Photograph courtesy of OTHRP Archives

Two Omaha Children


Umonhon Language & Culture

Each language on our planet is like a gene pool of singular thoughts, feelings and expressions unique to that culture. What is perceived as a problem in one culture may very well be a solution in another. When thought patterns are lost so are potential solutions and our world is the lesser for this.

Of the 149 remaining Native languages on the North American Continent, over 80% are inactive, and it is unlikely that the majority of these dialects will be in existence by the mid-21st Century. Scholars denote how language defines the culture of a people. The loss of these idioms and cultures is as great a catastrophe for Humanity as that of endangered animals and plants.

The Umonho Tribe of Nebraska and Iowa are no exception to the rule. After 150 years of systematical and heinous ethical cleansing or cultural genocide, there are approximately 40 Umonho speakers left and in the Ponka Tribe of Nebraska and Oklahoma, whose language is basically the same, there are now only 25 speakers.

Being an oral language reflecting the seamless relationship of the Umonhon Hu'thuga [Omaha Tribal Circle], there was no need to document in written form the language until imposition of the Reservation system upon ancestral lands, as "negotiated" through treaty with the Government of the United States, in 1854. Within a generation two Western-trained researchers, Reverend James Dorsey and Alice C. Fletcher, had begun to codify local language patterns and vocabulary, Reverend Dorsey publishing Omaha Sociology (1884), and Ms Fletcher, along with Francis LaFlesche (a tribal member who received a Western-styled education) publishing The Omaha Tribe (1911); while both works retained listings of Umonho words, place names and phrases, "Fletcher/LaFlesche" became a model for all further anthropological and ethnographic studies over the next fifty winters.

In 1930, Margaret Mead visited the Umonho for a paltry three months. At this time, it was said over a thousand tribal members spoke hardly any English but still evoked the Aboriginal language fluently. Still, the noted anthropologist was to totally misread the reality of the people she supposedly observed, as shown in such remarks as:

Umonhon English was used throughout, as there is not sufficient unrecorded cultural material to warrant the necessary expenditure of two of three months time in learning the language.

Margaret Mead, The Changing Culture of an Indian Tribe, 1932

It wasn't until more than a decade and a half later after World War II, when returning Umonha were to break the isolation of the Reservation through the influx of global ideas and its attendant problems, that daily use of the language began to drop precipitously.

Within forty winters Dr. Catherine Rudin, a Professor of Humanities (trained in linguistics) at Wayne State College, Nebraska, concluded:

Though not yet in the dire position of having one or two surviving speakers . . . (u)nless drastic changes take place . . . Omaha will be extinct as a vehicle of everyday communication within the next generation.

Omaha Language Preservation: A Status Report, 1992

In the fall of 1996, Margery Coffey and Michael Wetmore, who had previously taken several Umonho Language studies with Thurman Cook at Nebraska Indian Community College, realized it would be useful for Mr. Cook to have a revised, updated and expanded version of curriculum materials. Based on class notes, Mr. Cook's own handouts and original research, Ms Coffey with Mr. Wetmore's assistance designed and laid out a conceptual language workbook and dictionary through the use of computer technology. This book was illustrated with Mr. Cook's drawings including those from his Omaha HeadStart Dictionary (1982) and nine booklets containing his illustrations published by the Umonho Nation Public Schools [Macy Public Schools] around 1989.

Along with richard chilton who served as research editor on this project, the team compiled this material along with additional published and unpublished material into one volume, Umonhon iye te edi'nonya? [How do you say in Omaha?], whose rough draft was completed in the Fall of 1997. A limited edition was published for experimental use by the Umonho Nation Public Schools in Macy, NE.

Among the specific contributions of the Umonho is a sacred ritual drawn from the social society of the He'thushka, known today in its secular form as the Pow-Wow. One of the dances concluded in a sacred manner in honor of the He'thushka is known in our time as the "Grass or Omaha Dance," universally performed both nationally and around the world. The melodies and harmonies of a number of songs now used in worldly competitions are drawn from those originally composed for use in the sacred He'thushka .

Some of the sacred materials that were taken from the Umonha at the turn of the last century have been returned just prior to the turn of the next century. But for a people who have not seen prosperity since the Euro-Americans took over the land and are currently experiencing 65% unemployment on the Reservation in spite of both the Casino and Tobacco industries arrival, there is no where to put them.

These sacred cultural items are important to the inner strength of the tribe. Currently they are being stored off the Reservation until a planned museum can be built. So far, all of this work, like most of the cultural endeavors of the past, has been done by volunteers. While fund raising plans are being studied, it will take more than the resources of the Umonho to realize their dream.

-- richard chilton & Margery Coffey


For more information about the 
Umonho Language:

John Koontz, 
Umonhon linguistic specialist

For further reading on the subject:

Jackalope Arts Gallery

Pic' Ax 'n' Whisk Broom

For further art work on the subject:

Jackalope Arts Gallery

Margery Coffey

For more photographs on the Omaha:

Ilka Hartmann, photographer



To contact  OTHRP, INC. directly:

RR 1 Box 79A
Walthill, NE 68067

A museum for the people, built by the people to house the artifacts and sacred items taken from the people over a century ago.  Help right a historic wrong by being a part of the return of a culture, make a donation with or without a purchase.

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This site is the work of an all volunteer multi-cultural group of people.  We update it regularly so that it is timely and useful.  It is constantly expanding as we bring new information and new art pieces to the public.  This is a free service given willingly by people who believe in promoting artisans and in helping the Omaha people built their museum for their artifacts and sacred objects that were finally returned to them in 1991.  We ask that you join us by telling others about the site and to make a donation to the museum.  Every little bit helps.

All donations are USA tax deductible. 


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