The Traditional Cherokee Family

When the Europeans began their invasion of the Americas, the Cherokees were an agricultural people whose villages could be found throughout the American Southeast. Cherokee families were based on matrilineal clans. Matrilineal clans are extended family groups with names, tradition, and oral history. Membership in each clan is through the mother: you belong to your mother’s clan. To be without a clan was to be without human identity. The clan is also exogamous, which means people cannot marry a person from their own clan.

With regard to the Cherokee family, historian John Finger, in his book The Eastern Band of Cherokees 1819-1900, says:

“Most incomprehensible of all to non-Indians was the Cherokee family system.”

With regard to inheritance, the matrilineal system meant that children did not inherit from their fathers. Instead, men had a special relationship with their nephews – their sisters’ children – as these were members of their clan.

Folklorist George Lankford, in his book Native American Legends: Southeastern Legends: Tales from the Natchez, Caddo, Biloxi, Chickasaw, and Other Nations, writes:

“Another consequence of matrilineality, which both outraged and delighted Europeans, was that unmarried women were free to seek pleasure or children from anyone they chose.”

The Clans

The Cherokee had seven clans:

  • Blue: (A ni sa ho ni) Also known as the Panther or Wild Cat clan
  • Long Hair: (A ni gi lo hi) The Peace Chief was usually from this clan
  • Bird: (A ni tsi s kwa)
  • Paint: (A ni wo di) Many of the medicine people were from this clan
  • Deer: (A ni ka wi)
  • Wild Potato: (A ni ga to ge wi) Also known as the Bear, Racoon, or Blind Savannah clan
  • Wolf: (A ni wa yah) Many war chiefs came from this clan

Looking at the Cherokee clans from a legal perspective, law professor John Reid, in his book A Law of Blood: The Primitive Law of the Cherokee Nation, reports:

“Clanship was the most fundamental of all Cherokee legal rights. Membership was too exact to be legally challenged.”

Fathers had no official relationship to their children because their children belonged to a different clan. Fathers might love their children and provide them with some care, but still the children belonged to the mother’s clan. A father did not have the right to punish his children. In fact, if a father were to harm his children, the children’s clan (that is, the clan of their mother) could hold him responsible.

The traditional roles of uncles—more specifically, the mother’s brothers—was very important in Cherokee culture. Law professor John Reid writes:

“Avuncular responsibility was the keystone of Cherokee education. So too was avuncular authority.”

For a young boy, this meant that the most important men in his childhood were his uncles, not his father. In her book Seven Clans of the Cherokee Society, Marcelina Reed writes:

“The primary responsibility for discipline and instruction in hunting and warfare rested not with the child’s father but with his maternal uncle.”

Law professor John Reid puts it this way:

“The uterine uncle was, by necessity of law as well as social custom, the disciplinary and tutorial authority in the family.”

If there was no blood uncle, then another male from the mother’s clan would assume these duties (known as a classificatory uncle).


Among the Cherokee, individuals were not allowed to marry members of their own clan or members of their father’s clan. They were, however, encouraged to marry members of their maternal grandfather’s clan or their paternal grandfather’s clan. In general, marriage was regulated by the women of the village.

Marriage was not seen as a binding contract and divorce was common. In his book The Qualla Cherokee: Surviving in Two Worlds, sociologist Laurence French writes:

“Monogamous marriages were of short duration among the early Cherokee with some sources suggesting that it was not unusual for individuals to change spouses as frequently as three or four times a year.”

In their book The Columbia Guide to American Indians of the Southeast, Theda Perdue and Michael Green report:

“When marriages dissolved, husbands simply left their wives and children, who were not blood relatives, and returned to the houses of their mothers and sisters.”

In examining the non-Indian notion that Cherokee girls could be required to marry someone, law professor John Reid writes:

“Cherokee marriage was not binding on either husband or wife, and to imagine that a girl could be compelled to wed ignores the fact that no relative—neither her mother, her uncles, nor her brothers—exercise compulsory authority over her.”

Cherokee men often married women from outside of their own village. The men were expected to live in their wives’ village (matrilocal residence).

Premarital chastity was unusual and there were no cultural prohibitions against fornication or adultery.

Among the Cherokee, a widow was encouraged to marry the brother of her deceased husband. Similarly, a widower was expected to marry the sister of his deceased wife.

The Cherokee wedding ceremony was brief and simple. According to Grace Steele Woodward, in her book The Cherokees:

“The ritual merely entailed the exchange of gifts, in lieu of vows, between a bride and her groom, and lasted but half an hour.”

Children and Birthing

With regard to Cherokee child birth, historian Theda Perdue, in her book Cherokee Women: Gender and Culture Change, 1700-1835, reports:

“During delivery, a woman stood, knelt, or sat, but she never gave birth lying down. Usually no one bothered to catch the baby, who simply fell on leaves beneath the mother.”

It was a good omen if the child fell on its back and a bad omen if the child fell on its breast.

Among the Cherokee as well as the other tribes, deformed infants were simply abandoned in the woods. Infanticide was used as a means for controlling population growth. Among the Cherokee, however, only the mother had the right to abandon a child.

The Omaha Family

Anthropologists have long used the Omaha as the classic example of a family structure which is centered around a patrilineal clan. The Omaha clan is a named, extended lineage in which members observe common restrictions concerning food and have certain ritual obligations because of clan membership. Clans were exogamous, meaning that one could not marry someone from the same clan. There was also a prohibition from marrying within the mother’s clan. Membership in the clan is through the male line (patrilineal descent) which means that each individual, male or female, belongs to the father’s clan.

