The Omaha tribe
is a Native American
tribe that currently resides in northeastern Nebraska
and western Iowa
, United States
. The Omaha Indian Reservation
lies primarily in the southern part of Thurston County
and northeastern Cuming County
, Nebraska, but small parts extend into the northeast corner of Burt County
and across the Missouri River
into Monona County, Iowa
. Its total land area is 796.355 km² (307.474 sq mi) and a population of 5,194 was recorded in the 2000 census
. Its largest community is Macy.
During the late 18th and early 19th century, the Omaha were briefly the most powerful Indians on the Great Plains. The tribe was the first in that region to master equestrianism, and they developed an extensive trade network with early white explorers and voyageurs. Never known to take up arms against the U.S., members of the tribe assisted the U.S. during the American Civil War.
Omaha, Nebraska, the largest city in Nebraska, is named after them.
The Omaha speak a Siouan language which is very similar to that spoken by the Ponca, who were once a part of the Omaha before splitting off into a separate tribe in the mid 18th century.
The Omaha tribe began as a larger woodland tribe comprising both the Omaha and Quapaw
tribes. This original tribe inhabited the area near the Ohio
rivers around year 1600. As the tribe migrated west it split into what became the Omaha tribe and the Quapaw tribe. The Quapaw settled in what is now Arkansas
and the Omaha tribe, known as U-Mo'n-Ho'n
("upstream"). settled near the Missouri River
in what is now northwestern Iowa. The first European journal reference to the Omaha tribe was made by Pierre Charles le Sueur
in 1700. Informed by reports, he described an Omaha village with 400 dwellings and a population of about 4,000 people. It was located on the Big Sioux River
near its confluence with the Missouri River near Sioux City, Iowa
. This river was once called "The River of the Mahas."
In 1718 French cartographer Guillaume Delisle mapped the tribe as “The Maha, a wandering nation” along the northern stretch of the Missouri River. French fur trappers found the Omaha on the eastern side of the Missouri River in the mid 18th century. The Omaha were believed to have ranged from the Cheyenne River in South Dakota to the Platte River in Nebraska. Around 1734 the first Omaha village west of the Missouri River was established on Bow Creek in present-day Cedar County, Nebraska. Around 1755 a new village was located probably near Homer, Nebraska. "Ton won tonga", also called the "Big Village," was the village of Chief Blackbird.
Around 1800 a smallpox epidemic introduced by Europeans swept the area, decimating the tribe's population by killing approximately two-thirds of its members. Chief Blackbird died that year. Blackbird had established trade with the Spanish and French and used trade as a security measure to protect his people. The Omaha became the first tribe to master equestrianism on the Great Plains, which gave them a temporary superiority over the Sioux and other larger tribes as far as hunting and movement. Aware they traditionally had a lack of a large population to protect themselves from neighboring tribes, Chief Blackbird believed that fostering good relations with white explorers and trading were the keys to their survival. The village of Tonwantongo was home to Chief Blackbird and another 1,100 people around the year 1795. The Spanish built a fort nearby and traded regularly with the Omaha during this period.
When Lewis and Clark visited Tonwantongo in 1804, most of the inhabitants were gone on a buffalo hunt, and they ended up meeting with the Oto Indians instead; however they were led to Chief Blackbird's gravesite before they continued on their expedition west. In 1815 the first treaty between the United States and the tribe, called a "treaty of friendship and peace," was signed. No land was relinquished by the tribe.
Omaha villages were established and lasted from 8 to 15 years. Eventually, disease and Sioux aggression forced the tribe to move south. Villages were established near what is now Bellevue, Nebraska and along Papillion Creek between 1819 and 1856.
Loss of land
The Treaty of Prairie du Chien
of 1831 took the Omaha's claims to their lands in Iowa, east of the Missouri River, with the understanding the tribe still had hunting rights there. In 1836 a treaty took their remaining hunting lands in northwestern Missouri. In 1856, Logan Fontenelle
translated the negotiations which led the Omaha to sell their lands to the United States. During the same negotiations the tribe agreed to move to their present reservation to the north in Thurston County, Nebraska
. Soon after Fontenelle was killed in a skirmish with the Brule
. By the 1870s, bison were quickly disappearing from the plains, and the Omaha had to increasingly rely upon the United States Government
and its new culture.
The Omaha never took up arms against the U.S., and several members of the tribe fought for the Union during the American Civil War, as well as each subsequent war through today.
In pre-settlement times, the Omaha had a very intricately developed social structure that was closely tied to the people's concept of an inseparable union between sky and earth. This union was viewed as critical to perpetuation of all living forms and pervaded Omaha culture. The tribe was divided into two moieties, Sky and Earth people. Sky people were responsible for the tribe's spiritual needs and Earth people for the tribe's physical welfare. Each moiety was composed of five clans.
Omaha beliefs were symbolized in their dwelling structures. During most of the year Omaha Indians lived in earth lodges, ingenious structures with a timber frame and a thick soil covering. At the center of the lodge was a fireplace that recalled their creation myth. The earthlodge entrance faced east, to catch the rising sun and remind the people of their origin and migration upriver. The circular layout of tribal villages reflected the tribe's beliefs. Sky people lived in the north half of the village, the area that symbolized the heavens. Earth people lived in the south half which represented the earth. Within each half of the village, individual clans were carefully located based on their member's tribal duties and relationship to other clans. Earth lodges were as large as in diameter and might hold several families, even their horses.
As the tribe migrated westward from the Ohio River region, the woodland custom of bark lodges was replaced with tipis (borrowed from the Sioux) and earth lodges (borrowed from the Pawnee). Tipis were used primarily during buffalo hunts and when relocating from one village area to another. They would sleep in lodges during the winter.
The Omaha revere a Sacred Pole made of cottonwood
that is called Umoⁿ'hoⁿ'ti
(meaning "The Real Omaha"), and considered to be a person. It was removed to the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology
in 1888 and returned to the tribe in July 1989.