye. I had the feeling that Omaha culture might be alive in ways I could not anticipate or immediately understand.
I went to an Omaha, Clyde Sheridan, and asked if I could come to a hand game. I didn't know at the time that the request was hopelessly ill-mannered, but as I would learn later Clyde Sheridan possessed the Omaha capacity for tolerating even the most unseemly behavior from non-Omahas.
Of course I would be welcome; the Omahas have always been known for their boundless hospitality. The next hand game would be Saturday night, in the basement of a seedy rummage goods shop in an unsavory part of Lincoln. Normally, I would not have walked that block at night, but I found myself not only there but entering a door, where five or ten little children stood silent and suspicious of this white man who definitely did not belong.
There were long, dark stairs leading into the basement, and at the end of the stairs only one naked bulb lit the cramped room--occupied in large part by a giant octopus of a furnace. The space remaining for the thirty adults was less than that of a suburban living room. A large drum sat on a tire in the middle of the floor; six men sat around it. Twenty others sat at the edges of the room. Two women were in a side corner, already preparing food at an ancient stove.
No one looked at me. No one greeted me. Only a few quiet conversations were going on. I did not have the impression, however, that the talk had stopped because of my presence; there just wasn't a lot of chatter. Later I would learn that these Omahas were only being polite in not staring at me, and that quiet restrained conversation was customary.
I approached Clyde and he made it clear that I was welcome. He showed me where I could sit. A few moments later some opening comments were made in Omaha, and I heard my name mentioned. There were sounds of approval and a couple of beats on the drum. They didn't seem to mind that I was there, and, in fact, seemed pleased to have a visitor. I felt better already.
The music started, and my heart sprang into my throat. I had never in my life had a musical experience like the first few bars of the first song. In that small room the throb of six sticks hitting the drum sent vibrations that shook me to the core. The men sang with an intensity that made the strangeness of the music unimportant.
For hours the music swirled around me, men and women danced, and I watched a game, every movement of which was utterly incomprehensible to me. That night I realized there was another world in Lincoln, Nebraska, a world that was utterly foreign to me, totally unknown, profoundly attractive.
Clyde invited me to stay after the games had finished and share the feast. I thanked him but said that would have to be going. I made two mistakes in that decision: I was committing an unforgivable social gaffe in not sharing food that had been offered, and I missed a chance to sample frybread for the first time. I never made that mistake again.
It was a few months before I went to another hand game. My conservative, middle-class, mainstream, white, Midwest sense of the world had been shattered. I had to decide how to deal with what I had experienced.
I returned to the hand game, and went back again and again for years and years. The Omahas forgave me all my errors and applauded my slow progress in learning the ways of the hand game and the ways of the Omaha. My understanding of the world was changed in those years, and my understanding of culture and history too. The Coyote and Rabbit stories are perhaps the best guides to the lessons: what seems most permanent is most fragile; what seems most fragile is most permanent. The great bear, bison, lion, and elk--invincible giants!--are gone from the Plains. But the timid rabbit and furtive coyote persist. The Cheyenne and Sioux have been removed from Nebraska. But the Omaha are still here. The earth lodges have fallen and moldered. But the songs are still alive.
The songs, their contexts, and their applications have sometimes changed, of course. The songs are no longer sung where they might have been before, but Omaha song is in 1984 still a part of day-to-day life. One of the first things a visitor to a pow-wow, hand game, gourd dance, or social dance notices is the tape recorders beneath chairs or in the laps of Indian participants. Upon entering an Omaha home, the first sound one hears is a tape recording playing somewhere in the kitchen or perhaps in the bedroom and the soft voice or voices of singers in the house singing along with the taped voices.
This exercise is not like me singing along with the Rolling Stones "Jumping Jack Flash." The Omaha singer intends to use the songs he learns, to sit at the drum and sing the songs in chorus. Omaha relationships with song are active--that is, Omahas are not simply an audience but are inevitably performers, too.
There was a time, in the early 1960s, when I thought that Omaha song was sure to die soon. At hand games I sat at the drum with old or middle-aged men. Only one or two young men showed any interest in the game or the songs. The young men and women stood outside the building or hand game grounds, listening to rock and roll on tape recorders or transistor radios. They came to the hand game circle only to eat, and sometimes not even for that. Their contempt for the old, silly ways was obvious.
I thought that the Vietnam War would finish it all off. I assumed that young Indians would go off to Vietnam, be exposed to non-Indian culture, and never return to the old-fashioned, traditional ways. I was wrong. Exposed to the worst of non-Indian culture, the young Indian veterans returned from the war and went eagerly to the drum, all the more anxious to embrace the old ways they had once found embarrassing. They served the United States military with pride and intensity--the veteran today enjoys the same prestige that the warrior did a century ago--but even if the thirst for the white man's world was still there, there was also a new appreciation for the power of the Old Ways and the Old Words.
There is scarcely an Omaha occasion without opportunities for speech-making, gift giving, and music--three pervasive characteristics of Omaha culture. The hand game opens, for example, with the Omaha "National Anthem," features hand game songs during the game itself, and has gourd dances and round dances between the games. If one side quickly wins the game, the remainder of the evening until the feast is ready is occupied with song and dance.
