The Supernatural Among the Omaha Tribe of Indians

To comprehend the ideas of a people concerning the preternatural and the manifestations of the supernatural among them, it is needful to know something of their beliefs relating to the origin and the future of mankind; their notions pertaining to the natural world and their religious ceremonies.

A clearly defined cosmogony does not exist among the Omaha tribe of Indians. Myths tell of water animals being engaged in forming the earth, but how water was created, or how life began, is left in definite.

The general belief of the Omaha Indians is, that in some way man has been developed from animals. How this came about no myth and no man give any explanation. No story exists where a man is born of an animal; yet, as the life of man depends upon the animal as food, so in some mysterious manner the two are bound together in the general continuity that pervades the universe.

In the myth telling of the birth of woman a younger brother is made the medium; a strange thorn pierces his foot, he extracts it, and wraps it in coverings of skin. When the older brothers return home they are startled by hearing a crying, and upon examination of the bundle from which the sound proceeds, they find to their astonishment a baby in the place of the thorn. The infant rapidly becomes a woman; all the animals obey her call, and she enriches her brothers by her skill and industry.

The myths seem to indicate a linking together of all forms of life throughout nature. The various animals are endowed with speech, and address each other by terms of relationship, and are so addressed by man. The beaver, eagle, and others are called grandfather or grandmother, the titles of respect; but in the various myths these terms are not always applied to the same animal.

The otter seems to be connected with the supernatural. Its skin is twisted about the neck of a man in order to promote the swoon, which will bring prophetic vision. Its skin is used in the sacred society when a part of the ceremony consists in the simulation of death. In the myth telling of the introduction of death the otter was sent as a decoy to bring about that event. The story is of a mythical person named Ha-hea-ga, who had a younger brother. (It is noticeable that here again it is a younger brother who introduces the new experience.) One day, Ha-hea-ga warns his brother of the approach of some mysterious impending trouble, and urges him not to venture forth from the tent. Ha-hea-ga goes out as usual to hunt, and returns after a time to find his brother missing. He follows the footprints of the youth until they lead to the water and out on the ice, to where there is a hole; there they disappear, together with the marks of an otter, which had evidently enticed the brother into danger. The myth describes the grief of Ha-hea-ga, the present streams of the country being formed by his tears. He goes among the animals seeking for tidings. At times he becomes enraged and kills those who show no sympathy, but he rewards those that help him. At last he discovers the abode of the strange water-monsters that have caused his brother’s death, and by stratagem kills them, and secures all that remains of his brother, – his skin. Ha-hea-ga constructs a sweat lodge, using serpents instead of boughs; they thrust their tails into the ground and twist their necks together to make the framework for the coverings. Ha-hea-ga gathers stones, and appeals to their ancient life for help; he puts them in the fire, calling on this power for assistance; he invokes the aid of water, as he pours it on the heated stones. This he does in the sweat lodge, having with him his brother’s skin. As the steam rises, amid prayerful songs, the brother stirs. Four times Ha-hea-ga goes through these ceremonies before the youth responds to the appeals to return once more to life; at last he says, ” Ah, my brother, why do you this? Death is far better.” And Ha-hea-ga, filled with chagrin, turns his brother into a stone, and himself becomes a wolf; but death had entered the world.

The Omahas believe that after death the spirit travels four days seeking for the path that leads to the home of the dead. To find this road is not so hard for an adult, but a child experiences much difficulty. The path is visible to us as the ” milky way.” To assist the dead as they wander forth, a fire is kept burning at the grave during four nights; by that time it is supposed that the path is reached. The spirit then passes on to where the way divides; at. this fork an old man sits; lie wears in his hair the sacred downy eagle feather and is clad in a skin robe, the hair outside, the head of the animal resting on the left arm, the tail on the right; the robe is always worn in this manner on occasions of solemnity. As the spirit reaches the place where the old man sits, he looks and smiles at those whose lives have been in accordance with the Indian ideal; that is, men valiant, faithful to friends, relentless to foes, just, slow to quarrel, unfailing in hospitality, and exact in all ceremonial observances. To such a spirit the old man points the direction to be taken, indicating the short branch of the ” milky way.” The spirit passes on, obeying the sign; no word is spoken by either. Those whose lives have not been worthy, travel on, unheeding the muffled figure, and are unnoticed by him; these do not turn aside toward the short way, but continue over the zenith and wander on endlessly, always alone, and with increasing sorrowfulness of heart.