Among the Omaha, the ten clans were divided into two moieties: the Sky People and the Earth People. The Earth People were in charge of the physical welfare of the people, while the Sky People were the custodians of ceremonies relating to creation, the stars, and cosmic forces. While the Omaha clans were exogamous, the Omaha moieties, were not required to be exogamous. However, marriage outside of one’s own moiety was considered to be ideal.

During the buffalo hunt camps, the Sky People would camp in the northern half of the camp circle and the Earth People in the southern half. The Earth People included the Elk Clan (which controlled the sacred tent of war and war ceremonies), the Buffalo Clan (also called the Black Shoulder Clan), the Leader Clan (this clan traditionally provided the keepers for the tribe’s sacred objects), To the Left of the Leader Clan (this was a collection of sub-clans), and Kansa Clan. The Sky People included the Gray Wolf Clan (also known as the Earth Maker Clan), the Buffalo Tail Clan, the Deer Head Clan, the Red Newborn Buffalo Calf Dung Clan, and the Flashing Eyes Clan.

With regard to marriage among the Omaha, Bradley Ensor, in an article in Ethnology, reports:

“Marriage often involved individual choices sanctioned by the parents.”

There were times when a marriage was arranged by the girl’s parents. In an arranged marriage the groom was usually a mature, established man who paid a bride price.

In their entry on the Omaha in the Handbook of North American Indians, Margot Liberty, Raymond Wood, and Lee Irwin write:

“Most marriages took place through elopement, which was confirmed when the couple returned to the lodge of the husband’s father, where a feast was held and gifts were exchanged between the two families.”

Divorce was common and the children and the home remained with the wife.

When a young man married he lived with his wife’s family until the birth of their first child. Then he and his family would return to his father’s home where he would live.

A man was obliged to marry his brother’s widow. Ethnographers Alice Fletcher and Francis La Flesche, in their 1911 book The Omaha Tribe, report:

“Should he fail in this respect, he was liable to suffer in person or property, either by the act of the woman herself or by that of her near kin, in order to force him to recognize or make good her rights.”

The Omaha had a number of in-law avoidance practices. According to R.H. Barnes, in his book Two Crows Denies it: A History of Controversy in Omaha Sociology:

“A man would not speak to his wife’s parents or grandparents but had to converse with them by addressing his wife or child and requesting them to repeat the question or statement. A reply would be made through the same channel.”

The birth of a child was seen as more than an addition to the clan and tribe. Ethnographers Alice Fletcher and Francis La Flesche report that a child is

“a living being coming forth into the universe, whose advent must be ceremonially announced in order to assure it an accepted place among the already existing forms.”

Four days after birth, certain symbols would be placed on the child. Eight days after birth, a ceremony would be held to introduce the child to the world.

Public Lands and Denise Juneau

One of the differences between Native Americans and the Europeans who invaded this continent is the view of land ownership. Europeans viewed land as something that was supposed to be owned by individuals and developed by them for their personal gain. American Indians, particularly those living on the Northern Plains viewed land differently. Land was owned communally and its resources belonged to all of the people. When the people harvested the buffalo, for example, the meat was shared with the entire band, including those who had not taken part in the hunt.

In the United States today, the controversy of private land versus public or communal land continues. One the one side we have those who argue for private ownership of land or at least private management of public lands so that resources—oil, gas, mineral, timber—can be extracted for the benefit of the wealthy. On the other hand, there are people who feel that public lands should somehow benefit the public, not the privileged few.

Politically, Republicans tend to favor private ownership or private management of lands, while Democrats are concerned with keeping public lands public.

In Montana, Denise Juneau is running for Montana’s only seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Denise Juneau is an enrolled member of the Mandan Hidatsa tribes and a Blackfoot descendent. She graduated from Browning High School on the Blackfeet Reservation and obtained her bachelor’s degree in English from Montana State University. She continued her education and earned a master’s from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She was elected Superintendent of Public Instruction in 2008 and re-elected in 2012.

With regard to her position on public lands, this is what her website says:

Public lands offer a promise to every hardworking Montana family that they can access and enjoy the best our state has to offer. A promise that says these places are for all of us, not just for the wealthy or the privileged. That is a promise Denise Juneau will keep to the people of Montana. She will always fight to protect access to our public lands, and is 100 percent opposed to the transfer or sale of our land.


It’s long past time that we fully fund and permanently reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund. The fund is why we have city parks in every corner of the state, baseball fields in Butte, Lake Elmo in Billings, Giant Springs in Great Falls, and Spring Meadow Lake State Park in Helena.


But, the House’s Interior Appropriations bill that Congressman Zinke just voted for cuts $128 million from an already shrinking LWCF. We must do better so that parks, fishing access sites, and trails are available for future generations.


It’s also time we tackle the growing maintenance backlog in our national parks and forests. Between Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks, 5 million visitors spend nearly $500 million enjoying our parks – we need to make sure the National Park Service and Forest Service have the resources they need to keep our outdoor spaces safe and open to the public.

Montana’s Republican Congressman Zinke generally offers platitudes about protecting public lands, but his actions in Congress show a different picture. Congressman Zinke supported a massive federal government budget that proposed selling off our public lands for profit, endangering Montanans’ access to places where they have hunted and fished for generations. He voted for a proposal that 115 conservation groups opposed because it could lead to the loss of clean water, wildlife habitat and recreational use of public lands.

