Photography by Nebraska State Historical Society (provided)
The city of Omaha is named after the Umonhon people. The state of Nebraska is also an Umonhon word, NiBlaSka, or “Land of the Flat Waters.”
Neither this city nor this state would be named as it is without horses. The Umonhon people originally lived in Ohio, migrating to Nebraska in the 1750s after horses were introduced to the tribe from trade networks. The Umonhon controlled extensive trade networks through their oversight of the Missouri River, or NiShude. The network extended as far north as Lake Winnipeg in Canada and as far south as St. Louis. The shonge or “horse” was acquired at this time from trade relationships, and by 1775, the main Umonhon village was located at TonwonTonga or “Big Village,” near current day Dakota County, Nebraska.
The Umonhon, or Omaha, are part of the Dhegiha linguistic group. Dhegiha means “people of this land.” Umonhon translates to “people who went upstream,” relating to the separation of the Umonhon and the other cognate tribes at the headwaters of the Mississippi River hundreds of years ago. Umonhon women were agriculturalists, breeding strains of maize, beans, squash, quinoa, and melons. They also gathered other foods and medicines that grew naturally in their environment and were herbalists. Men hunted large game, such as elk and buffalo. Buffalo was especially important as it was a staple food source and provided primary provisions for blankets, robes, moccasins, fuel, shelter, and utensils. The Umonhon had a complex kinship system based on the clanship, known as the Hu’thuga.
The Umonhon had a historical impact on the state of Nebraska that is evident in present day. The Umonhon were the first equestrian culture of the northern plains as the evolving economy of the horse and fur trade was occurring. The adoption of the horse into Umonhon society forever changed Umonhon culture.
Umonhon quickly developed a strong relationship with horses. Horses were highly prized and used as a form of currency. Men, women, and children could possess horses equally. Horses were seen as the highest form of a gift one could offer.Some marriage ceremonies consisted of women being led around the village on horseback followed by her husband’s gifts to her family.
Umonhon people loved their horses. Men frequently painted their horses for spiritual reasons or to illustrate rank. Horses would also be decorated with ribbons, and their tails would be painted or braided. Women embroidered the cruppers of their horses for decoration and spiritual significance.
Horses were used to assist with labor, often in the form of a travois, a historical A frame structure that was used to drag loads over land. Prior to the introduction of the horse, travois were pulled by dogs. The horse travois were often used by women in times of long distance travel. Parflesche, or rawhide bags are utilized to store materials, were used as saddlebags on horses.
Horse culture became an integral part of Umonhon life. They changed the trade economy and horses and Umonhon people maintained a strong spiritual and social connection that continues to exist today. In January 2015, the Omaha Tribe hosted “Spiritual Ride: Prayers for Generations to Come.” This ceremony consisted of a 21-mile horse ride in freezing conditions. The purpose was to pray and bring attention to the state of Nebraska suing the Omaha Tribe over reservation boundaries. In the end, the Supreme Court sided unanimously with the Omaha Tribe in preservation of their boundary.
Nebraska was granted statehood on March 1, 1867. In March 2017, Omaha Magazine published a collection of horse-related articles that appear in the Longines FEI World Cup Jumping and FEI World Cup Dressage Finals held in Omaha. This was the first of those articles.The other articles in this series are:
I would like to begin by introducing myself. My English name is Marisa Cummings. My Omaha or Umoⁿhoⁿ name is Miakonda or Moon Power. I was given my Buffalo Tail Clan name by my great-grandmother, Edith Walker Springer. My father is the late Michael Cummings, or Stampeding Buffalo. My father’s mother is Eunice Walker Mohn, or Buffalo Tail Clan Woman. My grandmother’s parents are the late Charles Amos Walker, or White Chest, and the late Ida Springer Walker, or New Moon. I am an Omaha woman. I am a Buffalo Tail Clan woman of the Sky people. I am the oldest child of eight children. I am the mother of four children.