A suicide ceases to exist: for him there is no hereafter.

Heaven is thought to be a place like this world, having mountains, streams, valleys, prairies, and woods filled with game and beautiful with verdure. The vocations are the same as here; the men hunt, the women weave, the children play. Each one enters heaven as he left this world; the adult is still an adult, the child a child. Friends welcome each other and relations are reunited. Enmities are at an end. Sickness and hunger are not suffered there; but sorrow comes when the second death sunders those who are dear to each other. There is said to be a succession of heavens, each one better than the preceding. How many of these heavens there are, no one could state to me. Each succeeding heaven is reached as was the first, the person dying in the heaven where he may he, and entering the next above him; those whom he has left behind, wailing over his departure.

The knowledge of the hereafter seems to have been received by visions coming to persons in a swoon. Those having such visions declare they remain several days where the dead live, but are finally forced to return from loneliness; for, although they see their friends and watch them at their occupations, these will not speak to the new-comer, and ignore his presence; even the animals fail to take cognizance of the visitor.

According to the cosmography of the Omaha the earth is a vast plain, broken by mountains, valleys, rivers, and lakes; the heavens, a great canopy, held up by the four winds. The sun travels across the sky from east to west, and returns by way of the north, passing below the rim of the earth, the aurora being the light thrown up during this passage. The moon follows the course of the sun, and is made new every month; the period between the death of the old and the birth of the new is marked by a storm, which comes to cover the generation of the moon. The stars are seen to move, and the stationary North Star is used as a guide on journeys. No explanation is given of the difference between the stars. Thunder and lightning come from a strange, undefined being in the form of a bird. The napping of its wings makes the thunder, and the winking of its eyes the heat lightning. It hurls on men the thunderbolts, and feeds upon the compass-plant (silphium lucimatum).

In the sacred ceremonies the earth, winds, sun, and the thunder are commemorated by certain symbols peculiar to each of the fore going.

The annual festival of Thanksgiving always took place when the tribe were within a few days’ march of their permanent village, on their return from the summer tribal hunt, which was always con-ducted under rigid rules and ceremonies. At a certain part of the proceedings, this figure is marked upon the ground, and within its limits the earth is mellowed and made fine. Some say the form typifies the fireplace, but many agree that it is an emblem of thankfulness, recognizing the earth as the giver of food, the sustainer of life, and that whereon the home is founded. The ground plan of the earth lodge, the permanent dwellings of the tribe, gives the same outline; the circle being the lodge, the projection, the entrance. When a man is about to prophesy concerning the success of a party going forth to another tribe to perform the ceremonies connected with the sacred peace pipes, this figure is drawn upon the ground. In the distance beyond this outline the man sees prefigured the manner of reception awaiting the party and the gifts that will be brought forth. These gifts are used to assist the poor, and at the same time they bring honors to the donor in his tribe and home. I have seen this same figure cut in the earth to the depth of three inches, upon a high bluff overlooking the surrounding country. My compass showed the projection to face due east; so does the opening of the lodge and tent. The figure was kept clear of weeds and underbrush by some secret hand. Such excavations were said to be made in accordance with visions or dreams that represented the earth.

The four winds 1 are recognized when the hair of a child is cat for the first time by the old man whose duty it is to perform the ceremony. He lifts the child from its feet and turns it slowly around four times, letting the child’s feet touch the ground at each of the four quarters, in honor of the four winds. After that the child is urged forward a few steps, and has thus entered upon the path of life. When a pipe is smoked ceremonially it is lifted to the four quarters. The rattles and tobacco-pouch which accompany the sacred peace-pipes have painted around them a green band with four projecting lines. The same device is tattooed upon the breast and hack of a young girl, whose father has acquired certain honors derived through these pipes.