Denise is facing a tough election. She is running as a Democrat is a Republican state. As an Indian, she faces an anti-Indian, racist sentiment among many of the state’s conservatives. To find out more about Denise Juneau, her policies, and how to help, check out her website.

Susette La Flesche, Indian Rights Activist

Susette (Yosette) La Flesche was born on the Omaha Reservation in Nebraska in 1854. She was the eldest daughter of Joseph La Flesche and Mary Gale La Flesche. Joseph LaF lesche was the principal chief of the Omaha. With regard to Joseph La Flesche, John Little, in his biography of Susette La Flesche in Notable Native Americans, reports:

“Joseph La Flesche was a remarkable and far-seeing leader who realized that both his children and his tribe would have to adapt to and make their way in white America. He did all in his power to influence his often reluctant tribesmen to move in that direction, and he inspired his children to seek education in the English language and in American life and culture.”

Susette grew up on the Omaha Reservation and attended the Presbyterian mission school. In 1872, non-Indian philanthropic groups made it possible for her to attend the Elizabeth Institute for Young Ladies in Elizabeth, New Jersey.

After graduating from the Elizabeth Institute in 1875, she returned to the Omaha Reservation with the intention of teaching. She applied for the position of elementary school teacher at the Indian Agency school on the reservation, but failed to get the job. She was told that she had to pass a teaching examination from the School Committee of Nebraska. When she applied for permission to leave the reservation to take the examination, her request was refused. She left the reservation without permission and took the test.

Later, she discovered that the Indian Office (now the Bureau of Indian Affairs) had a policy which required that Indians be given preference for positions in the Indian Service, including teaching positions. With this information, she wrote to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C. She demanded that she be given preference and in 1877 she obtained a teaching job at the Omaha Agency school. She was paid just half of what non-Indian teachers received.

Events far to the south, in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma), would, however, soon impact her life. In 1877, the United States government had forcibly and brutally moved the Ponca from their Nebraska reservation to Indian Territory. The Ponca had always been at peace with the United States. At sunrise, army troops—four detachments of cavalry and one of infantry—surrounded the Ponca village and dragged men, women, and children from their cabins.  The Ponca were force-marched for 50 days to their new home where they were informed that they were now prisoners of war. During the next year, one-fourth of the Ponca died.

Among those who died of malnutrition was Bear Shield, the eldest son of Ponca chief Standing Bear. His dying wish was to be buried in the traditional Ponca land. Standing Bear decided to return north to Nebraska to bury him in traditional Ponca territory. In 1879, Standing Bear and about 65 of his people left their Oklahoma reservation and traveled to Decatur, Nebraska where they were welcomed by the Omaha and given food and shelter.

The Ponca and the Omaha are closely related tribes. At one time they had been a single people and when they had moved from the Ohio Valley into the Central Plains about 1715 they separated into two distinct tribes.

The Department of the Interior notified the War Department that the Ponca had left without permission and the army was ordered to return them to the reservation. The Ponca were detained by the army at Fort Omaha, but illness among the Indians and the poor condition of their horses made it impossible to return them to Indian Territory immediately.

While the Ponca were being held captive, Thomas Henry Tibbles, the assistant editor of the Omaha Herald, began to stir up public support for the Ponca. Tibbles arranged for a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of Standing Bear and his people in federal court in Omaha. The court found that the army had no authority to incarcerate the Ponca. The U.S. Attorney had argued that Indians were not persons under the law and therefore were not entitled to a writ of habeas corpus. Historian James King, in an essay in The Western American Indian: Case Studies in Tribal History, writes:

“The government’s case was simply that an Indian was neither a person nor a citizen within the meaning of the law, and therefore could bring no suit of any kind against the government.”

In Standing Bear versus Crook the United States District Court declares that an Indian is a “person” under United States law and therefore has the right to sue for a writ of habeas corpus in federal court.

Tibbles wanted to take the Ponca case to the Supreme Court so that a definitive statement on the status of Indians in the United States could be obtained. He also wanted to help the Ponca regain a Nebraska reservation. In order to gain support for the Ponca, Tibbles sent Omaha chief Joseph LaFlesche and his daughter Susette to Indian Territory to investigate the conditions which the Ponca had to endure. Upon their return, Susette La Flesche made her first appearance as a public speaker supporting the Ponca cause.

Kenny Franks, in his essay on the LaFlesche family in Encyclopedia of North American Indians, reports:

“Susette was convinced that the only solution to the ‘Indian problem’ was American citizenship. Such an action would legally give the nation’s Native American population equal status with its other residents.”

To take the Ponca case to the Supreme Court would require money. Therefore, Tibbles decided that a speaking tour featuring Ponca chief Standing Bear would be an effective way to raise both money and public support for their cause. Standing Bear, however, spoke no English. The Ponca and Omaha languages are closely related so Tibbles asked if Susette La Flesche could accompany them as an interpreter. Tibbles also suggested that Susette use the name Bright Eyes for the tour.

The tour began in Chicago in 1879. By the time they reached the Northeast, there were eager crowds waiting to hear from Standing Bear and Bright Eyes. In the Northeast, the speaking tour drew packed audiences five to seven nights a week.

