March 3, 2017 by
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:

Into the Wild

Horses Pave the Way in Nebraska Territory

Horses Run Early Statehood

Horses in Nebraska Today

Umonhon Chief Prairie Chicken on Horseback, circa 1898.

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