In these same ceremonies the sun is symbolized by a small blue spot tattooed on the forehead of the girl who has the mark of the four winds put upon her. A circle is painted in red upon the breasts of two men, whose duty it is to take a certain part in the ceremonies connected with the pipes. The sun is also typified in the streamers on the sacred peace pipes, and by the head of the large redheaded woodpecker.

When the first thunder is heard in the spring, members of certain gentes, which possess a peculiar pack, filled with the skins of certain birds, open their pack and chant the sacred songs pertaining to it.

2 These packs are used on the occasion when a warrior recounts his deeds, in order to secure the right to count his honors. At a signal from the master of ceremonies the man ceases his narrative, and lets fall from his hand, which is extended over the pack, a small reed; if he has spoken truthfully, the reed rests upon the pack; but if he has boasted or falsified, it rolls to the ground. The skins within the pack represent the observing power of the birds during life. These fly over the country, watching all the events that are taking place. By this omniscience they are supposed to be fitted to judge of the veracity of men when narrating their deeds.

The penalty for sacrilegious acts, such as neglect by those in charge of the articles belonging to the sacred tent of war, which include one of these bird-packs, is that the offender will be struck by lightning. A similar punishment will fall on those who neglect to do their share in the great tribal ceremonies. A man who is struck by lightning is buried just as he falls; if he is thrown on his face he is suffered so to lie. No man would dare touch one who had been thus killed. Over such a one the customary mound is not raised; the ground is left flat and unmarked. These ceremonies and penalties, as well as the myths, give evidence that thunder find certain birds are allies. The Instasunda gens, which, from its name, – the flashing eye, – as well as from the names bestowed upon the members of this gens, and some of the ceremonies peculiar to it, refers to thunder and lightning, and has for its symbol and taboo worms and insects.

The ten gentes into which the Omaha tribe is divided have each an animal symbol, and the members of a gens do not touch the animal, or certain portions of it, that is mythically connected with that gens. For example: the Waeginsta gens has the elk: members of the gens do not touch the male elk, under pain of penalties which would follow supernaturally, as sores on the mouth or eyes, or a permanent mottling of the skin with white spots. This gens has a series of names referring to the elk. When a child’s hair is cut for the first time, at three years of age, it is trimmed in a manner to symbolize the elk.

A person is born into his gens, and he cannot change it or escape its limitations; but he is not supposed to receive any benefit from the animal connected with his gens or name, because of his birthplace. Animals, however, are supposed to be able to help men; but this help comes through visions or dreams, and is entirely independent of the symbol of the gens or the name of the man.

Medicines are sometimes revealed by animals, as well as the modes of application. The buffalo is thought to have remarkable recuperative power, and this animal made known to a certain man a root useful to heal wounds. A society of men exists who are instructed traditionally concerning this herb and how to use it. The men who dream of the buffalo, on occasions of importance or danger recall their vision, and put a band of black earth across their mouth from cheek to cheek, and a willow twig in their scalp-lock. The band of black typifies the nosing of the buffalo in the earth, and the twig the root thrown up which has the healing power.

There are men in the tribe who spend much of their time in seeking by fasts and other rites to have visions, and a few persons become adepts in obtaining them. Their dreams are supposed to have a peculiar hold upon the supernatural, and there are those among them who profess to have constant dealings with the spirits of animals and men.

