My name is Wynema Morris. My Omaha name is Mi'houx'fahn. I want to talk about the very little known fact, it seems, about the origins of what we call the powwow. The Omaha people have a tradition. We have been dancing for at least two hundred and one years, if not longer. Oral tradition and oral history has us dancing for almost forever. But since we have to date things like this we dated them from an entry by Lewis and Clark when they had come up the Missouri River and they wanted to see the Omahas. When they went to our village up by Homer, Nebraska, they found that we were not home. They made an entry that we were probably off on the summer hunt, which is probably exactly correct Nevertheless, in order to date the powwow we use that entry from 1804, and so when Lewis and Clark, we had their commemorative celebration or their commemoration last year at two hundred years, or their bicentennial.
The Omaha people also celebrated their bicentennial for dating their traditional dance. The Omaha celebration for this is called He'dah'wachie. Under the He'dah'wachie, there are all kinds of things that happen. It was an annual event. It celebrated not just the one singular event, but events throughout the year that had happened and occurred within the tribe. This was the time to recognize bravery. This was the time to recognize courage. This is the time to break the mourning for people who may have lost loved ones on a previous hunt, or perhaps even during that summer because hunting buffalo on the Plains was a very, very dangerous enterprise, and one that absolutely had to succeed if the tribe was going to survive for yet another year.
So we dance for a reason. The story that was told to me was handed down to my grandfather Samuel Thomas Gilpin to one of his numerous sons, Joseph Gilpin, was that the Omahas danced to give thanks to the Creator.
The story is that once long, long ago, long before the coming of the Europeans. The Omaha people were starving. They had nothing to eat. Game itself was very scarce and pretty soon things got to the point where they started to cut up their tipis and their moccasins and began to boil the leather just for some sort of sustenance. Every day the hunters would go out and look on the Plains and see if they couldn't find some indication of where the buffalo might be.
So one day there was probably about four hunter warriors who were out on the plains and were looking for the buffalo one more time. They were tired. They were exhausted. They were hot. They were hungry. They got on this high hill and they looked all around and of course it was empty. It was bare. They looked to the north, south, the east and the west. They looked all over and it was totally bare. There was nothing there and they were discouraged.
All of a sudden this big booming voice came out and said, “Look around you. Get off, get on your knees.” They looked at each other and they looked around as they were directed. They got on their knees and they could see that none of them had given that great big huge commanding voice. It said again, “Look around you.” And they did, but by then they were trembling and they were very, very much afraid. They knew that they were in the presence of something holy, something beyond them, something very, very powerful, and that it was something extremely new, supernatural.
They looked around and then they realized that they were in the presence of something that had never happened to anyone that they knew of before. They continued to tremble and be afraid. Then this big huge voice said, “Stand up! Stand up!” And so they did as they were told. And this voice said, “Do you see the sky? Do you see the sun? Do you see the ground beneath which you walk?” And they looked at each other and gave indication of “Yes, yes, we see all this”. They were afraid to speak.
This voice said, “I made these things. Do you see the rolling hills? Do you see the grass? Do you see the stream over in the distance? I made those. All those things that you see—the stars at night, the moon that shines, and the sun—I made those. All of those are mine. They belong to me.” Then they knew that they were in the presence of Wa'kundah, the Creator.
They looked around and they fell to their knees one more time because they couldn't stand in the presence of the Creator. The voice said, “Stand, as I've told you. You know who I am.” They nodded assent, “Yes, yes.” And he said, “Now look. Go to this high hill, the one you just came from. Go look.” So they were very frightened and they didn't want to disobey, so they immediately got up in this presence and went to this high, high hill.
When they got to this high hill where they had been previously, and they looked around, the Creator said, “Now tell me, what is it you see?” They looked and the prairie was just black with buffalo, where there had been none before. There was noise. They could hear the buffalo stamping and talking to each other, and very content because they were eating the grass and they were drinking at the stream.
The Creator said, “This is all yours. I know what is happening to my Omaha people. I've heard your prayers. I know that you were starving. I know that you have nothing to eat. I know that you are starting to eat your moccasins and to cut up your tipis. I know that you are near death.” And he said, “Now go! I've heard your prayers. You go home and you tell the people to come here, and they can take all the buffalo that they need to keep them from starvation. But you must do one thing in remembrance of me. As long as you do this, never again will the Omaha people starve. Never again will you die from hunger, but you must do and remember this one thing. When you are finished with the hunt and you have put up all the meat, and you have all the food for the coming year, you must dance to give me thanks. So long as you dance to give me thanks and to remember me, the Omaha people shall endure forever.”