The tour stayed for a month in Boston. At a presentation in Worchester, Massachusetts, U.S. Senator George F. Hoar was moved by what he heard. He wrote to President Rutherford B. Hayes expressing his concern at the wrong done to the Ponca by the American government. The President replied that he would give the matter attention.

Their visit to Boston resulted in the formation of an Indian Citizenship Committee composed of a number of prominent non-Indians.

Following Boston, the tour continued on for lengthy stays in New York City, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. Tibbles also testified before several Congressional committees.

They returned to Nebraska in 1880. John Little reports:

“La Flesche Tibbles, or Bright Eyes, had by now become a well-known public figure who would find a ready audience for both her speeches and writings for the rest of her life.”

In 1881, Thomas Henry Tibbles married Susette La Flesche (thus she also became known as Susette La Flesche Tibbles). The couple made frequent lecture trips to the eastern United States and made one lecture tour of England and Scotland in 1886-1887. Carl Waldman, in his book Who Was Who in Native American History, reports:

“In their lectures, they described Omaha and Ponca reservation conditions and argued against removal and in favor of assimilation.”

Working with Standing Bear, she co-authored Ploughed Under: The Story of an Indian Chief. In 1881, she presented a paper “The Position, Occupation, and Culture of Indian Women” before the Association for the Advancement of Women.

Writing under the name Bright Eyes, Susette La Flesche Tibbles wrote for a number of magazines. Her writings including stories about Indian life for children’s magazines as well as adult stories.

Susette La Flesche Tibbles died in Nebraska in 1903.

Personal Names Among the Central Plains Tribes

For most people today, personal names consist of two basic parts: (1) a surname or last name which is the same as the father’s surname (or the husband’s surname for some women) and (2) a given name or first name which is generally given at birth. In general, people (particularly men) keep the same name for life. For American Indians, there were no surnames and it was common to change names.

The Central Plains is that portion of the Great Plains which lies south of the South Dakota-Nebraska border and north of the Arkansas River. It includes Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, southeastern Wyoming, and western Colorado. At the time when the Europeans began their invasion of this area it was the home to Indian nations such as the Omaha, Otoe and Missouria, Kansa, Osage, Wichita, and Pawnee. Briefly described below are the naming practices of some of the Central Plains tribes.


Among the Omaha, the birth of a child is seen as more than an addition to the clan and tribe. Ethnographers Alice Fletcher and Francis La Flesche, in their 1911 book The Omaha Tribe, report that a child is

“a living being coming forth into the universe, whose advent must be ceremonially announced in order to assure it an accepted place among the already existing forms.”

Four days after birth, certain symbols would be placed on the child. Eight days after birth, a ceremony would be held to introduce the child to the world.

At the fourth day of life, the child was given a “baby name” which was retained for the first 3-4 years of life. The “baby name” was then thrown away during the Turning the Child Ceremony in which the child received new moccasins and a clan name. In his book Two Crows Denies it: A History of Controversy in Omaha Sociology, R.H. Barnes reports:

“personal names could be said to be on loan for the lifetime of the bearer, reverting to the ‘name pool’ upon his death or earlier for reassignment to a younger member.”

Omaha men frequently changed names during their lives and so it was possible for two men to share the same name at different times in their lives. It was not uncommon for a warrior to assume a new name after a successful war party. These “bravery” or “valor” names established a claim on public esteem.

The number of names available for Omaha women was relatively small and consequently there were many Omaha women with the same name. In addition, women’s names were not generally linked to clans and thus women in different clans could share the same name. According to R.H. Barnes:

“In contrast to the effects of male names, women’s names barely rescue their bearers from a general anonymity, neither conferring uniqueness nor indicating group membership.”

Like many other tribes, Omaha etiquette did not allow an individual to be addressed by a personal name. In a 1900 essay reprinted in Talking Back to Civilization: Indian Voices from the Progressive Era, Francis La Flesche recalls his education as a child regarding the elders:

“to use the proper and conventional term of relationship when speaking to another; and never to address any one by his personal name.”

Under no circumstances was it polite to ask a stranger’s name.

Otoe and Missouria

Among the Otoe and Missouria, the child was given a name on the fourth day after birth to insure a long and successful life. Each name included a song which became the property of the owner (the person who now carried the name). The naming ceremony was the initiation of the child into the clan. As an adult, an individual might take on a new name based on a vision or on some deed.

Otoe and Missouria children were also given nicknames by the mother’s brother. The nicknames, considered to be lucky names, were usually obscene and uncomplimentary and were intended to keep people from talking unkindly about others.

Kansa or Kaw

Among the Kansa or Kaw, the child was given a name shortly after birth. The name reflected both clan affiliation and birth order and was given in a ceremony conducted by a tattooed warrior. According to Garrick Bailey and Gloria Young, in their entry on the Kansa in the Handbook of North American Indians:

“Additional names referring to some deed of valor might be assumed during an individual’s life, but these did not replace the original clan name.”


Among the Osage, personal names were owned by the clan and these names reflected the spiritual associations of the clan. The naming of a child was an important ritual as it conferred upon the child both clan and tribal membership.


Wichita children were often named prior to birth as a consequence of dreams of the mother or other relatives. Later in life, the child might be given another name based on some personal mannerism or a significant act. Names might be changed if the person was facing poor fortune or continued illness.


The Pawnee never address each other by personal name, but by a kinship term. This kinship term indicated the expected behavior and reinforced the relationships between people. Anthropologist Gene Weltfish, in her book The Lost Universe: Pawnee Life and Culture, writes:

“A personal name among the Pawnees was of an entirely different character from our own. It was an honorary title of an extremely personal nature.”