The Omaha believe that animals have great recuperative power; they arc known to live after being badly wounded, and are seen to breathe upon and lick the wound; therefore there must be a peculiar virtue in the breath and saliva of the animals. Consequently, if a man dreams of an animal and it comes near and speaks to him, and its breath is felt by the man, the peculiar qualities of the animal – its tenacity of life, speed, courage, or whatever may be its characteristics – are transmitted to the dreamer, after he has performed certain rites, and procured something belonging to the object seen in the vision. He may also, in some mysterious way, take on the form of his animal visitant four times, and may reverently recall the vision in times of danger or necessity, relying upon the peculiar powers of the animal being given him for succor or success. For instance: a youth dreams of an elk; he must observe certain rules in speaking of his dream; he must make a collar with a fringe of hair from the dewlap of the elk, and a whistle from one of its bones. By certain ceremonies and gifts lie may join the society of those who have bad dreams of the elk. This animal is noted for its speed, which enables it to escape from its pursuers, and the man who dreams of an elk is supposed to be endowed thereby with the means to procure this quality from the elk. Should this man lie challenged to a race or find himself in danger he must put on his collar of elk hair, place the whistle in his mouth, and call reverently upon his past vision for aid; his memory of the dream thus becomes a present reality, and helps him to victory or escape.

All persons having similar dreams are affiliated, and as some have the power to transform themselves four different times into the animal or bird that appeared in visions, it is said that these men visit cognate tribes in this guise. On their journey they stop to rest; if they stop on a rock they leave the impress of their feet. Those, who are birds place their feet where other supernatural birds have rested; those who are animals put their feet in the tracks left by kindred visitants; and in the course of time these footprints deepen by use. There are many rocks pointed out where these impressions are to be seen; one near Ponca City has on it many markings, caused, if is said, by these transformed men resting here when passing between the Ponca and Omaha tribes. These metamorphosed beings sometimes have running and flying matches, to test their strength received by visions; on these occasions, if one should leap over, or fly over, another, the one so passed over would speedily die.

A similar notion seems to prevail among the people. When persons are taking a bath in the sweat-lodge some one is stationed outside to prevent any thing passing over the lodge, lest this bring sickness or death to one inside. If a dog climbs upon the roof of an earth -lodge, and through the central opening for the smoke, chances to look down upon the persons below, the animal must be killed, in order to prevent a death occurring among the number present. A story is told of an old man who had been gifted with visions. One day as he was travelling with some hunters he fell behind to rest; as he sat motionless, a pursued deer in its flight jumped over him. The old man was not able to rise quickly enough to destroy the deer, so he exclaimed to the retreating animal, ” Once I was young; then I would have killed you; now I permit you to jump -over me!” The old man thought his end near, on account of his years, and was incensed at one who he supposed had turned himself into a deer to thus shorten another’s life. Young men throw one leg over a little child and say, “Now you will grow no more! ” A gun is rendered useless if it is stepped over, particularly by a woman.

There are other omens of death. The sick, when about to die, see their deceased relatives, who bid the dying ones to hasten and join them. To dream of seeing a person moving about whose feet do not touch the ground is the precursor of that person’s death. If the one dreamed of is warned of such a dream, and he will make a sweat lodge and bathe therein while one of the men gifted with visions sings the sacred songs, the coming death may be averted. Death can also be prevented by the person so dreamed of pouring hot water before the door of his lodge every morning for four days. To accidentally touch any of the sacred tribal articles, or to be neglectful of respect toward them, brings the transgressor into danger of death or grave disaster, which can be averted by sprinkling hot water with a spray of artemisia over the offender’s person. If a horse shies at a person it is because the animal sees or smells blood belonging to the man, who is thereby warned of approaching death. He can avert this by an ablution in the sweat lodge, or by making the oblation of hot water upon the ground.

The word for ghost in the Omaha language is ” “Wa-na-he,” a trans-parent body. Among this tribe ghosts are more frequently heard than seen. One is liable to hear them at anytime, but particularly at night, that being: the ghost’s favorite hour for visiting; the living; although the visits are not confined to that part of the day. The presence of a ghost is made known by a whistling sound. I have seen old and young start when I whistled, thinking it was a ghost. I do not recall any Indians whistling, as do white men and boys. This abstinence may be caused by the notion that ghosts whistle, therefore men should not; or it may be because the Indian music does not easily lend itself to such cadences as can be whistled; or it may follow from physical reasons: the lips of the Indian are less flexible than those of a people speaking a language which demands more use of the labial muscles, and, as a consequence, whistling is a more difficult accomplishment. The little, whirling eddies of wind, raising the dust in a column, so frequently seen on the prairie or on the beaten trail, are said to be ghosts, who are thus detected as they travel over the country.