So they went home. They were very happy. They were tired. They were weak. But they told their chief of this great thing that had happened to them. So immediately the Omaha people set out in the direction that the Creator told them to go and there was the buffalo. They hunted to their hearts' content and they were saved from starvation.
When they came back they told the story again. And so the warriors said, “We know how to sing. We know how to dance. After all our meat is put away we will have this dance. We will do He'dah'wachie. This is how we will remember the Creator. This is our dance to say thank you. And so it was, and from that time on the Omaha people have been dancing every year since.
My mother, she's eighty-three years old this year in 2005. She said, for as long as she can remember there was always a dance, that even during the World Wars, even during the Great Depression, even during all these great world upheavals, the Omaha people would always gather together as a tribe and as a nation, and they would dance. So this is our tradition. We are, and we consider ourselves to be the oldest pow wow, but we don't call it that. Our word for that is He'dah'wachie, and the nearest translation would be ‘harvest dance' or ‘harvest festival', in time to gather up all the, the fruits of the prairie and of course to return from the hunt and to distribute the meat and all of the other vegetables and berries, and corn and other wild things that would grow, for the year, so that they would not starve and that the tribe would endure for yet another year until the next buffalo hunt.
Our He'dah'wachie, our dance is again, the oldest in the United States. Other tribes try to claim it. It's not to say that they don't have some sort of tradition, but what we're saying is this particular form. The Omahas always put their drum in the center and only the center. The reason why we dance is to recognize that there is only one Creator, and the one Creator is always in the center of our lives.
Intertribal people who don't understand that, and I'm not trying to offend them, but they don't understand that. But they saw this dance and it spread like wildfire. They began to put their drums off to the side. That's okay because essentially it's dancing. For the Omaha people we have to dance to give thanks.
We celebrated our two hundred and first annual He'dah'wachie this past August. Again, it was because we had to give thanks and to remember the Creator. That's the origin of our dance. That's our story that we tell about ourselves. We dance for a reason. We don't just dance because it's fun to have a powwow or fun to do an intertribal. The Omaha people dance for a reason and that reason is to give thanks to the Creator.
That's one of the things that I'm always interested, and I always want to tell that because some tribes know this. I will say that the Lakota people, they know it because we took our dance and our songs to them, even though long time ago we were enemies. Despite that, we had friends among various ones of them, and we took our Grass Dance to them. We took various kinds of Green Corn Dance to them. We took different kinds of songs and dances to them, and they remember it. When they gather for their annual dances they, much to their credit, give credit to the Omaha people. They say, “This dance is the Omaha dance.” Or they'll say, “This is the Omaha Grass Dance”, or they will give us credit in some way. I don't know if other tribes are aware of this, but they never give thanks. They don't even know where it comes from, but the Lakota people do and they give us great thanks for giving them this form of dance and celebration.
That's all I have to say about that. I have other things that I tell about the Omaha people, which I could go on for hours and hours. But that's one thing that I always wanted to sort of set the record straight for the rest of America, let people know where this colorful dance comes from, where it started from and how, but most importantly why.
The tribes from Oklahoma, we must have gone down there. We shared that with them, but there are seven groups of the. Deghiha speaking group of the Omaha. That's the Omaha, Oto, Iowa, Ponca, Qwapah, Osage and Kansa. Anyway, there's seven different groups that speak a form of that dialect. Maybe it was the Osages, or the Poncas, who were in Oklahoma, who showed them that dance. You have a lot of fancy dances. It's gone through lots of different changes, different styles of dancing to express who we are as Indian people. That's good. That's fine. I'm glad it has grown.
The Omaha people have an obligation to dance. So it doesn't matter whether or not we just have a pow wow to have a pow wow. Ours is an obligation from long time ago. I'm proud to say that we're still carrying on that tradition. It's changing. Our young ones are not cognizant. They don't know of some of this, and so they change it. What they do is they bring a lot of intertribal back into our arena.
Our arena is sacred. It's blessed in the early, early morning when that little four o'clock star shows in the horizon at forty-five degrees angle. Omaha people from long, long time ago selected a certain member of a certain clan that had the responsibility to smoke tobacco and consecrate that dance ground. He would smoke tobacco, he would bless the people and he would bless the endeavor. Then that tobacco would be buried on the east end of the entrance.I'm not so sure that was done this year, but nevertheless the form was there and this is what we talk about, loss of the culture. But nevertheless, the older ones, myself included, I guess we have to be satisfied that maybe it wasn't done exactly as we were taught and exactly as we were told, but at least we still danced. That's the main thing that we can now count on.