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Article Omaha Indian Song

Image:Corina Drum and Grace Snowball
Corina Drum and Grace Snowball dance during the Grand Entry at the 1983 Omaha pow-wow in Macy, Nebraska. From the online collection Omaha Indian Music (AFC 1986/038: FCP/0-DSL3-13).

Before European settlement, the Omaha were one of several tribes that inhabited the Missouri River basin. They were descended from Woodlands tribes east of the Mississippi River who had migrated westward as a result of conflicts with other tribes. The present day reservation is in Nebraska. Mainly a settled agricultural people, they became mobile only during summer bison hunts. The Omaha largely controlled the fur trade in this region of what was to become the Louisiana Purchase. Contact with Europeans led to an outbreak of smallpox in 1800, from which thousands died, including the influential Chief Blackbird.

In 1895 anthropologist Alice Cunningham Fletcher began a project to document the songs of the Omaha. She was joined by an Omaha scholar, Francis La Flesche, who became the first professional American Indian ethnologist. It is likely that La Flesche made most of the recordings in the study, as well as providing translations. Fletcher and La Flesche wrote The Omaha Tribe in 1911. As described by Dorothy Sara Lee and Maria La Vigna:

The cylinder recordings of Omaha Indian music made by Alice Cunningham Fletcher and Francis La Flesche between 1895 and 1905 represent an important phase in the study of American Indian music. They were not the first to document the songs of the Omaha people. James Owen Dorsey, in the course of his work on Dhegiha Siouan languages, collected dance, myth, and various society songs from Fred Merrick and Joseph and Francis La Flesche, and published both texts and melodic transcriptions (notated by Professor Szemelenyi) in the first two volumes of the Journal of American Folklore (1888 and 1889). But the Fletcher-La Flesche cylinders were the first ones made on the Omaha reservation, and the completeness of the collection marks their thoroughness as scholars. [1]

Beginning in 1979, the Federal Cylinder Project at the Library of Congress preserved cylinder recordings and made copies to return to American Indian tribes. In 1983, at the annual Omaha powwow, the first set of these recordings was presented to the tribe. In this presentation are recordings of the powwow, at which the cylinder recordings were played while dancers performed to the music of their ancestors. In some of the 1983 recordings the bells on the costumes of these dancers can be heard in addition to the sound of the cylinder being played.

In addition to early cylinder recordings, this presentation includes recordings of performances of songs and speeches at Omaha powwows in the 1983 and a performance by the Hethu'shka Society at the Library of Congress in 1985. Audio recordings of interviews with members of the Omaha tribe in 1983 and 1999 help to explain the meanings and uses of the songs performed. For example, members of the Omaha tribe have enlisted in the United States military and served in wars beginning with the Civil War through the present. The Flag Cermoney at Omaha events includes the singing of the Flag Song, dancing, and the raising of the United States flag to honor the service of veterans in the community. In a 1999 interview with Alan Jabbour, Rufus White explains the meaning of the song (brief interview: part 1 and part 2).


  1. 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. This article is available online as the liner notes for the LP album, Omaha Indian Music, 1985. [back to article]


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  • Omaha Indian Song


  • -  Traditional and Ethnic Songs and Music
  • -  Songs and Music
  • -  Articles

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