When a man is murdered, the ghost of the murdered man pursues the man-slaver until the act is avenged or the man has atoned for his violent deed, or else has fulfilled the conditions and the term of his punishment. While the ghost of the murdered pursues the offender, the waving of any garment worn by the man brings added discomfort to the ghost, and, if the man receives punishment, during the four years of his exile he is forbidden to speak aloud or to move rapidly, lest he disturb the air and vex the ghost of his victim.

At one time the tribe moved out on their annual hunt in the sum-mer. For days the people travelled, but no buffalo were to be seen. By-and-by the provisions which they had taken from their village were all used, and the children began to cry with hunger. The runners were sent out far and wide, but no game was found. Because of weakness the tribe could travel but a short distance, and finally they carried the grass of one camp to another, and used it over and over for their bedding, as they were too feeble to cut grass at each camp. The older men and the leaders protested against this act, as to carry straw from camp to camp was a forerunner of famine. At last one of the men, who was gifted with the power of visions, Sha-gãe-ska, being called on to tell why the tribe was thus bereft of food, declared “I see the ghost of the man murdered by Ma-chu-num-ba following the camp. He walks yonder, with bowed head, as if in great grief.” Then the tribe knew that the wind which attended the ghost blew toward the game, causing it to scent the people and to flee before them, and they blamed Ma-chu-num-ba and his sons for presuming to join the hunt when their misdeeds were unpunished. The offenders were sent back, and soon the people were able to obtain food.

Other tales are told of ghosts following the wrongdoer, and, although the people had provisions, every one was unsatisfied and hungry even after he had eaten. The presence of the ghost took the taste and nourishment out of the food, leaving the people weak.

The story is told that one day a woman made Um-ba-gthe. This dish is composed of a stiff mush of corn and beans; it is always made overnight, and the next day sliced and eaten cold. That night her husband dreamed that he saw a company of strange men, ghosts, enter his lodge, each one bearing a dish. They seated themselves, and had a feast off the Um-ba-gthe. Next morning the husband bade his wife throw away the food, as the ghosts had meddled with it. The next time the wife made Um-ba-gthe the husband placed a knife over the pot containing it and that night he dreamed again of the “time company of ghosts coming with their dishes to feast on the favorite food. but finding a knife over it. they were unable to touch it and went away disappointed. ‘When eatables are left overnight a knife is placed on the pot or dish: this prevents ghosts from meddling with the content-, for one must never eat anything a ghost has touched.

Ghosts are supposed to hover about the places formerly occupied by them, and to return to their old hunting grounds and villages. One fall Sin-de-ha-ha was hunting in company with several men. Evening came on, and they put their horses out to graze, and made camp in a grove. It was a bright starlight night. After they had lain down to sleep they heard footsteps and the cracking of twigs, as if these caught in the hair of the robes worn by those walking. Sin-de-ha-ha and his companion- picked up their bow- and arrows and stealthily followed the footsteps, which moved faster and faster in the direction of the horses. As the hunters drew near the grazing-ground they saw little whirlwinds of dust travel towards the horses, and as soon as these reached the animals, they snorted, then, tossing their heads, began to run. The men followed hard after them, but the horses were soon far out of sight, and the battled hunters returned to camp to await the morning. When daylight came the search was renewed. They looked for the footprints of the intruders, as the ground passed over the night before was burnt prairie; the men found their own footprints and the marks of the horses’ feet, but nothing else. Following the tracks of the horses, they found them quietly feeding some two miles from the camp. “It was ghosts that drove off the horses.” said the narrator, as he finished the story.