She goes on to report that

“the substance of the name was strictly private and reserved to oneself. The name was cited only on the most formal occasions and from the name itself it was not possible to deduce its private significance.”

Massasoit, Wampanoag Leader

During the first part of the seventeenth century, the Wampanoag Confederacy controlled a large portion of what is now New England. Wampanoag territory ranged from Narragansett Bay to Cape Cod. The leader of this confederacy during the first part of the seventeenth century was Massasoit, who is generally described as the Great Sachem. His main village was located near present-day Bristol, Rhode Island.

The Wampanoag were hit hard by the epidemics which swept through New England in 1616-1619. Prior to the epidemics it is estimated that there were 24,000 people living in Indian communities affiliated with the Wampanoag confederacy led by Massasoit. As a result of the epidemics, 75% of the population died.

With the arrival of the Pilgrims in 1621, Massasoit saw an opportunity to increase the power of the Wampanoag confederacy. By signing a treaty of mutual support and protection with the Pilgrims, Massasoit insured that there would be peaceful relations with these people, but more importantly, this alliance would give the Wampanoag better access to European trade goods. With these goods, particularly firearms, the Wampanoag were able to increase their power among the tribes in the region. Historian John Humins, in an article in New England Quarterly, writes:

“This treaty was a bold move by the Wampanoag sagamore, who, as a result, bolstered his economic, military, and political control. He may well have assumed that the pact made the newcomers members of his confederation.”

Writer Frank Waters, in his book Brave are My People: Indian Heroes Not Forgotten, describes Massasoit:

“He wore a deerskin robe and a great chain of white beads to which were fastened a long knife and a leather tobacco pouch.”

In 1621, Massasoit had two of this people—Hobomok and Squanto—teach the Pilgrims agricultural techniques. Without these lessons and without the food supplied to them by the Indians, it is doubtful that the little colony would have survived. That fall, following the harvest, Massasoit brought 60-100 Wampanoag to Plymouth for a traditional harvest feast and with this action set the pattern for a holiday which Americans would later call Thanksgiving. The Wampanoag brought with them five deer to provide venison for the feast, as well as turkey, geese, ducks, eels, shellfish, cornbread, succotash, squash, berries, wild plums, and maple sugar.

In 1621 there was a rumor that Massasoit had been captured by the Pocasset sachem Corbitant. Squanto, Hobamok, and Tokamahomon, who were living with the Pilgrims, went to Corbitant’s village where they found that the rumor was not true, but Corbitant took them captive. Hobamok managed to escape and told the English who then attacked the village, wounding several Indians and freeing Squanto and Tokamahomon. Massasoit then negotiated a peace between the English and the Pocasset.

In 1622, the Narragansett sent a bundle of arrows tied with a snake skin to the Pilgrims at Plymouth. The Pilgrims interpreted this message as a challenge and returned the skin with bullets in it. Historian John Humins reports:

“By doing so, the Pilgrims committed a major diplomatic blunder: they ignored Hobamok’s urgings to confer with Massasoit before responding.”

In 1623, Massasoit became sick and was treated by English physicians. At this time, he warned the Pilgrims that some of the tribes—Narragansett, Massachuset, and some Wampanoag—were plotting against the settlers. Massasoit’s war chief, Annawan, led a series of raids against the insurgent groups.

Over the years, however, Massasoit found that his alliance with English was not beneficial to his people. With the great English hunger for land, more and more Wampanoag land was taken from them. When the Indians complained, they were punished by the English courts who viewed them as trespassers on their own homelands.

Massasoit died in 1661 and the peace which he had helped forge with the Europeans began to crumble. His son Alexander (Wamsutta) became the Grand Sachem briefly. Then his other son Philip (Metacom) became Grand Sachem and led the Wampanoag into the uprising against the English known as King Philip’s War.

Denise Juneau and Native Languages

We don’t really know how many Native American languages were spoken in what is the United States and Canada when the Europeans began their invasion. Linguists Shirley Silver and Wick Miller, in their book American Indian Languages: Cultural and Social Contexts, estimate that there were 250 American Indian languages in this area. On the other hand, Ives Goddard, in an article in the journal AnthroNotes, estimates that there were as many as 400 distinct languages.

For much of its history, the policies of the United States have discouraged the speaking of Indian languages and, in some contexts such as that of the schools, has prohibited their use. As a result, there have been fewer places where the indigenous languages can be freely spoken. Ellen Lutz, the executive director of Cultural Survival Quarterly, writes:

“Native Americans did not lose their languages. Their languages were taken from them by immigrants to American shores who believed in assimilation, the melting pot, and the great American dream.”

Ethnolinguist Jeffrey Anderson, in an article in Anthropological Linguistics, sums it up this way:

“In short, people speak the language in fewer and fewer places.”

For many Indian languages, the primary place where they are used can be considered as ceremonial.

By the 1960s, Silver and Miller estimate that there were 175 Indian languages still being spoken north of Mexico. Of these languages, 136 had fewer than 2,000 speakers and 34 had fewer than 10 speakers. By 2007, it was estimated that only 154 Indians languages were still being spoken and that half of these were spoken only by elders.

At the present time, it estimated that there are 46 Indian languages which are still being spoken by significant numbers of children. Languages which are being learned by children have some chance of survival.