As I wrote the paragraph to introduce myself, I was mentally translating from Umoⁿhoⁿ to English. The Umoⁿhoⁿ language is a beautiful conduit of culture. Self introductions are very important in our community. One must know who they are to know where they are going in this life. Language allows us to express ourselves to one another as human beings, to talk to the Creator, and express ourselves through song and ceremony. As language is a conduit for expressing thoughts and feelings, and relaying cultural knowledge, it is essential that our Umoⁿhoⁿ language is revered and preserved for our future generations. We must preserve our language to talk to our Creator through our ceremonies as we were instructed to do in our language.
My grandmother grew up hearing Umoⁿhoⁿ spoken as the primary language at home; it was her first language. She has told me about her parents waking well before sunrise and praying in Umoⁿhoⁿ in the kitchen. Her father, Charles Walker or Mongaska, was taken to Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Carlisle was a military-style school founded in 1879 by Capt. Richard Pratt under the authority of the U.S. government with the founding principle that Native Americans were a vanishing race and their only hope for survival was assimilation to white mainstream culture. The first thing done was to cut off the children’s sacred hair. The second step was to make them stop speaking their traditional language and converse in English. My great-grandfather came back to the reservation after his stay at Carlisle and remained fluent in both Umoⁿhoⁿ and English. He served on our tribal council for over 25 years. My grandmother’s mother, Ida or Metexi, was sent to Genoa Indian Industrial School in Genoa, Nebraska. She also returned to the reservation and spoke fluent Umoⁿhoⁿ. Both of my great-grandparents survived assimilation and Indian boarding schools and retained their Umoⁿhoⁿ language in daily practice in and outside of their home.
Tragedy struck when my grandmother was 10 years old. Her mother passed away and left eight orphaned children. Her father decided to send her, at age 14, to Haskell Indian School in Lawrence, Kansas. There was no more playing in the timber, no more collecting wild plums and gooseberries. She was alone. She said that she often wondered what she did wrong. Was her father angry with her? Why would he send her away? My grandmother graduated from Haskell and moved to Sioux City, Iowa, with the courage to start a life for herself.
My father was born in 1955. He was considered a “half-breed,” as his father was a white man. However, his grandfather, Charlie Walker, took pity on him and gave him the Umoⁿhoⁿ Buffalo Tail Clan name Te-Nuga-Na-Tide. My father was an incredible man. He received his master’s degree from Iowa State University and went to work for the corporate world. He always instilled in me the power of education and the importance of coming back to help the people with the education I received. I was raised to be of service and make a difference. My father also raised me like a first-born son. He made me tough, taught me to always speak up and use my voice, to be courageous and strategic. He told me that women have a strong place in leadership and that Native women will be at the front of the movement to bring back language and culture. He was very proud when I graduated with a degree from the University of Iowa.
As a young woman, I was always interested in our language. I would ask my grandma and great-grandma to tell me stories. I would sit at their feet or at the kitchen table in my grandma’s trailer while I asked one question after another. I think she got tired of me at times. I still am always asking questions of my grandmother. How do I say this? Do you remember this? She is the matriarch of our family. I am blessed that my children can be close to her and experience her unconditional love and knowledge.
In 1978, the Indian Religious Freedoms Act was passed. Our ceremonies, songs, and dances were no longer illegal. We could legally pray in the manner the Creator intended for us to pray. Yet, so many of the songs, ceremonies, and teachings were no longer practiced. In my life journey, I have rediscovered my love of ceremony. I enjoy collecting and preparing medicine. I love that I have the ability to be a lifelong learner of culture and ceremony, but in order to make that true connection, I must relearn a language that is rooted in my DNA. I believe that we can relearn our sense of true self and heal both individually and collectively.
