In pre-settlement times, the Omaha had an intricately developed social structure that was closely tied to the people’s concept of an inseparable union between sky and earth. This union was viewed as critical to perpetuation of all living forms and pervaded Omaha culture.

 

The tribe was divided into two moieties or half-tribes, the Sky People (Insta’shunda) and the Earth People (Hon’gashenu). Sky people were responsible for the tribe’s spiritual needs and Earth people for the tribe’s physical welfare.  Each moiety was composed of five clans or gente.  Each gens had a hereditary chief, through the male lines, as the tribe had a patrilineal system of descent and inheritance. Children were considered to be born to their father’s clan.

 

The hereditary chiefs and clan structures still existed at the time the elders and chiefs negotiated with the United States to cede most of their land in Nebraska in exchange for protection and cash annuities. Only men born into hereditary lines or adopted into the tribe, as Joseph LaFlesche (Iron Eye) was by the chief Big Elk in the 1840s, could become chiefs. Big Elk designated LaFlesche as his son and successor chief of the Weszinste. LaFlesche was the last recognized head chief selected by the traditional ways and the only chief with any European ancestry. He served for decades from 1853.

 

The Sacred Pole

The Omaha revere an ancient Sacred Pole, from before the time of their migration to the Missouri, made of cottonwood. It is called Umoⁿ’hoⁿ’ti (meaning “The Real Omaha”), and considered to be a person. It was kept in a Sacred Tent in the center of the village, which only men who were members of the Holy Society could enter.

 

In 1888 Francis La Flesche, a young Omaha anthropologist, helped arrange for his colleague Alice Fletcher to have the Sacred Pole taken to the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University, for preservation of it and its stories, at a time when the tribe’s continuity seemed threatened by pressure for assimilation. The tribe was considering burying the Pole with its last keeper after his death. The last renewal ceremony for the pole was held in 1875, and the last buffalo hunt in 1876. La Flesche and Fletcher gathered and preserved stories about the Sacred Pole by its last keeper, Yellow Smoke, a holy man of the Hong’a gens.

 

In the twentieth century, about 100 years after the Pole had been transferred, the tribe negotiated with the Peabody Museum for its return. The tribe planned to install the Sacred Pole in a cultural center to be built. When the museum returned the Sacred Pole to the tribe in July 1989, the Omaha held an August pow-wow in celebration.

 

The Sacred Pole is said to represent the body of a man. The name by which it is known, a-kon-da-bpa, is the word used to designate the leather bracer worn upon the wrist of an Indian for protection from the bow string (of the weapon of bow and arrow). This name demonstrates that the pole was intended to symbolize a man, as no other creature could wear a bracer. It also indicated that the man thus symbolized was one who was both a provider for and a protector of his people.