Retention of the native language is an important issue for many tribes. Linguist Ives Goddard writes:

 “Today, many Native American communities have language programs to try to teach their languages to children.”

As a consequence, there are on many reservations programs which are intended to maintain the language. In communities in which the children no longer speak the native language, the goal is language revival in which the Indian language is taught as a second language. By 1986 there were 98 language projects involving 55 different Indian languages. There was an enrollment of more than 14,000 students in these programs. By 2006, there were 62 native languages being taught in 101 programs in 24 states and provinces.

Denise Juneau, who is running of Montana’s sole member of the House of Representatives, says:

Nistowa niitanikoowa ootskoyiiksistsiikoomahyahkii. Niska Pikunakii kii, niitapohtakii siksiikatsitapiiyawa taakaskiniipoowa nitsiipuhwahsin. Niitapohtakii ka-na-tsitaapiiyawa taakaskiniipoowa nitsiipuhwahsin

Pikuni translated to English as “My name is Blue Cloud Woman. I am a Pikuni woman and I am working for my people to have their language. I am working for all tribal nations to have their language”

Denise Juneau is an enrolled member of the Mandan Hidatsa tribes and a Blackfoot descendent. Denise Juneau was elected Superintendent of Public Instruction in 2008 and re-elected in 2012. She reports:

As Superintendent, I supported Montana funding native language immersion programs. The first immersion program was started in Browning in 1995, and this year’s class of kindergarteners will go through 12th Grade in an immersion program spending half the day speaking in English and half the day in Blackfeet.

She also promises:

As a member of Congress, I will educate my colleagues on the importance of tribal language programs. And, I will work to create new grant opportunities for tribes to create or expand language immersion programs.

Why should we care about Native languages? Mark Cherrington, the editor of Cultural Survival Quarterly, puts it this way:

“But for all its breadth, English cannot substitute for Native American languages, because these languages are based on entirely different histories, spiritual beliefs, scientific and natural-world understandings, and political and legal ideas. In essence they are based on different realities. Native languages capture concepts that do not exist in English.”

Journalist Elizabeth Seay, in her book Searching for Lost City: On the Trail of America’s Native Languages, puts it this way:

“When people have no language to bridge the gap between generations, they diminish their ability to decode their history. When you lose a language, then, the size of the loss is somewhere between a list of bird names and a conception of the world.”

It is important to elect Denise Juneau and others like her to Congress. For more about Denise, check out her website.

A Brief Overview of the Kaw or Kansa Indians

The state of Kansas and the Kansas River are named for the Kansa or Kaw Indians whose aboriginal territories once included the state and spread into southern Nebraska. Traditionally, the Kaws were village people who farmed as well as hunted.

Like most of the other tribes in the Central Plains area, the origins of the Kansa lie outside of the region. About four hundred years ago, The Kansa, Quapaw, Osage, Omaha, and Ponca lived as one people in the Ohio River area. These five tribes were united in language and culture. With regard to language, linguists refer to the five tribes as the Degiha Siouans.

The tribes migrated west to the Mississippi River where the Quapaw went to the south and the Osage and the Kansa went to the north. The designation Kansa means “people of the south wind.”

While the common stereotype envisions Indians living in tipis, in reality relatively few Indian nations actually used tipis as a primary dwelling. While the Kansa did use tipis, this is only one of five distinct types of houses which they used.

Like the other village agricultural people who lived along the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, the earthlodge was a common village house among the Kansa. The earthlodge was dug into the ground to a depth of about a foot or a foot and a half. A series of center poles – four, six, or eight poles – and exterior poles were used to support the roof poles. Often the perimeter poles slanted outward. The earthlodges were often 30-40 feet in diameter, though some are reported which exceeded 70 feet in diameter.

Similar to the Indian tribes of the Eastern Woodlands, the Kansa also used a rectangular wigwam which was about 25 feet wide and 60 feet long. The pole structure of the wigwam was covered with skins, bark, or mats.

Unique to the Kansa was a circular structure which was 30-60 feet in diameter with walls four to five feet high and covered with hide, bark, or reed mats. This structure is sometimes described as looking like a haystack. The interior floor of this type of lodge was excavated to a depth of 3-4 feet. This type of house was usually home to 30-40 people.

They also used a skin-covered hunting lodge with a semi-cylindrical roof.

With regard to dress and ornamentation, the Kaws were known for their distinctive hairstyle. Carl Waldman, in his book Encyclopedia of Native American Tribes, explains:

“Tribal members plucked or shaved their entire head, except for a single lock in the back.”

During the nineteenth century, the Kansa were divided into three bands or villages. Each village elected its own chief. From these three chiefs, a tribal chief was selected. In addition, there were five hereditary chiefs who were sometimes female.

The Kansa had 16 patrilineal clans—these were named kinship groups in which membership was through the male line. Each person belonged to their father’s clan. Each clan had its own medicine bundle, taboos, and privileges. For example, members of the Deer clan were not allowed to eat venison and members of the Thunder clan were able to control the weather. Each of the clans was ranked in relation to one another with the Earth Maker clan having the highest rank, followed by the Sun Carrier clan.

Kansa clans were grouped into two moieties, each with eight clans. When camping the clans associated with the left moiety would camp on the left of the circle, while those associated with the right moiety would camp on the right.

