among the Omaha Indians
Written by Dr. Susan LaFlesche
for the Omaha World Herald.
The life of the primitive Indian was rich in ceremonials, beginning
with the fifth day of infancy and continuing through the different
stages of a man's growth until the earth closed over his form, for
the object of the Tribal Organization was to carefully safe-guard by
numerous rites and ceremonies, the life of its individual members.
These ceremonies were beautiful and symbolic; being well founded on
the recognition of a Higher Creative Power and of man’s dependence
on this Power; they encompassed not only the moral, but the physical
welfare of the people, tending to preserve their integrity and unity
as a people.
So we find ceremonies attending the planting of the Maize and the
chanting of a ritual for Corn was considered sacred and because it
gave sustenance and nourishment to life it was called "Mother" by
the Omaha Indians.
Every household participated in the planting of the crops, for it
was considered a sacred obligation on a man to support his family,
and there was ridicule and contempt for a "gentleman of
This is the sacred legend of how Corn was given to my people by Wakanda,
In the beginning when we became a people in the Big Star, there
dwelt seven different tribes, but when Wakanda completed
this world he permitted them to come down to this world. When
the foot of the first man touched this earth, the grass
began to burn and a great smoke went upwards.
young boy went out hunting for the gray black-bird with bow and
arrows. He came to a great lake bordered by willows. As he made
his way through the dense willows he looked up and saw a stalk of
the great and wonderful corn. He gazed in wonder and saw first the
tassel, then the joints then the blades and last, two ears of corn
growing one below the other. He ran swiftly home and said "Father
come and see a strange thing I have found. When his father
saw it he pulled up the corn plant by the roots and putting it over
his shoulder he carried it home. He shelled the two ears and gave
the corn to the Honga, Yellow Smoke's Band, who are the
keepers of the Sacred Tents.
The Honga Band gave four grains of the corn to each
household, and in the spring the husband and wife of each household
prepared two mounds of earth and planted two kernels in each hill.
This was the gift of Wakanda for our sustenance.
The planting and cultivation of the Corn was regulated by the Honga
sub-gens, who were the keepers of the sacred Red Corn and conducted
the ceremonies and chanted the ritual.
In the spring when the grass came up and "the oak Leaves had
uncurled to the size of rabbit's ears" the head of the Honga
Band made a feast and called the Chiefs together to decide on the
planting time. A crier was sent out to make the rounds of the
Village crying out, "They say it is time for you to plant."
general invitation was sent out through the Crier to the people to
come and listen, they are going to sing the ritual of the
Corn, and they want you to hear"; the people came in response from
all directions, but it was particularly for the
The men went out and selected their garden patch and put up a pole
to hold their selection; after this ceremony the gens who kept the
sacred Red Corn met with the Inkasaba Gens whose duty it
was to provide the Red Corn.
The keepers conducted the ceremony and chanted the ritual, while the
providers of the Red Corn acted as servers and distributed four
grains of Red Corn to each household. The Red Corn was supposed to
give new life to the seed corn and cause it to produce a good
harvest. We know the color red is typical of life.
The providers of the Red Corn the Inkasabe Gens; could
never eat Red Corn -- not even to this day -- if they did it was
said some great disaster would befall them. Should they eat it, the
tribe would have none and suffer from the negligence of the
providers, therefore this Gens considered it sacred and it was their
In the fall each household picked out the best of the Red Corn and
took them to the Inkasaba Gens, the providers of the
sacred Red Corn seed, for seed. The Ritual Song of the Corn consists
of many verses and it took hours to sing it.
In it the Corn calls to Man, telling him to hasten and behold the
different stages of its growth into Life; first, with firm roots I
stand"-- "with one leaf I stand", two, up to seven; "with one joint
I stand" up to seven; "with clothing I stand" and calls attention to
first its glossy hair, its yellow hair, its dark hair;
the glossy tassel, its pale tassel its yellow tassel; "with fruit I
stand possessed pluck me, roast by fire my fruit, rip from the cob"
and in the fulfillment of its mission says, "eat me." The words of
the Song may be found in the new book by Miss Alice C. Fletcher and
Francis LaFlesche; "The Omaha Tribe"
issued by the Bureau of Ethnology as its 27th Annual Report.
