The Origins of the Powwow
My name is Wynema Morris. My Omaha name is Mi’houx’fahn. I want to talk about the very little-known fact, it seems, about the origins of what we call the powwow. The Omaha people have a tradition. We have been dancing for at least two hundred and one years, if not longer. Oral tradition and oral history have us dancing for almost forever. But since we have to date things like this we dated them from an entry by Lewis and Clark when they had come up the Missouri River and they wanted to see the Omahas. When they went to our village up by Homer, Nebraska, they found that we were not home. They made an entry that we were probably off on the summer hunt, which is probably exactly correct Nevertheless, in order to date the powwow we use that entry from 1804, and so when Lewis and Clark, we had their commemorative celebration or their commemoration last year at two hundred years, or their bicentennial.
The Omaha people also celebrated their bicentennial for dating their traditional dance. The Omaha celebration for this is called He’dah’wachie. Under the He’dah’wachie, there are all kinds of things that happen. It was an annual event. It celebrated not just the one singular event, but events throughout the year that had happened and occurred within the tribe. This was the time to recognize bravery. This was the time to recognize courage. This is the time to break the mourning for people who may have lost loved ones on a previous hunt, or perhaps even during that summer because hunting buffalo on the Plains was a very, very dangerous enterprise and one that absolutely had to succeed if the tribe was going to survive for yet another year.
So we dance for a reason. The story that was told to me was handed down to my grandfather Samuel Thomas Gilpin to one of his numerous sons, Joseph Gilpin, was that the Omahas danced to give thanks to the Creator.
The story is that once long, long ago, long before the coming of the Europeans. The Omaha people were starving. They had nothing to eat. The wild game itself was very scarce and pretty soon things got to the point where they started to cut up their tipis and their moccasins and began to boil the leather just for some sort of sustenance. Every day the hunters would go out and look on the Plains and see if they couldn’t find some indication of where the buffalo might be.
So one day there were probably about four hunter warriors who were out on the plains and were looking for the buffalo one more time. They were tired. They were exhausted. They were hot. They were hungry. They got on this high hill and they looked all around and of course, it was empty. It was bare. They looked to the north, south, east, and west. They looked all over and it was totally bare. There was nothing there and they were discouraged.
All of a sudden this big booming voice came out and said, “Look around you. Get off, get on your knees.” They looked at each other and they looked around as they were directed. They got on their knees and they could see that none of them had given that great big huge commanding voice. It said again, “Look around you.” And they did, but by then they were trembling and they were very, very much afraid. They knew that they were in the presence of something holy, something beyond them, something very, very powerful and that it was something extremely new, supernatural.
They looked around and then they realized that they were in the presence of something that had never happened to anyone that they knew of before. They continued to tremble and be afraid. Then this big huge voice said, “Stand up! Stand up!” And so they did as they were told. And this voice said, “Do you see the sky? Do you see the sun? Do you see the ground beneath which you walk?” And they looked at each other and gave an indication of “Yes, yes, we see all this”. They were afraid to speak.
This voice said, “I made these things. Do you see the rolling hills? Do you see the grass? Do you see the stream over in the distance? I made those. All those things that you see—the stars at night, the moon that shines, and the sun—I made those. All of those are mine. They belong to me.” Then they knew that they were in the presence of Wa’kundah, the Creator.
They looked around and they fell to their knees one more time because they couldn’t stand in the presence of the Creator. The voice said, “Stand, as I’ve told you. You know who I am.” They nodded assent, “Yes, yes.” And he said, “Now look. Go to this high hill, the one you just came from. Go look.” So they were very frightened and they didn’t want to disobey, so they immediately got up in this presence and went to this high, high hill.
When they got to this high hill where they had been previously, and they looked around, the Creator said, “Now tell me, what is it you see?” They looked and the prairie was just black with buffalo, where there had been none before. There was noise. They could hear the buffalo stamping and talking to each other, and very content because they were eating the grass and they were drinking at the stream.
The Creator said, “This is all yours. I know what is happening to my Omaha people. I’ve heard your prayers. I know that you were starving. I know that you have nothing to eat. I know that you are starting to eat your moccasins and to cut up your tipis. I know that you are near death.” And he said, “Now go! I’ve heard your prayers. You go home and you tell the people to come here, and they can take all the buffalo that they need to keep them from starvation. But you must do one thing in remembrance of me. As long as you do this, never again will the Omaha people starve. Never again will you die from hunger, but you must do and remember this one thing. When you are finished with the hunt and you have put up all the meat, and you have all the food for the coming year, you must dance to give me thanks. So long as you dance to give me thanks and to remember me, the Omaha people shall endure forever.”
So they went home. They were very happy. They were tired. They were weak. But they told their chief of this great thing that had happened to them. So immediately the Omaha people set out in the direction that the Creator told them to go and there was the buffalo. They hunted to their hearts’ content and they were saved from starvation.