Among the Kansa, the child was given a name shortly after birth. The name reflected both clan affiliation and birth order and was given in a ceremony conducted by a tattooed warrior. According to Garrick Bailey and Gloria Young, in their entry on the Kansa in the Handbook of North American Indians:

“Additional names referring to some deed of valor might be assumed during an individual’s life, but these did not replace the original clan name.”

At the age of 12-13, Kansa boys would begin fasting to obtain a vision. They would go to an isolated spot where they would fast for up to four days. During this time, the boy might be contacted by an ancestor, an animal spirit, or by some other spirit. This contact would prophesy his future. Girls also fasted, but their visions were considered to be less important.

The Kansa had two sacred bundles which belonged to the tribe. In one of these bundles was the sacred clamshell which had been brought from the east by the ancestors of the Kansa.

The Kansa Calumet Dance was a ceremony used when adopting an individual or a tribe into the Kansa kinship network. The two pipes used in the ceremony were about three feet long. One pipe was symbolically male and was dressed with white eagle feathers, while the other pipe was symbolically female and dressed with black eagle feathers.

Among the Kansa, the dead were buried either in a sitting position with the deceased facing east or in a horizontal position with the head toward the east. Graves were usually located on a high point near the village or along a well-used hunting trail.

Denise Juneau and Indian Education

In has been well documented that American Indians, particularly those living on reservations, have the lowest levels of education in the country. On Indian reservations, the problems of providing education for Indian children are tied in to the rural nature of these populations—a fact which makes it difficult to find and retain good teachers—as well as cultural differences. Historically, there have been three primary structures for providing education to Indian children: (1) the federal government, primarily through an agency known today as the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA); (2) Christian missionary schools which were sometimes financially supported by the federal government; and (3) state and local school systems.

Bureau of Indian Education schools in the 21st century are under-funded and the physical conditions of the schools is poor and sometimes considered dangerous. Denise Juneau, who is running of Montana’s sole member of the House of Representatives, has promised not only to support additional funding for these schools, but also to reform the Bureau so that more of this money actually translates into classroom improvements.

In addition, Juneau has pledged:

“I support the Native Education Support and Training Act to create a system of loan forgiveness, scholarships and additional training for educators who serve in schools with a high percentage of Native American students.”

Denise Juneau is an enrolled member of the Mandan Hidatsa tribes and a Blackfoot descendent. She graduated from Browning High School on the Blackfeet Reservation and obtained her bachelor’s degree in English from Montana State University. She continued her education and earned a master’s from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

She taught in North Dakota and Montana and worked for the state education agency. She then went back to school and received her juris doctorate from the University of Montana School of Law.

Denise Juneau was elected Superintendent of Public Instruction in 2008 and re-elected in 2012. In 2010, as Superintendent, she launched the Schools of Promise initiative which focuses on improving struggling schools, particularly those on reservations. According to Juneau:

“Children who attend designated Schools of Promise often come from deep, rural poverty. Public assistance services are sparse. The complex needs of these students and their families are often unmet and can make graduation difficult to reach.”

She also points out:

“Schools of Promise is helping these struggling schools make significant progress. The program has become a turnaround model for the U.S. Department of Education given its unique student engagement requirements, school board trustee training, and mental health wrap around services. As a member of Congress I will work to strengthen this initiative to better support struggling schools in all Indian Country.”

Denise Juneau is running as a Democrat against a Republican incumbent. She needs our support. To find out more about Denise Juneau, her policies, and how to help, check out her website.


Denise Juneau, Putting Montana First

In 1924, Congress passed the Indian Citizenship Act which gave citizenship—the right to vote and to be elected to public office—to all American Indians. Exercising these rights, however, was not easy. It has been unusual for American Indians to be elected to state-wide and national offices.  In Montana, Denise Juneau was elected Superintendent of Public Instruction in 2008 and re-elected in 2012. At the present time, she is running for Montana’s sole seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Denise Juneau is an enrolled member of the Mandan Hidatsa tribes and a Blackfoot descendent. She graduated from Browning High School on the Blackfeet Reservation and obtained her bachelor’s degree in English from Montana State University. She continued her education and earned a master’s from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

She taught in North Dakota and Montana and worked for the state education agency. She then went back to school and received her juris doctorate from the University of Montana School of Law.

In her tenure as Superintendent of Public Instruction, Denise Juneau has raised academic standards, expanded college and career readiness opportunities and advocated for policies to improve the quality of education in our state and nation.

Denise is facing a tough election. She is running as a Democrat is a Republican state. As an Indian, she faces an anti-Indian, racist sentiment among many of the state’s conservatives. To find out more about Denise Juneau, her policies, and how to help, check out her website.

Ute Spirituality

The Ute Indians were traditionally mountain-dwelling bands whose traditional territory extended from the southern Rocky Mountains in present-day Colorado, west to the Sevier River in Utah. Their traditional territory extended as far south as the upper San Juan River in present-day New Mexico and as far north as southern Wyoming.

As with other Great Basin peoples, the Utes perceived all physical features and elements of the world as being spiritually alive. These spiritual beings have a power which controls the world and thus impacted the fate of human beings. Spirituality was based in large part on the acquisition of power through visions and dreams.

Rituals and ceremonies often focused on curing ceremonies to help the people maintain life, strength, and mobility. Among the Southern Ute, healing powers were received by shamans, usually men, through dreams. According to Robert McPherson and Mary Jane Yazzie, in their essay in A History of Utah’s American Indians:

“The dreams gave secret information concerning power within animals, plants, and natural elements that the shaman could invoke for good.”