The hand game is like "Button, Button, Who Has the Button?" but is much more complicated. It is played by two teams, each with as few as ten people or as many as several hundred. It serves the community, on the reservation or off, as a focal point for the practice of song, dance, language, and religion. It is also important for the distribution of the modest wealth of the Omaha. If you have food, you bring food--or better yet, you sponsor a hand game, paying for all the food of the feast. People who can, donate a dollar here or a dollar there. In short, those who can, provide food; those who cannot, come to share the bounty. All the food is divided equally, children included. So the family that needs the most food, gets the most food. That is the way it is supposed to be in the Omaha view of the world.
And that's what happens to Omaha culture at the hand game, too. Those who know the songs, sing them; those who know the prayers and speeches, say them; those who know the dances, do them. And those who need the songs, prayers, and dances most, can be there to learn them.
There are no lessons or classes in matters of this sort. At every Omaha event there is a "crier," who announces such things as gifts, and at hand games and pow-wows it is a common joke to have the crier announce that you are giving a gift of two dollars to some reluctant dancer or singer so he or she can take dancing or singing lessons. It never fails to get a good laugh. The suggestion that such things could ever be learned by lessons is hilarious to the Omaha. One learns to sing or dance by joining the singing and dancing.
I have heard anthropologists lament the bastardized nature of modern Omaha song--a curse of the automobile and tape recorder. Omahas now travel widely to ceremonials in the Southwest and Sun Dances in the North. They record Pueblo singers who come to the Omaha pow-wow, and they exchange tapes by mail with the Kiowa. They sing songs whose words mean nothing to them, and they use them in utterly inappropriate contexts.
But that is the way it has always been. Long-distance travel is nothing new to the Omaha. Even before the horse, men on foot covered long distances--out of curiosity or desire for trade items, to demonstrate courage or to ease anger or sorrow. A noted Indian anthropologist once chided me for repeating the old "error" that Omahas had travelled as far north as Lake Winnipeg to trade. His tacit argument and assumption was, how and why would men on foot travel so far? But if the Omahas came to the Plains from many hundreds of miles away, as they most surely did, why could they not travel that far again? Non-Indian mountain men and French traders on foot travelled such distances as a matter of course. On a regular basis the Omaha raided the Pawnee and Sioux hundreds of miles to the west--simply on a lark, as a spring adventure. Then why would a trip of 400 miles for very real economic gain or substantial social rewards be out of the question? The difficulty is in our minds; appalled at the idea of walking six blocks to work, we find it hard to imagine covering thousands of miles on foot at the rate of twenty or thirty miles a day.
Indians of other tribes trading seashells, flint, pipestone, ochre, salt, and furs came through the pre-frontier Omaha villages, carrying with them new songs from distant places. The 19th-century Omaha tales contain elements clearly borrowed from fairy tales told around lodge fires by French traders who used the Missouri River as a trade route in the l700s and early l800s. Omahas captured women and children from tribes all around them--and the captives brought their songs with them.
Pan-Indianism and the eclectic nature of Plains Indian culture are nothing new. Perhaps it is intensified in the age of the auto and the tape recorder, but it is as natural a part of Omaha culture as anything can be. In fact, the acceptance of new elements and the death of old is part of any vital and dynamic culture.
Omaha culture and Omaha song are today vital and dynamic. The Omahas constitute one of the latest migrants to urban culture along with Southeast Asians and Afghans. They feel little need to abandon their old culture for the "advantages" of the mainstream culture. The Old Ways, for many Omahas, hold a great many truths that should not be abandoned--a perception shared by many of us who are not Omaha by birth but nonetheless admire Omaha culture. Many traditionally oriented Omahas cling to the Old Ways not out of provincialism, ignorance, or stubbornness, but because after due and deliberate consideration they seem the wisest course.
It is into this context that these recordings of Omaha song return to the Tribe. There are voices and songs here that have been forgotten for some time, but none of them are new to the Omahas. While these are the voices and sounds of the past, it would be wrong to suggest that songs are not still a central part of Omaha culture.
Nothing illustrates this better, I think, than the circumstances surrounding the earliest planning for this album. Alan Jabbour of the American Folklife Center, John Carter of the Nebraska State Historical Society, Dennis Hastings, Omaha Tribal Historian, and I approached the Tribal Council about the production and release of these songs. We wanted the Council's permission and help in choosing appropriate selections. The Council members were uneasy about what it was we wanted. The Omahas had had unfortunate experiences in other such situations, and they were understandably wary.
Negotiations seemed stuck. Then two elders who happened to be in the Tribal Building (one who has since died) were invited to listen to the tapes and give their opinions. As they listened, their hands began to move in time with the beat of the music. Their lips mouthed the words. They muttered names of friends long dead. Their eyes glazed with tears.
The Council immediately and unanimously approved our plans.
For the Omahas these recordings represent a marvelous opportunity to hear the voices of friends long gone and to hear songs that have changed during the intervening decades. For those who are not a part of Omaha culture, these sounds are a chance to hear the roots of Omaha song, roots that still nourish a tree of formidable vitality.
Roger L. Welsch, Professor
English and Anthropology
University of Nebraska
Reproduced from Dorothy Sara Lee and Maria La Vigna, eds. Omaha Indian Music: Historical Recordings from the Fletcher/La Flesche Collection. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1985