When they came back they told the story again. And so the warriors said, “We know how to sing. We know how to dance. After all our meat is put away we will have this dance. We will do He’dah’wachie. This is how we will remember the Creator. This is our dance to say thank you. And so it was, and from that time on the Omaha people have been dancing every year since.
My mother, she’s eighty-three years old this year in 2005. She said, for as long as she can remember there was always a dance, that even during the World Wars, even during the Great Depression, even during all these great world upheavals, the Omaha people would always gather together as a tribe and as a nation, and they would dance. So this is our tradition. We are, and we consider ourselves to be the oldest pow, wow, but we don’t call it that. Our word for that is He’dah’wachie, and the nearest translation would be ‘harvest dance’ or ‘harvest festival’, in time to gather up all the fruits of the prairie and of course to return from the hunt and to distribute the meat and all of the other vegetables and berries, and corn and other wild things that would grow, for the year, so that they would not starve and that the tribe would endure for yet another year until the next buffalo hunt.
Our He’dah’wachie, our dance is again, the oldest in the United States. Other tribes try to claim it. It’s not to say that they don’t have some sort of tradition, but what we’re saying is this particular form. The Omahas always put their drum in the center and only the center. The reason why we dance is to recognize that there is only one Creator, and the one Creator is always in the center of our lives.
Intertribal people who don’t understand that and I’m not trying to offend them, but they don’t understand that. But they saw this dance and it spread like wildfire. They began to put their drums off to the side. That’s okay because essentially it’s dancing. For the Omaha people, we have to dance to give thanks.
We celebrated our two hundred and first annual He’dah’wachie this past August. Again, it was because we had to give thanks and remember the Creator. That’s the origin of our dance. That’s our story that we tell about ourselves. We dance for a reason. We don’t just dance because it’s fun to have a powwow or fun to do an intertribal. The Omaha people dance for a reason and that reason is to give thanks to the Creator.
That’s one of the things that I’m always interested in, and I always want to tell you that because some tribes know this. I will say that the Lakota people, know it because we took our dance and our songs to them, even though a long time ago we were enemies. Despite that, we had friends among various ones of them, and we took our Grass Dance to them. We took various kinds of Green Corn Dance to them. We took different kinds of songs and dances to them, and they remember it. When they gather for their annual dances they, much to their credit, give credit to the Omaha people. They say, “This dance is the Omaha dance.” Or they’ll say, “This is the Omaha Grass Dance”, or they will give us credit in some way. I don’t know if other tribes are aware of this, but they never give thanks. They don’t even know where it comes from, but the Lakota people do and they give us great thanks for giving them this form of dance and celebration.
That’s all I have to say about that. I have other things that I tell about the Omaha people, which I could go on for hours and hours. But that’s one thing that I always wanted to sort of set the record straight for the rest of America, let people know where this colorful dance comes from, where it started from, and how, but most importantly why.
The tribes from Oklahoma, we must have gone down there. We shared that with them, but there are seven groups of the. Deghiha speaking group of the Omaha. That’s the Omaha, Oto, Iowa, Ponca, Qwapah, Osage, and Kansa. Anyway, there are seven different groups that speak a form of that dialect. Maybe it was the Osages, or the Poncas, who were in Oklahoma, who showed them that dance. You have a lot of fancy dances. It’s gone through lots of different changes, different styles of dancing to express who we are as Indian people. That’s good. That’s fine. I’m glad it has grown.
The Omaha people have an obligation to dance. So it doesn’t matter whether or not we just have a pow-wow to have a pow-wow. Ours is an obligation from a long time ago. I’m proud to say that we’re still carrying on that tradition. It’s changing. Our young ones are not cognizant. They don’t know of some of this, and so they change it. What they do is they bring a lot of intertribal back into our arena.
Our arena is sacred. It’s blessed in the early, early morning when that little four o’clock star shows on the horizon at forty-five degrees angle. Omaha people from a long, long time ago selected a certain member of a certain clan that had the responsibility to smoke tobacco and consecrate that dance ground. He would smoke tobacco, he would bless the people and he would bless the endeavor. Then that tobacco would be buried on the east end of the entrance.
I’m not so sure that was done this year, but nevertheless, the form was there and this is what we talk about, loss of the culture. But nevertheless, the older ones, myself included, I guess we have to be satisfied that maybe it wasn’t done exactly as we were taught and exactly as we were told, but at least we still danced. That’s the main thing that we can now count on.