Some years since a middle-aged man, a young man and a lad were out hunting: the latter had with him two white hunting-dogs. In the afternoon the eldest of the party wounded a deer, but failed to capture the animal. He came to the lad and requested to have the dogs put on the trail of the deer. This was done: the hunters followed the dogs, secured the game, cut it up and the two younger ones were for starting back at once, although it was late: but the eldest said. “Let us stay here tonight, we shall find our trail better in the morning.” So they camped under a walnut tree, the young man and the lad gathering twigs and wood for the fire, and picking up walnuts for their own pleasure. Just as they were about to kindle the fire they heard a boy’s voice call, Wha-ae! ” An older voice, answered. “Wha-ah!” and a third and more distant voice, belonging to a mature man. shouted, “Wha-o-o!” – the call lor a dog. The hunting-dogs dropped their tails between their Legs, shivered, growled, and huddled close to the men. The eldest hunter at once hailed the newcomers. The three voices paid no attention to the greeting, hut kept up their calls to each other, which increased the distress of the dogs. After a time the eldest hunter said. “Build the fire: it is ghosts that we hear.” The fire was lighted, the meal cooked and eaten; then the party lay down to rest. The two younger hunters fell asleep, but the elder kept awake until midnight when the ghosts ceased their calling. “It was strange that the ghosts corresponded in age to our party,” remarked the man who told the story, and who was one of the younger hunters.

Once, in the fall, a large number of families started out on a hunt. While they were camped on the south side of the Platte River, nearly opposite the place now known as Grand Island. Nebraska, a woman fell ill. The family to which she belonged and that of a near relative remained behind when the rest of the people moved on. After they had been gone a few hours, and it was about noon, the two families which had remained behind sat down to their dinner. Suddenly the dog began to growl; then it ran out and barked violently; shortly after the laugh of a girl was heard, then a woman’s voice. One of the men at dinner exclaimed, “Some of the people have returned!” and he sent his little daughter to see who the folk were. The child came back, saying she could not see any one. So the families resumed their meal. In a moment the voices were heard once more, first as if at a distance, then nearer, until finally words could be distinguished; these sounds were accompanied by the rattling of tent-poles, as when a camp is being set up. Thinking there could be no mistake as to the return of the people who had left in the morning, the head of one of the families that had stayed behind rose from his dinner and went out to greet his friends. As he emerged from his tent he could see nothing but the smoking circles left by the late camp. As he stood wondering he continued to hear voices, the setting-up of tent-poles, the playing of children, and the barking of dogs, his own dog responding vigorously. He knew then that, the camping place had been taken possession of by ghosts. He returned to his tent and told the inmates his conviction; they continued their meal, without further attention to the outside voices. The footsteps of the ghosts and their talking, as they pursued the ordinary occupations of the camp, continued to be heard by the families during their stay; but no one was oppressed by fear of the supernatural visitors.

Num-ba-dou-ba and his family were returning from a hunt, and went into camp on the Logan creek; the moon was shining brightly. As the people sat at supper their large dog suddenly began to bark, and rushed out of the tent as if to attack some one; in a moment he returned, howling, as if from the pain of a blow. Soon the inmates of the tent heard a sound like a coming breeze; then they distinguished whistles; these were followed by footsteps and whisperings, and shortly the tent was struck, as if with sticks. The wind increased in violence; the dog manifested great fear; and the men of the party determined to fire off their guns, hoping thereby to frighten away the ghosts which they were sure surrounded them. The guns produced no effect; the steps, whistling, and whipping of the tent continued. At last a cloud covered the moon; as it passed by, with lightning, the ghosts disappeared with it, and all was peace-ful once more.