[Reprints of this report are available today as a two volume set
published by Bison Books.]
The man sings -- "I clear the land, -- I put in the Corn, the corn
comes up; it has blades, the ears appear; I squeeze the corn to test
the milk; it is ripe, I pull off the husks, I pull off the ear, I
shell it, I eat it." These songs were sacred to the people and
therefore they were forbidden to sing them, because they
represented life and nourishment of the people.
man could select his garden patch and hold it so long as he
cultivated it and no one dreamed of molesting him, and his harvest
was sacred for it represented life to him and his family. These
patches varied from half to three acres. I have seen many gardens
in the sheltered places near the creeks
Before planting, the corn was soaked all night with three or four
buffalo apples or ground plums. Whether these were to preserve the
corn or to keep gophers from eating the corn I do not know, but they
served some such purpose. They were thrown away in the morning.
There were nine different kinds of corn planted; two kinds of White,
soft and hard; Blue, soft and hard; Yellow, Spotted, Red, Reddish
Blue, Figured Corn as if painted in stripes; three kinds
of sweet corn, a translucent white; a yellow and a blue which was
soft, all maturing in August and an early squaw corn that
matured in July were also raised.
The earth was pulverized and heaped into mounds a foot and a half to
two feet long, the northern end being eighteen inches and slanting
down till the south end was level with the mound; the peculiarity of
the ground may have caused them to be built in this peculiar manner,
for drainage or to make allowances for our gentle Nebraska zephyrs,
I do not know. Later on a semi-circular trench was dug around one
half of the mound to hold the water for irrigating the corn and the
earth heaped up in a hill; these hills were two to three feet
apart. From five to seven kernels of corn were planted in each
hill. Some times beans were planted with the corn so they could
climb up the stalks of the corn, then fewer kernels were planted.
The weeds were carefully removed by hand and the soil kept loose.
After the corn was up the hoeing was done with the hoe; fashioned
out of the shoulder blade of the elk, a pole for a handle being
fastened to the blade by sinew. Later on with the advent of the
white man, iron hoes were used. It was hoed a second time when it
was a foot high and then left, for about this time the tribe went on
the buffalo hunt.
In the fall when the corn was picked the seed corn was carefully
selected and the husks were stripped downward and braiding these
together made long strings of corn that were hung up to dry in a
The Indians planted four kinds of beans; red, bluish black, yellow
and spotted; all were climbers and poles were used for the vines to
climb on; there was always a heavy yield of these beans. In the fall
the beans were picked and placed in mounds and shelled by being
beaten with willow poles and winnowed by being poured from wooden
bowls held over the head and poured out. This was done on windy
days so the chaff could be carried away. The beans were put in skin
bags for winter use.
There was no need for suffragettes in those days for the produce of
these gardens always belonged to the women.
Four kinds of squash were planted; real squash as they called it.
which was greenish, round and slightly flattened on the sides; a
spotted variety, eaten immature; a white and dark blue stripped and
scalloped one that had knots and lumps on it. Later on the white
men brought the Hubbard and pumpkin, the latter never used by the
Indians of that time.
Watermelons were planted when the plum blossoms were in bloom; in
color they were stripped green; the seeds were black. Children
always harvested this crop, sometimes before it was fully ripe.
raised but it was not a general crop. The leaves were as large as a
man's hand, somewhat bluish, and when ripe were rolled and dried.
My great-aunt, who died in 1894, at the age of lO5 remembered her
grandfather, the old Chief Blackbird, and was an eye-witness to the
tragedy when the old man stabbed to death his favorite and beautiful
young wife for unfaithfulness. He had gone to look at his growing
tobacco and found there an ear-ring he had given her. The young
lover came and handing a new gun to the old Chief, begged to be
shot, for a suicide is against all tribal laws and is held in
special abhorrence. The wise old Chief took his revenge in letting
the young man live in suffering. Barefoot, with earth on his head,
the lover mourned alone for years, never mingling with the people
traveling alone until his sufferings were ended by the
hand of the enemy in battle.
