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Collection Omaha Indian Music

Reflections on the Omaha Cylinder Recordings

Omaha reservation, Thurston County, Nebraska. By the time Alice Fletcher first began her study of Omaha culture in the early 1880s, much of the original land belonging to the Dhegiha Siouan-speaking Omaha people had been ceded to the United States through treaty.

The Omaha cylinder recordings at the Library of Congress were not really thought about by the Omaha during the last century. They were made as reference notes rather than as documents to come back to the Tribe, and nobody knew they still existed. I knew of them simply by the references to them in the notes of Francis La Flesche and Alice Fletcher, and I did not know where they were, what they were, or even what a cylinder or an Edison machine was. When I investigated it, I discovered that the American Folklife Center was copying the cylinders onto tape. That brought me to the Library of Congress for the first time to see and hear the recordings. I was probably the first Omaha to hear them in eighty years. Then I knew my search was ended. There was a new opening in my eyes to see that here was a new beginning to take the songs back to the people, to the Tribe.

When I heard the cylinders, they led to thoughts about what songs were still alive and what songs we had lost. There were many songs that were sacred songs, and they were a new avenue for dreams that I have had in my research to return things to the culture rather than to take from it. At the same time, underlying the research is a spiritual connection. I was afraid that we were losing our culture, so finding the cylinders was a spiritual event in itself. The cylinders have survived a long time, and very few of them if any were destroyed. Furthermore, the recordings could go back to the people. Now that they have gone back to the people, it has opened a greater awareness to the people that they have not lost those songs. The recordings were never intended to go back, but they managed to survive this long and to go back to the people. I think now that we have them we will never lose them again. We're going to make sure that we don't lose them. When I listened to them, then I knew what my purpose was: to take the songs back to the people.

Without songs you don't really have a culture. If you listen to the words of them, they mean involvement with nature and our being and our surroundings. It's a tie, a connection to every living thing--man's power of growth and movement, the ability to think, to will, and to bring to pass. This life-force was always thought of as sacred, powerful. To it a name was given--in the Omaha tongue it was called Wakon'da (God). Through Wakon'da all things in nature were related and more or less interdependent--the sky, the earth, the animals, and men. Nature was the manifestation of Wakon'da, and it was regarded as not only the means by which physical life was sustained but also our religious and ethical instructor.

We shall not be false to any great truths that have been revealed to us concerning the world in which we live, if we listen to the olden voice, an unseen heritage of our bounteous land, as it sings of our unity with nature. That's what I mean by the tie. Without that we have broken the circles of nature itself, which flows in one circular motion.

I didn't know quite what to expect when the songs on the cylinders came back. After a year or so now it has affected people in different ways. For some of the older singers and the older people that remember those songs, it is renewing, it brightens them up, because it supports what they have been saying and standing for all along. During the last pow-wow the singers started singing songs that no one had heard before. It was like a supernatural or spiritual gift that has been given back to the people again. That reinforces the culture by making people want to continue it and pass it on to the children. Living in a fragmented culture, trying to live in both a non-Indian world and an Omaha world, it was almost like a breath of fresh air to us to be able to realize in what direction we have to go. The value systems in the non-Indian world have not always helped us, and I think we are looking in a direction that has helped us now. We have to take the good from our own Omaha ways and the good from non-Indian ways and try to go forward now.

I think it is time for a renaissance in the Omaha culture, the Omaha ways. What I understand from the old people and the old beliefs that were passed on is that there would be a day when the Omahas would have a better way, a better life. The older people had much hope and an actual long-range goal. For some reason they knew that we will survive as a people. These cultural developments today are starting to reinforce the foundation of the culture. We need to see how the culture was in its highest form and feel proud of it. If it can generate a positive feeling in each individual, we then can participate in a rebirth, a renaissance of our own culture. Not just to say: "Well, we have these songs and we won't lose them," but to take them, grow with them, make them grow add twenty or thirty more songs to the songs that are already there. And to start going forward.

Dennis Hastings
Omaha Tribal Archivist
At The Library of Congress
October 24, 1984

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

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