My children have been born in a generation where our ceremonies are being revived and practiced. My children have been exposed to ceremonies, songs, dance, and love of our way of life. As I embrace our ceremonies and language, I know that I am also healing those who went before me. As I heal, I give reverence to ancestors whose hearts broke when they saw English replace Umoⁿhoⁿ in their homes, those who watched alcohol replace ceremony, and those who witnessed government commodities replace our sacred foods. As we revive our sacred way of life, we renew and honor all of those who went before us.
When a language dies, its culture suffers a tragic loss. The indigenous Omaha people—the Umoⁿhoⁿ—are thus in a precarious position. Although there are about 6,000 living members of the tribe, its language is in danger of passing into history. According to Glenna Slater, member of the Omaha Tribe, fewer than 12 tribal members are considered fluent in the language—and many who know the language are unable to teach it.
Slater is one of those rare fluent speakers alive today.
“We’re right here at the edge,” she says. “We lost one teacher in January.”
The Umoⁿhoⁿ settled the Great Plains during the 17th century before losing much of their territory to the U.S. government in the early 1800s, including where the city of Omaha sits today. The Omaha Reservation was established in 1854 and is seated in Macy, Nebraska.
Slater, now in her 70s, grew up on the reservation speaking Omaha as her first language, though she was never taught formally. She did not speak English until she began attending school. Slater eventually attended the University of Nebraska and began a lifelong career in social work, but the compulsion to educate runs through her bloodline. Her mother taught on the reservation as well. “I could never walk in her footsteps,” says the ever-humble Slater.
These days, she gives a weekly course at the UNO Community Engagement Center, teaching the Omaha language to learners young and old. She began teaching around 15 years ago, helping her older sister Winona (now in her 90s) give lessons on
Many of Slater’s students are older—in their 40s and 50s—but a new batch of younger people have also taken up the mantle. Some of her students are as young as 10 years old. They practice with primers on vocabulary and grammar. They read narratives and traditional stories. “The students want to learn everything. When young ones want to go home and ask their parents, their parents are unable to help, because they were never taught formally or they aren’t fluent.”
Slater tells her students to keep their handouts and everything they acquire, for they may be called upon in the future to pass on the language. Her older students are already teaching their own grandkids, she says.
In tandem with classes at UNO, Slater is also involved in Umoⁿhoⁿ language instruction at Nebraska Indian Community College (NICC) in Macy. Established in 1973, NICC is an accredited land-grant institution providing two-year degrees to residents of the Omaha and Isanti (Santee Sioux) reservations.She has also taught in South Sioux City, and at Metropolitan Community College in Omaha.
Slater speaks of the language with great respect and deference. “There would be something missing if I didn’t know the language,” she says, regarding her relationship with the Omaha Tribe and her ancestors.
“The language is very sacred: if you question the rules and reasoning behind it, you’ll be told it comes from up there,” Slater says, pointing to the sky. “And you won’t get more of an answer than that.” Slater’s respect for the language and Omaha tradition is mirrored in the class, too: “You can only tell the legends during the winter months. If you don’t respect this, strange things will happen.”
Preserving the language has been a difficult process. In addition to the generational challenges, a dictionary was completed only in the last decade, owing much to the contributions of Professor Mark Awakuni Swetland of UNL, who passed in 2015 yet remains a controversial figure among tribal leaders (due to concerns that a non-Omaha person might be profiting from the Omaha language).
Written documentation of the language is limited, and much of the knowledge is still fragmented across the recollections of surviving fluent speakers. Slater herself must defer to the wisdom of her siblings and peers in some cases. “You might know the language,” she says, “but you don’t know it all.”
Her goal with the classes is to continue enthusiasm for the language, and to ensure its survival for generations to come. “I just hope it can go on after me,” Slater remarks, “and I would be happy if I can get even two or three students to become conversational in it.”
Despite the challenges ahead, Slater remains optimistic. Several language revitalization initiatives are underway with the collaborative involvement of elders residing throughout the state. That’s in addition to lessons taught in Head Start, primary and secondary schools, community colleges, and in homes across Macy.