Ka-hea-num-ba’s mother had a quarrel with her husband when the tribe were moving out on the annual summer hunt, and were already some days distant from the permanent village of the people. She determined not to accompany her husband, but to return to her lodge in the village. Her three sons were absent at the time the woman started across the prairie; when they returned to camp and learned of their mother’s departure they put saddles on their horses and set out in pursuit. They sought in vain for any trace of her, and after a time she was given up for lost. The woman when she left the camp hid by day and travelled by night, for she was afraid of the Sioux, who were at war with the Omaha; and she also feared lest her relatives should track her and take her back to the camp. At last she reached the village; the lodges were empty, for everything had been cached. She entered her own lodge; she was hungry and weary, and lay down on one of the reed platforms which are used as seat and a bed; as she lay she heard some one on the roof shout her father’s name, as if to the assembled village, saying that his daughter had returned; she also heard people moving about. Her own lodge, she soon found, was inhabited by ghostly beings. One afternoon, as she sat in her lodge, she heard a child’s feet run past and pause near by; then the voice of a little girl said, “Mother, the people are coming this way, right into our house!” Soon footsteps were heard entering the long projecting entranceway to the lodge, and the number increased until a large company was present. The drum was brought in and put down in its proper place; the ghostly women as they chatted took their seats in the rear, and the men their accustomed stations. By-and-by the men began to sing and to dance. They belonged to the Hae-thu-ska, – a society of warriors only. The woman. as she sat on the platform, heard it all, and she could even see the dust raised from the earthen floor by the men as they danced around the fireplace. As she became familiarized with the scene she tried hard to discern the individuals dancing. At last she was able to distinguish their feet, and finally they became visible as high as the knees. She was never able to see any more of their persons, although they came frequently to her lodge, holding feasts and dancing the Hae-thu-ska. No one spoke to her, though they talked of her, as well as of their hunting and other matters connected with their daily affairs. One morning she heard an old man on the roof of the house calling out that a runner had come in, bringing news that the Omaha were returning home. Then the ghosts were heard departing, and that afternoon the tribe came back to the village. When the woman heard the ghosts go away she became dejected and homesick, and, when her own family found her, she would neither eat nor speak. She was very thin and haggard, and no one knew what to make of her conduct. It was noticed that she plucked and ate the wild sage. After a time she was persuaded to partake of some corn, and at last she consented to eat meat. It was some time before she became reconciled and willing to resume her old life, for she still mourned for the company of the ghosts. Finally she narrated her experience to her sons, and the people understood what had happened to change her so much.

The Ma-wa-da-ne society is said to have been instituted in the following manner: A long time ago a party were out on the warpath. One night the servers had cooked the meal, called the leader, and placed the food before him for distribution among the party, when a voice was heard singing. The fires were at once extinguished, and the men picked up their bows and arrows. The voice continued to sing, but it was evident at a distance. The leader started with his warriors to capture the singer. He sent the men forth so as to form a circle around the voice, and then to gradually close in upon the place whence it proceeded. This was done. In the starlight the men silently drew closer and closer together, while the voice rang out clearer and clearer from under a large tree. When the men reached the tree they found lying at its foot the whitened skeleton of a man long since dead. The voice ceased with the sight of the bones. The warriors, when they returned to their tribe, formed a society to give gilts to the poor and to each other. They preserved the song of the ghost, and it has been transmitted to different generations. The songs of this society are marked by their peculiar opening and closing cadences, which are fashioned to resemble the song of the ghost. The Ma-wa-da-ne society came to be considered the most honorable among the tribe; its members at times rode together in the rear of the camp, when the people were moving on the annual hunt, this being one of the posts of danger, as well as of honor. After the tents were set up these men rode slowly around the tribal circle, singing their songs, their dignity and bearing exciting the admiration of the youth of the tribe.

Many stories are told of hearing ghosts wail at night, and these sounds were always found to proceed from graves; hence the people say that ghosts cry at their own graves.

Ghosts are said to chase persons at night. A man who is out walking suddenly hears footsteps behind him, and he also hears the robe of the ghost catch on the twigs and branches of trees or shrubs, as the wearer moves rapidly on. When a person is so pursued he makes all speed to reach a creek and to cross it: then he is safe, for ghosts cannot cross any running stream.

Certain diseases are caused by ghosts. A paralytic has been touched by a ghost, and the side or part of the body over which the afflicted person has no control is the part which came in contact with the ghost. Sometimes children’s eyes become fixed, because of a sudden fright; this is said to be caused by their seeing a ghost.

