Third Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology

Date: 1884

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35.

THE GENTILE SYSTEM OF THE OMAHA1

ByJ.OWENDORSEYn/an/an/an/a

Tribal Circles

In former days, whenever a large camping-ground could not be found, the Ponkas used to encamp in three concentric circles; while the Omahas, who were a smaller tribe, pitched their tents in two similar circles. This custom gave rise to the name "Oyate yamni," The Three Nations, as the Ponkas were styled by the Dakotas, and the Omahas became known as the Two Nations. But the usual order of encampment has been to pitch all the tents in one large circle or horseshoe, called "hudhuga" by the Indians. In this circle the gentes took their regular places, disregarding their gentile circles, and pitching the tents, one after another, within the area necessary for each gens. This circle was not made by measurement, nor did any one give directions where each tent should be placed; that was left to the women.

When the people built a village of earth-lodges, and dwelt in it, they did not observe this order of camping. Each man caused his lodge to be built wherever he wished to have it, generally near those of his kindred. But whenever the whole tribe migrated with the skin tents, as when they went after the buffaloes, they observed this order.

Sometimes the tribe divided into two parties, some going in one direction, some in another. On such occasions the regular order of camping was not observed; each man encamped near his kindred, whether they were maternal or paternal consanguinities.

The crier used to tell the people to what place they were to go, and when they reached it the women began to pitch the tents.

The Omaha Tribal Circle

The road along which they passed divided the tribal circle into two equal parts; five gentes camped on the right of it and five pitched their tents on its left. Those on the right were called the Hañgacenu and the others were known as the Ictasanda. The Hañgacenu gentes are as follows: Wejincte, Iñke-sabĕ, Hañga, Dhatada, and Kanze. Thee Ictasanda gentes are as follows: Mandhiñka-gaxe, Te-sĭnde, Ta-pa, Inghde-jide, and Ictasanda.

According to Wahan’dhiñge, the chief of the Te-sĭnde gens, there used to be one hundred and thirty-three tents pitched by the Hañgacenu, and one hundred and forty-seven by the Ictasanda. This was probably the Case when they went on the hunt the last time, in 1871 or 1872.

Fig. 1. The Omaha tribal circle.

The sacred tents of the Wejincte and Hañga gentes are designated by appropriate figures; so also are the seven genres which keep the sacred pipes. The diameter of the circle represents the road traveled by the tribe, A and K forming the gentes in the van.

Rules for Pitching the Tents

Though they did not measure the distances, each woman knew where to pitch her tent. Thus a Kanze woman who saw a Wejincte tent set up, knew that her tent must be pitched at a certain distance from that part of the circle, and at or near the opposite end of the road or diameter of the circle. When two tents were pitched too far apart one woman said to the other, "Pitch the tent a little closer." Or, if they were too close, she said, "Pitch the tent further away." So also if the tents of neighboring gentes were too far apart or too close together. In the first case the women of one gens might say, "Move along a little, and give us more room." In the other they might say, "Come back a little, as there is too much space between us." When the end gentes, Wejincte and Ictasanda, were too far apart there was sometimes danger of attacks of enemies. On one occasion the Dakotas made a dash into the very midst of the circle and did much damage, because the space between these two genres was too great. But at other times, when there is no fear of an attack, and when the women wish to dress hides, etc., the crier says: "Halloo! Make ye them over a large tract of land." This is the only occasion when the command is given how to pitch the tents.

When the tribe returned from the hunt the gentes encamped in reverse order, the Wejincte and Ictasanda gentes having their tents at the end of the circle nearest home. . . .

Within the circle were placed the horses, as a precaution against attacks from enemies. When a man had many horses and wished to have them near him, he generally camped within the circle, apart from his gens, but this custom was of modern origin, and was the exception to the rule.

The Sacred Tents

The three sacred tents were pitched within the circle and near their respective gentes: that of the Wejincte is the war tent, and it was placed not more than fifty yards from its gens; those of the Hañga gens are connected with the regulation of the buffalo hunt, etc.; or, we may say that the former had to do with the protection of life and the latter with the sustenance of life, as they used to depend mainly on the hunt for food, clothing, and means of shelter. . . .