Wynema Morris is an enrolled member of the Omaha Tribe of Nebraska, one of the few tribes to live continuously on their tribal lands. She works as a tribal historical researcher for the Omaha Tribal Historical Research Project (OTHRP), under the direction of tribal historian and anthropologist, Dennis Hastings. She lives on the Omaha Reservation at Walthill, Nebraska where she maintains a traditional home with her 83-year-old mother, Elsie Gilpin Morris, and her sister Pri Morris. As a staff researcher for OTHRP, she is continuously finding out new information regarding the Omaha People. The Omaha Tribal lands are now located in northeastern Nebraska in a much-diminished land base. Originally, after a long westward migration from the area of the states now known as North and South Carolina, toward the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, they originally occupied the northwest corner of Missouri, the upper north-east quarter of the state of Kansas up into the eastern half of Nebraska, almost one-quarter of the state of Iowa reaching over to portions of the Des Moines River and as far north as the southwest corner of Minnesota, where they mined the red pipestone which they used for ceremonial pipes. Their current land base, their reservation now occupies only 14 square miles, along the Missouri River with 1,900 acres of reservation lands in Iowa. This particular land base of reservation land gives full ownership of that part of the Missouri River that falls between their Nebraska reservation and Iowa reservation lands. Currently, the headquarters for the Omaha Tribe of Nebraska is located at Macy, Nebraska, which is approximately 9 miles slightly southeast of where Wynema Morris lives at Walthill. The Omahas ceded most of their Iowa lands to the United States in the 1830 Treaty of Prairie du Chien twenty-six years after the trespass of the Lewis & Clark expedition in 1804. The Omaha lands in Iowa were their favorite hunting grounds. After the treaty, they could no longer use these lands for the great annual buffalo hunt. Furthermore, the last major land reduction was when the U.S. took the northern one-third or so of the Omaha Reservation; contributing to the final reduction to the fourteen square mile reservation that is now the Omaha Tribal reservation.
Wynema and her sister can trace their ancestral lineage back to a New Orleans-born Spaniard, Manuel Lisa and to Umpah’dungah, Big Elk on her father’s side. Manuel was a fur trader and did much trading up and down the Missouri River, using St. Louis as his base. The history of his life is quite colorful, having married three different times. It is his second marriage to Mi’tahneh, often spelled as “Mitaine” in various historical sources, from which Wynema descends. Her father, Neal Stabler Morris, was the grandson of Thomas Reese. Thomas Reese’s great-grandfather was Manuel Lisa; his grandfather being Christopher Lisa. The “Indian marriage” referred to in historical sources does not name the tribe, however, it was known that it was the Omaha among whom Manuel moved easily, due to being trusted and therefore, well received by them. It didn’t hurt that he aligned himself to Umpah’dunga’s family by marrying one of his daughters: Mitah’neh. Manual and Mitah’neh had two children, Christopher and Rosalie. As a fur trader, Manuel did not remain long in any one place and was ambitious to carve a place for himself in American ‘society’ by eventually marrying a white woman in St. Louis. This marriage produced no children, except for the children that this wife had from her deceased husband. When Manuel, having done as much as he could in the fur trade and Indian and white relations with the United States, he left Mitah’neh and attempted to take both children with him. Mitah’neh was so inconsolable at the possibility of losing both her children, Manuel relented and left his son Christopher with her and her people, the Omaha. It is through Christopher that Wynema’s Omaha lineage has been established.
On her mother’s side, there is French blood. Her grandmother was half-French and was probably also descended from French-Canadian fur traders. The name among the Omahas reflecting this French connection is Cayou, which in French means “pebble”. Her grandfather, Samuel Thomas Gilpin fathered 13 children, one of whom is her mother, Elsie. Elsie was the twelfth child and is currently, the only surviving member of this once and numerous family. Wynema’s grandmother’s name was Louisa Cayou Gilpin and it was her father that was probably French-Canadian. Research on this branch of the family is just beginning and much has to be resolved. Her grandfather, Samuel, was an orphaned grandchild of the great chief Standing Bear, who as most people know was Ponca.
The Omahas belong to the Degiha dialect-speaking people, which includes not only Omaha, but Ponca, Quawpah, Iowa, Oto, Kansa, and Osage. However, at the time of the Lewis & Clark expedition in 1804, except for the Omaha and Ponca, the other five had split and were often warring against each other. One source describes how Iowa attacked and killed a small contingent of Omahas traveling back up Missouri to Omaha’s main camp. Among them was Mitah’neh’s sister, who was still barely alive and who was Lucien Fontenelle’s wife. It describes how Mitah’neh nursed “her sister, Umpah’dungah’s daughter” back to health. Despite very close language similarities, there is a vacuum of knowledge, particularly today, among these tribes that are unaware of the cognate grouping of Degiha speaking peoples.