Beside each dwelling was a hole in the ground or cache for storing
food -- corn, beans, squash, buffalo meat, etc. It was dug straight
down eight feet, the entrance large enough to admit a person, with
round bottom and sides.
Split posts were used to cover bottom and sides, with bunches of
dried grass covering them; in shape it resembled a gourd, the mouth
being covered by grass and sod. These caches were also built at
intervals through the hunting country to be used by the tribe in
their annual journeys on the buffalo hunt to save carrying
provisions, as horses cost two or three hundred dollars apiece,
and many of the people traveled on foot.
Corn was prepared in different ways for food. In the summer
evenings when the family circle gathered. around the camp fire, the
corn was roasted on the cob beside the coals, by turning over and
over. While still in the milk the women would take and grate the
corn, baking over the coals, making most delicious cornbread, or the
grated corn was folded in the green husks and baked in the ashes.
Dry corn was shelled and parched: over a fire; this was often
carried in skin bags by hunters. It was easy to carry and with
pounded meat or pemmican was concentrated nourishment.
mortar about a foot high was made by hollowing out one end of a log,
the closed end was rounded off and sharpened down to a point which
was stuck firmly into the earth till the rounded bottom was even
with the ground; in this the corn was pounded by a wooden pestle.
The parched ground corn was eaten mixed with wild honey and buffalo
marrow, or mixed with wild cherries that had been pounded
seeds and all.
The raw ground corn was made into a delicate gruel that was far more
strengthening than most of the sawdust you eat for breakfast foods.
The dried corn boiled with ashes that hulled it: made a hominy.
Sometimes the dried corn without being hulled was cooked all day
with meat and fat. Gruel cooked with beans, was hardened over
night, and on the march, if we children were hungry which
was a chronic condition, we got a slice of this which was considered
a delicacy. We never had to diet in those days; we were healthily
hungry; dyspepsia was unknown until the white man brought his canned
goods. Succotash was a summer dish, corn and beans in a green
state cooked together with bits of fat meat.
Squash was prepared for winter use by peeling, cutting the flesh
round and round into long strips, which were then hung out in the
sun and air which dried in all the juice and then braided into a
wide strip. When eaten in winter it was full of flavor and
While the squaw corn was in milk it was snapped still green; a long
trench was dug, wood was laid in, the corn in the green husks was
laid on the wood, and the smothered fire generated steam that cooked
the corn with all the juices in. When nearly done it was taken out,
shelled and laid out to dry. It was cooked with fat and meat in the
winter and tasted almost like fresh corn.
Later on in the
70's, when a politician needed a job and the Government did not know
what to do with him, they sent him out to teach these people how to
farm and be self supporting. I remember the disgust of the Indian
who had to show him how to fix the reaper when it broke down. The
Indians ceased to call on him for help when they found they had to
show him how”. At this time they planted wheat, yellow corn, and
potatoes, besides garden vegetables.
Since 1906, when temperance became the rule and not the exception,
the Omahas have been farming on a larger scale and today are
raising by their own exertion, wheat, barley, oats,
and from three to seven thousand bushels of corn,
besides numerous garden vegetables. At the County Fair in Walthill,
1910, Good Old Man, almost or more than ninety years old, received a
price for best corn and squash. Henrick Blackbird received three
prizes, two on the best barley.
Conforming closely to the code of ethics and ceremonials laid down
for him by the tribal organization, the Omaha, became a man of fine
physical development, clean in morals, of good health, and with a
properly balanced amount of work and rest, lived at peace with his
neighbors; with plenty for his family; content with his share of
what he needed and no more, of the gifts of God, and more
nearly attained that goal which is the "universal pursuit of
Mankind" -- Happiness.