Law of Membership

A child belongs to its father’s gens, as "father-right" has succeeded "mother-right." But children of white or black men are assigned to the genres of their mothers, and they cannot marry any woman of those genres. A stranger cannot belong to any gens of the tribe, there being no ceremony of adoption into a gens.

The Weji

This gens occupies the first place in the tribal circles, pitching its tents at one of the horns or extremities, not far from the Ictasanda gens, which camps at the other end. . . .

Taboo.—The members of this gens are afraid to touch any part of the male elk, or to eat its flesh; and they cannot eat the flesh of the mate deer. Should they accidentally violate this custom they say that they are sure to break out in boils and white spots on different parts of the body. But when a member of this gens dies he is buried in moccasins made of deer skin. . . .

The Sacred Tent.—The sacred tent of the Elk gens is consecrated to war, and scalps are given to it, but are not fastened to it, as some have asserted. Bdhanti used to be the keeper of it, but he has resigned the charge of it to the ex-chief, Mahindhiñge.

The place of this sacred tent is within the tribal circle, and near the camping place of the gens. This tent contains one of the wadhixabe, a sacred bag, made of the feathers and skin of a bird, and consecrated to war. There is also another sacred bag in this tent, that which holds the sacred tihaba or clam shell, the bladder of a male elk filled with tobacco, and the sacred pipe of the gens, the tribal war-pipe, which is made of red pipe-stone. . . .

Worship of the thunder in the spring.—When the first thunder is heard in the spring of the year the Elk people call to their servants, the Bear people, who proceed to the sacred tent of the Elk gens. When the Bear people arrive one of them opens the sacred bag, and, after removing the sacred pipe, hands it to one of the Elk men, with some of the tobacco from the elk bladder. Before the pipe is smoked it is held toward the sky and the thunder god is addressed. . . .

While the Elk gens is associated with the warpath, and the worship of the thunder god, who is invoked by war chiefs, those war chiefs are not always members of this gens, but when the warriors return, the keeper of the sacred bag of this gens compels them to speak the truth about their deeds.

Birth names of boys.—The following are the birth names of boys in the Elk gens. These are sacred or nikie names, and sons used to be so named in former days, according to the order of their births. For example, the first-born son was called the Soft Horn (of the young elk at its first appearance). The second, Yellow Horn (of the young elk when a little older). The next, the Branching Horns (of an elk three years old). The fourth, the Four Horns (of an elk four years old). The fifth, the Large Pronged Horns (of an elk six or seven years old). The sixth, the Dark Horns (of a grown elk in summer). The seventh, the Standing White Horns, in the distance (i.e., those of a grown elk in winter).

Other proper names.—The following are the other nikie2 names of the elk gens: Elk. Young Elk. Standing Elk. White Elk (near by). Big Elk. . . . (Elk) Turns round and round. No Knife or No Stone (probably referring to the tradition of the discovery of four kinds of stone). Dark Breast (of an elk). Deer lifts its head to browse. Yellow Rump (of an elk). Walking Full-grown Elk. (Elk) Walks, making long strides, swaying from side to side. Stumpy Tail (of an elk). . . .

The Iñke-sabĕ, or Black Shoulder Gens

This is a Buffalo gens, and its place in the tribal circle is next to that of the Elk gens. . . .

Mythical origin.—The Iñke-sabĕ were buffaloes, and dwelt under the surface of the water. When they came to the surface they jumped about in the water, making it muddy; hence the birth-name for the first son, Ni-gaqude. Having reached the land they snuffed at the four winds and prayed to them. The north and west winds were good, but the south and east winds were bad.

Ceremony at the death of a member of the gens.—In former days, when any member of the gens was near death, he was wrapped in a buffalo robe, with the hair out, and his face was painted with the privileged decorations. Then the dying person was addressed thus: "You are going to the animals (the buffaloes). You are going to rejoin your ancestors. (Anita dubaha hne. Wackañ-gă, i.e.) You are going, or, Your four souls are going, to the four winds. Be strong!" All the members of this gens, whether male or female, were thus attired and spoken to when they were dying. . . .