Slater hopes her teaching will expose more people to Omaha culture. “This has been the most fulfilling thing for me,” she says. “When students leave, they want to be hugged. Life is so hard, they need this extra something. And I learn from them, too.”
The mission statement of the Dhegiha Preservation Society states: “the Osage, Omaha, Quapaw, Kaw, Ponca, and Northern Ponca peoples are bound to one another through a shared history, ancient social, political, and cultural relationships, and a common language, the latter of which is in jeopardy of extinction.”
Once a year, Dhegiha speakers and educators gather for a language conference. The sixth annual Dhegiha Language Conference took place in Omaha at UNO’s Community Engagement Center on July 21 and 22.
“Our main goal is to create fluent Dhegiha speakers,” says William Lynn, chairman of the Dhegiha Preservation Society and an enrolled member of the Osage Nation.
The Omaha language is an offshoot of the Dhegiha-speaking branch of the Proto-Siouan language family. In comparison to European languages, it’s a bit like Danish, an offshoot of Scandinavian (North Germanic), which is a branch of the Proto-Germanic language family. The Ponca-Omaha languages are mutually intelligible, and linguists generally group them together.
“It was great that the Ponca and Omaha hosted this year,” says Lynn (Osage). “We’ve had it in Oklahoma for five years. Last year, the Omaha sent a couple of vans down to Oklahoma with 12
ON THE HOMELAND: VIDA STABLER
Umoⁿhoⁿ language documentation dates to James Owen Dorsey, Alice Fletcher, and Francis La Flesche (the first Omaha-Ponca anthropologist). “But many others have documented our language since then,” says Vida Stabler, Title VII Indian Education Director of Umoⁿhoⁿ Nation Public Schools.
The Omaha Reservation schools currently employ two full-time and two part-time Umoⁿhoⁿ language instructors to teach across roughly 20 K-12 classrooms each week. “We do not have enough teachers to meet demand on the reservation,” says Stabler, who has taught at the schools for 18 years. She recently helped to organize a new teaching group, ToUL (Teachers of Umoⁿhoⁿ Language), and says developing immersion programs will be crucial to language revitalization.
Three years ago, the Omaha Public Schools and the Umoⁿhoⁿ Language Cultural Center produced a language app called “Omaha Basic.” Over the past decade, Umoⁿhoⁿ Nation Public Schools and UNL partnered to complete the first Omaha language textbook (to be released in 2018). The projects relied on crucial contributions by the late Marcella Woodhull Cayou, Donna Morris Parker, and Susan Fremont. In 2017, Umoⁿhoⁿ Nation Public Schools is partnering with the Language Conservancy to produce an Umoⁿhoⁿ textbook for instructors and students.
AN OUTSIDER’S VIEW: AUBREY STREIT KRUG
Aubrey Streit Krug began studying the Omaha language as part of her ongoing Ph.D. in English at UNL. Her adviser suggested that she learn a Native American language, so she started taking classes with the late Mark Awakuni-Swetland, Ph.D., an anthropology professor of Euro-American descent (who had been adopted by Omaha elders).
Streit Krug says she was a minority in the class as a non-Native person. After Awakuni-Swetland’s passing in 2015, she remained among the 10-15 people working on a collaborative textbook. The textbook’s copyright is owned by the Umoⁿhoⁿ Language Cultural Center and Umoⁿhoⁿ Nations Public Schools. The upcoming textbook and the Omaha-Ponca Digital Dictionary are the legacy of her mentor’s lifework.
“Studying Umoⁿhoⁿ is important because this is the land where we are situated. My ancestors were German immigrants in the late-19th century, and I grew up in rural Kansas,” she says, noting that the Omaha language helped her to understand the root meaning of the Waconda Lake near her hometown (a Siouan word for “holy” or “sacred”). “What I knew of the Great Plains was the history of Euro-American settlement. But there is this beautiful, ongoing tradition of Native communities.”