Due to the research conducted on behalf of OTHRP and her family’s own teachings, Wynema retains much traditional knowledge about living life as an Omaha. She belongs to the Inke’sabe clan, as that is the clan her father was born into. The Omahas developed strict social structures for themselves to prevent inbreeding and incest from occurring within the tribe. As such, it was and remains strictly prohibited (somewhat, the current generation of Omahas knowing very little about its’ taboos) to marry back into one’s own clan. This includes the clan of the mother; however, as a patrilineal society, the emphasis remains on the male lineage.
Her research has led her to become a speaker regarding Omaha traditions, the value system, and the social and political structures of the Omaha People. She is listed in the Nebraska Speaker’s Bureau and is knowledgeable regarding numerous such topics. In addition, she is proud to be an Associate Fellow for the Study of the Great Plains at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, Nebraska. She has been a Fellow since 1987 and received the Outstanding Native American Award from the Nebraska Status of Women in 1988. She wrote a small history of Omaha traditional song and dance for the Omaha He’dah’wahchie on behalf of the Omaha Tribal Historical Research Project. While it ultimately became a collaborative work under the direction of Dennis Hastings, another OTHRP researcher provided the pictures and captions with which the work was ultimately published by the Tribe in 1998. It remains the only seminal work to date regarding the recent history and traditions of both the He’dah’wahchie and the He’thush’ka war dance tradition.
Due to the earlier work of OTHRP, it was able to establish for the Omaha Tribe a more accurate date for what is commonly referred to as the “pow-wow” a term not used by the Omaha, but familiar to most tribes that have adapted it for inter-tribal use, as a result of the Lewis & Clark journals. The Omahas themselves, in terms of tribal memory and oral history, have always known that their dances, the war dance and others, were much older than anyone currently living can recall. However, since society at large always desires to
“date” traditions or events in history, the Omaha Tribe wished to determine the “He’dah’wahcie” celebration and “He-thush’ka” dances for themselves. In examining the Lewis & Clark journals, OTHRP came across the entry that describes how when the expedition arrived, after already meeting with the Otoe and the weakened Missouria tribes at what is now known as Council Bluffs (Omaha Territory), that the village of the “Mahars” was totally deserted. The entry goes on to say that they were probably on the summer buffalo hunt. As this is much of the Tribe’s history and the hunt was a major annual event and according to tribal oral history, the Omahas always had a major celebration (the He’dah’wachie) after returning home grounds and after the successful hunt. While there are still many who believe that the He’dah’wachie tradition is much older, it now suffices to say that using the Lewis & Clark entry, the Omahas also celebrated their He’dah’wachie and He’thush’ka Dance Traditions for 200 years, as well. Until further research can be done or something comes to light to date it even further back in time, the Omaha People have managed to dance every year since the decimation of the buffalo, the two world wars, and other economic hardships that have befallen the Omahas since then.
The work written by Wynema in 1998 for OTHRP and the Omaha Tribe, is only one of the many topics she is capable of addressing. Other topics include the complex social and political structures of Omaha prior to 1804. The Native American Values System and World View are also among the topics wherein she describes the values and worldview held not only by her own people but by most, if not all, the Tribes in the United States. In her opinion, the Native American worldview and their values systems are the source of misunderstanding of the white people coming to the “new country”. Because the early arrivals and settlers mistakenly believed that all people view the world in the same way, Native nations were just not as “developed” as the early European arrivals; a view that persists even today as reflected by Euro-American thought when thinking or attempting to describe “Indians” of America.
Wynema is also serving on the Iowa Lewis & Clark Commission and has been a Commissioner since 2003. Again, research by OTHRP, in viewing the impact of the Lewis & Clark expedition upon the Omahas, who literally controlled both the lower and middle Missouri, has brought to light the amazing contributions, in addition to others on the expedition, of two Omaha-Frenchmen: Pierre Cruzatte and Francois LaBiche. Wynema has given extensive talks on the results of the research on these two remarkable men who were of such value to both Lewis and Clark. Francois LaBiche was a linguist of unmatched Native American language skills that after the expedition, President Jefferson employed him as a translator of numerous Indian tribal languages in conducting his affairs with Indian tribes in Washington, D.C.
When it comes to speaking about the Omaha Peoples, the traditions of song, dance, social and political structures, Wynema is very much at home in front of audiences, large and small at the college/adult level. She has been the speaker at many events in the midwest, including Lewis & Clark events.
While not often requested, more due to the general public not knowing, she can address issues and topics on health, traditional healing practices, tribal government, and the government-to-government relationship between American Indian tribes and the United
States. These, therefore, remain primarily subject matter areas that she teaches at Dana College, in Blair, Nebraska, where she has taught since 1997.
Wynema possesses both a Bachelor of Science degree and a Masters in Education from Northern Arizona University. She is currently employed as the Firm Administrator for Monteau & Peebles, a large majority-owned Native law firm.
P.O. Box 519
Walthill, NE 68067