Iñke-sabĕ style of wearing the hair.—The smaller boys have their hair cut in this style. A A, the horns of the buffalo, being two locks of hair about two inches long. B is a fringe of hair all around the head. It is about two inches long. The rest of the head is shaved bare. . . .

The Hañga Gens

Hañga seems to mean, "foremost," or "ancestral." Among the Omahas this gens is a buffalo gens; but among the Kansas and Osages it refers to other gentes. In the Omaha tribal circle, the Hañga people camp next to the Iñke-sabĕ. . . .

Mythical origin of the gens.—According to Yellow Smoke, the first Hañga people were buffalos and dwelt beneath the water. When they were there they used to move along with their heads bowed and their eyes closed. By and by they opened their eyes in the water; hence their first birth-name, Niahi-icta-ugabdha. Emerging from the water, they lifted their heads and saw the blue sky for the first time. So they assumed the name of Kedha-gaxe, or "Clear sky makers." . . .

The sacred tents.—There are two sacred tents belonging to this gens. When the tribal circle is formed these are pitched within it, about fifty yards from the tents of the gens. Hence the proper name Udhuci-najin. A straight line drawn from one to the other would bisect the road of the tribe at right angles.

The sacred tents are always together. They pertain to the buffalo hunt, and are also "wewaspe," having a share in the regulative system of the tribe, as they contain two objects which have been regarded as "Wakañda egan," partaking of the nature of deities. These objects are the sacred pole or "waqdhexe," and the "te-san-ha." . . .

Tradition of the sacred pole.—The "waqdhexe," "janwaqube," or sacred pole, is very old, having been cut more than two hundred years ago, before the separation of the Omahas, Ponkas, and Iowas. The Ponkas still claim a share in it, and have a tradition about it. . . . The Omahas tell the following:

At the first there were no chiefs in the gentes, and the people did not prosper. So a council was held, and they asked one another, "What shall we do to improve our condition?" Then the young men were sent out. They found many cotton-wood trees beside a lake, but one of these was better than the rest. They returned and reported the tree, speaking of it as if it was a person. All rushed to the attack. They struck it and felled it as if it had been a foe. They then put hair on its head, making a person of it. Then were the sacred tents made, the first chiefs were selected, and the sacred pipes were distributed.

The sacred pole was originally longer than it is now, but the lower part having worn out, a piece of ash-wood, about eighteen inches long, has been fastened to the cotton-wood with a soft piece of cord made of a buffalo hide. The ash-wood forms the bottom of the pole, and is the part which is stuck in the ground at certain times. The cotton-wood is about eight feet long. . . .

The other sacred tent . . . . contains the sacred "re-san-ha," the skin of a white buffalo cow, wrapped in a buffalo hide that is without hair. . . .

Subgentes.—There are two great divisions of the gens, answering to the number of the sacred tents: The Keepers of the Sacred Pole and The Keepers of the Te-san-ha. Some said that there were originally four subgentes, but two have become altogether or nearly extinct, and the few survivors have joined the larger subgentes. . . .

Style of wearing the hair.—The Hañga style of wearing the hair is called "te-nañ.ka-baxe," referring originally to the back of a buffalo. It is a crest of hair, about 2 inches long, standing erect, and extending from one ear to the other. The ends of the hair are a little below the ears. . . .

The Dhatada Gens

This gens occupies the fourth place in the tribal circle, being between the Hañga and the Kanze. But, unlike the other gentes, its subgentes have separate camping areas. Were it not for the marriage law, we should say that the Dhatada was a phratry, and its subgentes were gentes. . . . When on the hunt the four subgentes pitch their tents in the following order in the tribal circle: I. Wasabe-hit’aji; 2. Wajiñga, dhatajĭ; 3. Te-da-it’aji; 4. Ke-’in. . . .