That which has belonged to an individual, as his garments, or the hair which is cut from or falls from his head, has still some connection with this person, and may be used as a means to influence him. If a man can become possessed of a lock of a woman’s hair he can have certain charms and spells wrought upon her Women are therefore very careful to burn their combings in order to prevent their falling into any one’s hands. Similar spells can be worked if the blanket or any garment touching the person can be secured. It is dangerous, however, to employ these charms unskillfully, for in such a case the spell turns upon the user, and he suffers blindness and loss of reason.

A father, going on a long journey, may if he has a male child, for whom he is ambitious, take his son’s moccasons with him. When the farthest point is reached he places the child’s moccasons on the prairie that they may draw their owner thither, believing this will cause his child to live and walk far and bravely over the land. If a child dies, and the father in his grief goes upon the warpath he sometimes takes in his belt his dear child’s moccasons. If he slays a man the moccasons are placed beside the corpse, that the man’s spirit may know the child and help it to find its way to the path leading to the land of spirits. The clothing of the dead is always buried with the body; nothing belonging to a deceased person is ever worn by the living.

From the foregoing sketch of the ideas of the preternatural among the Omaha and of the manifestations of the supernatural among them the following deductions may be made:

The Indian has a vague belief in the unity of nature and the interdependence of the various forms of life, but he has no knowledge of the laws which govern the universe, or of his place and share in the great economy. As a result of this ignorance all manifestations of power or of life are regarded as upon a general level, and are recognized, appealed to, and propitiated; for he believes that everything has the ability, in a greater or less degree, to help or hinder the happiness and comfort of man. He is equally ignorant of the law which govern his mental states; he regards his dreams, his vivid fancies, as actualities. As a consequence he classes as evidence equally trustworthy the pictures of his imagination and the tested observations of his senses. His ignorance of the laws of physiology and hygiene tend to still farther obscure his powers of discrimination.

The myths and legends which have crystallized about his beliefs concerning the natural and the supernatural have had much to do in directing his fancies and supplying the imagery of his thoughts when turned toward the invisible. The names bestowed on men and women and the taboo customs of each gens, keep fresh the memory of the animals so mysteriously connected with mankind. The graphic stories of animals wherein are depicted the passions and experiences common among men, bridge the distinctions between the two orders of creation, and tend to form the habit of mind, that does not feel any incongruity in the belief that men can turn into animals through the power of visions.

The desire to possess visions and to receive their mysterious benefits, which will enable one to elude disaster, is inculcated in the child from his infancy; not only has he the hereditary inclination, but his training leads him in that line of thought. Children are sent forth by their parents to seek these supernatural visitants, and these occasions are always reverently remembered. The habit of seeking and resting upon visions makes it easy for the mind to expect some-thing supernatural connected with the ordinary acts of life.

When a vision is called upon in time of need its efficacy depends upon the fact that the person so appealing has about him something that was once a part of the animal. It is also true that in older to charm an individual something personal to him must be obtained to work the spell. The clothing of a person is believed to become possessed of some subtle force that connects it with its owner, as in the case of the moccasons of the dead or living child.

It may be stated as a rule, among this tribe of Indians that the potency of a supernatural appearance depends upon the physical presence of something belonged to the apparition in its natural existence. This, and the fact that the folklore of the people has much to do with the peculiarities of the phantasms that appear among them, may explain why the manifestations of the super natural fail to transcend the experience and vocations of daily life.

Peabody Museum, Cambridge, Mass., Feb. 15, 1887.Citations:

  1. For the further elaboration of these and kindred ceremonies see several papers of mine published in the Sixteenth Annual Report of the Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology, Cambridge, Mass., 1884.[]
  2. For an account of the sacred tent of war containing one of these honor-packs, see Eighteenth Report of the Peabody Museum, page 411, 1886.[]

Thurston County NE,

Fletcher, Alice C. Historical Sketch of the Omaha Tribe of Indians in Nebraska. Washington, Judd & Detweiler. 1885.

1 thought on “The Supernatural Among the Omaha Tribe of Indians”

  1. It doesn’t explicitly explain the taboo’s(forbidden) animals to be touched by the Thunder Clan of the Omaha. And what will happen if they do touch any.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Discover more from Access Genealogy

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading

Scroll to Top