The Wasabe-hit’aji Subgens

The name of this subgens is derived from three words: wasabe, a black bear; ha, a skin; and it’aji, not to touch; meaning "Those who do not touch the skin of a black bear." . . .

Taboo.—The members of this subgens are prohibited from touching the hide of a black bear and from eating its flesh. . . .

Birth-names of boys.—Padhin-nanpajĭ gave the following: The first son is called Young Black bear. The second, Black bear. The third, Four Eyes, including the true eyes and the two spots like eyes that are above the eyes of a black bear. The fourth, Gray Foot. The fifth, Cries like a Raccoon. (La Fléche said that this is a Ponka name, but the Omahas now have it.) The sixth Nidahan, Progressing toward maturity (sic). The seventh, He turns round and round suddenly (said of both kinds of bears). . . .

The Wajiñga Dhatajĭ Subgens

This name means, "They who do not eat (small) birds." They can eat wild turkeys, all birds of the minxa or goose genus, including ducks and cranes. When sick, they are allowed to eat prairie chickens. When members of this subgens go on the warpath, the only sacred things which they have are the gdhedan (hawk) and nickucku (marten).

Style of wearing the hair.—They leave a little hair in front, over the forehead, for a bill, and some at the back of the head, for the bird’s tail, with much over each ear, for the wings. . . .

Custom during harvest.—These Wajiñga-dhatajĭ call themselves "The Blackbird people." In harvest time, when the birds used to eat the corn, the men of this subgens proceeded thus: They took some corn, which they chewed and spit around over the field. They thought that such a procedure would deter the birds from making further inroads upon the crops. . . .

The Te-pa-it’aji Subgens

These are the Eagle people, and they are not allowed to touch a buffalo head. . . .

Birth names of boys.—The first was called Dried Eagle. Padhin-nanpajĭ said that his really meant "Dried buffalo skull"; but La Fléche and Two Crows denied this, giving another meaning, "Dried Eagle skin." The second was Pipe. The third, Eaglet. The fourth, Real Bald Eagle. The sixth, Standing Bald Eagle. The seventh, He (an eagle) makes the ground Shake suddenly by Alighting on it. . . .

The Ke-’i

This subgens camps between the Teda-it’aji and the Kanze, in the tribal circle. . . . Ke’in means "to carry a turtle on one’s back." The members of this subgens are allowed to touch or carry a turtle, but they cannot eat one.

Style of wearing the hair."They cut off all the hair from a boy’s head, except six locks; two are left on each side, one over the forehead, and one hanging down the back, in imitation of the legs, head, and tail of a turtle. La Fléche and Two Crows did not know about this, but they said that it might be true.

Decoration of the tents.—The figures of turtles were painted on the outside of the tents.

Custom during a fog.—In the time of a fog the men of this subgens drew the figure of a turtle on the ground with its face to the south. On the head, tail, middle of the back, and on each leg were placed small pieces of a (red) breech-cloth with some tobacco. This they imagined would make the fog disappear very soon.

Birth-names of boys.—The first son was called He who Passed by here on his way back to the Water; the second, He who runs very swiftly to get back to the Water; the third, He who floats down the stream; the fourth, Red Breast; the fifth, Big Turtle; the sixth, Young one who carries a turtle on his back; the seventh, Turtle that kicks out his legs and paws the ground when a person takes hold of him. . . .

The Ka

The place of the Kanze or Kansas gens is between the Ke’in and the Mandhiñka-gaxe in the tribal circle. . . . The Kanze people cannot touch verdigris, which they call "wase-tu," green clay, or "wase-tu-qude," gray-green clay.

Being Wind people, they flap their blankets to start a breeze which will drive off the mosquitoes. . . .

The Ma

This gens, which is the first of the Ictasanda genres, camps next to the Kanze, but on the opposite side of the road. . . . The name Mandhiñka-gaxe means "the earth-lodge makers," but the members of this gens call themselves the Wolf (and Prairie Wolf) People. The principal nikie of the Mandhiñka-gaxe are the coyote, the wolf, and the sacred stones. . . .

The Te-sĭnde Gens

The Te-sĭnde, or Buffalo-tail gens, camps between the Mandhiñka-gaxe and the Ta-pa gentes in the tribal circles. . . .

Taboos.—The members of this gens cannot eat a calf while it is red, but they can do so when it becomes black. This applies to the calf of the domestic cow, as well as to that of the buffalo. They cannot touch a buffalo head. . . . They cannot eat the meat of the lowest rib, tedhitucagdhe, because the head of the calf before birth touches the mother near that rib. . . .

The Ta-pa or Deer-head Gens

The place of this gens in the tribal circle is after that of the Te-sĭnde. . . .

Taboo.—The members of this gens cannot touch the skin of any animal of the deer family; they cannot use moccasins of deer-skin; nor can they use the fat of the deer for hair-oil as the other Omahas can do; but they can eat the flesh of the deer. . . .

The Iñgdhe-jide Gens

Taboo.—They do not eat a buffalo calf. (See Te-sĭnde gens.) It appears that the two Ictasanda buffalo gentes are buffalo calf gentes, and that the two Hañgacenu buffalo gentes are connected with the grown buffalo. . . .

The Ictasanda Gens

The meaning of "Ictasanda" is uncertain; though Say was told by Dougherty that it signifies "gray eyes." It probably has some reference to the effect of lightning on the eyes. The place of the Ictasanda is at the end of the tribal circle, after the Iñgdhe-jide, and opposite to the Wejincte. . . .

Taboo.—The Ictasanda people do not touch worms, snakes, toads, frogs, or any other kinds of reptiles. Hence they are sometimes called the "Wagdhicka nikacinga," or Reptile people. But there are occasions when they seem to violate this custom. If worms trouble the corn after it has been planted, these people catch some of them. They pound them up with a small quantity of grains of corn that have been heated. They make a soup of the mixture and eat it, thinking that the corn will not be troubled again—at least for the remainder of that season.

1

2 Nikie names are those referring to a mythical ancestor, to some part of his body, to some of his acts, or to some ancient rite which may have been established by him. Nikie names are of several kinds. (a.) The seven birth names for each sex. (b.) Other nikie names, not birth names, but peculiar to a single gens. (c.) Names common to two or more gentes. There are two explanations of the last case. All the genres using the same name may have had a common mythical ancestor or a mythical ancestor of the same species or genus. Among the Osages and Kansas there are genres that exchange names; and it is probable that the custom has existed among the Omahas. Some of these genres that exchange names are those which have the same sacred songs.

The following law about nikie names has been observed by the Omahas:

There must never be more than one person in a gens bearing any particular male name. For instance, when, in any household, a child is named Wasabe-jiñga, that name cannot be given to any new-born child of that gens. But when the first bearer of the name changes his name or dies, another boy can receive the name of Wasabe-jiñga. As that is one of the seven birth names of the Wasabe-hit’aji it suggests a reason for having extra nikie names in the gens. This second kind of nikie names may have been birth names, resorted to because the original birth names were already used. This law applies in some degree to girls’ names: if parents know that a girl in the gens has a certain name they cannot give that name to their daughter. But should that name be chosen through ignorance, the two gifts must be distinguished by adding to their own names those of their respective fathers.

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Chicago: Third Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology in Source Book in Anthropology, ed. Kroeber, Alfred L., 1876-1960, and Waterman, T. T. (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1920), Original Sources, accessed December 5, 2022, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=T6HJEBRQLLXC2K3.

MLA: . Third Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology, in Source Book in Anthropology, edited by Kroeber, Alfred L., 1876-1960, and Waterman, T. T., Berkeley, CA, University of California Press, 1920, Original Sources. 5 Dec. 2022. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=T6HJEBRQLLXC2K3.

Harvard: , Third Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology. cited in 1920, Source Book in Anthropology, ed. , University of California Press, Berkeley, CA. Original Sources, retrieved 5 December 2022, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=T6HJEBRQLLXC2K3.