There were also rites of passage—ceremonies to mark events such as birth, puberty, and death.

The Ute often used stone circles as a part of their ceremonies. In his essay on the Northern Utes in A History of Utah’s American Indians, Clifford Duncan reports:

“These stone circles are individual ritual sites and are still considered sacred today.”

There was not a standardized way of using these stone circles. Each of the spiritual leaders had their own ceremonies and their own way of using the circles.

Among the Southern Ute, there are supernatural powers associated with the land. Spiritual leaders for each band would go to specific “power points” to leave offerings and to ask for help on behalf of the band. Robert McPherson and Mary Jane Yazzie write:

“The location of specific power sites is not general knowledge and should be discussed only with those who have a need to know.”

Sweat Lodge

Among the Ute, the sweat lodge ceremony is perhaps the oldest of all ceremonies. Traditionally it was a ceremony for the medicine men. However, during the twentieth century it evolved into a separate ceremony with more participants. The ceremony is conducted in a dome-shaped structure formed from curved boughs and covered with hides, blankets, canvas, or other material. Within the lodge, a number of fire-heated rocks provide heat, and water is sprinkled on these to create an intense steam. Traditional Ute songs are used to bring about spiritual enlightenment, purification, and rejuvenation.

Bear Dance

One of the important aspects of Ute spirituality which is expressed ceremonially, is veneration of the bear. Anthropologist Bertha Dutton, in her book The Ranchería, Ute, and Southern Paiute Peoples: Indians of the American Southwest, reports:

“The bear is regarded as the wisest of animals and the bravest of all except the mountain lion; he is thought to possess wonderful magic power. Feeling that the bears are fully aware of the relationship existing between themselves and the Ute, their ceremony of the bear dance assists in strengthening this friendship.”

The Bear Dance is performed in the Spring. During the 10-day ceremony, a group of men play musical rasps (notched and unnotched sticks) to charm the dancers and propitiate bears. According to oral tradition, this dance was given to the Ute by a bear.

The circular dance area represents a bear cave with an opening to the south or southeast. Traditionally, the dance area was enclosed with timbers and pine boughs to a height of about seven feet.

In dancing, women choose male partners and the women lead in the dancing. Spiritual leader Eddie Box says:

“Bear Dance is a rebirth, an awakening of the spirit. It’s a time of awareness. You come to learn from the past in order to arrive at the present with an understanding of the harmony of things.”

Historian Richard Young, in his book The Ute Indians of Colorado in the Twentieth Century, describes the Bear Dance this way:

“Probably the oldest of the Ute Dances, the Bear Dance was a festive, social dance that had always been held in the spring before winter camps disbanded and family groups went their separate ways in search of food.”

Sun Dance

The Sun Dance spread into the Great Basin from the Plains after 1800. Most of the groups who adopted the Sun Dance did so after they were moved to reservations. The focus of the Sun Dance was on healing and community well-being. Writing about the Ute on the Uintah Valley Reservation, attorney Parker Nielson, in his book The Dispossessed: Cultural Genocide of the Mixed Blood Utes, reports:

“Adapted from other Indian groups, the ‘thirsty dance’ went on for three to four days, without food or water, for the health, well-being, and solidarity of the collective group.”

With regard to the Southern Ute, historian Richard Young writes:

“the main focus of the dance is the acquisition of power, both spiritual power and physical good health, for the individual dancers as well as for the tribe as a whole.”

Vice President Charles Curtis

Indian citizenship and participation in American politics involves more than just voting: it also involves having Indians elected to public office. One of the first Indians to be elected to national office was Charles Curtis.

Curtis was born in 1860 near present-day North Topeka, Kansas. His mother was a descendent of Kansa (also called Kaw) chief White Plume. White Plume was the son of an Osage chief and had been adopted into the Kansa. Later, Curtis’s tribal affiliation would be listed as Kansa (or Kaw) or as Kansa-Osage.

In 1863, following the death of his mother, he was placed in the home of his paternal, non-Indian grandmother, Pamela Hubbard Curtis. In his biography of Curtis in the Encyclopedia of North American Indians, William Unrau writes:

“A stern person who insisted that the Methodist Church and the Republican Party [were] the keys to salvation, she exerted a considerable influence on Curtis’s education.”

At age 6, he went to live with his Kaw grandmother, Julie Gonville Pappan, on the Kaw reservation in Kansas. He attended the Friends Mission School. When the Kaws were later removed to Indian Territory he was returned to the home of his paternal grandmother.

Following high school, Curtis read law under Topeka attorney Aderial H. Case and was admitted to the Kansas Bar at the age of 21. He soon entered politics as a Republican. In 1885 he was elected county attorney for Shawnee County and his political career began. Shawnee County at this time was dry and as county attorney, he shut down most of the bootleg bars in the county.

In 1892 was elected to Congress and began the first of eight terms in the House of Representatives. With regard to his political campaigning, William Unrau writes:

“His small talk of local affairs, family, and the weather was rendered all the more effective by his penetrating eyes, his engaging smile—and his Indianness, at a time when most whites nostalgically anticipated the demise of Indian America.”

Like many others of this era, Curtis felt that Indians had to be assimilated into American culture. Assimilation meant that traditional cultures and languages had to be destroyed. Sociologist Laurence French, in his book The Qualla Cherokee: Surviving in Two Worlds, writes:

“In Congress, Curtis used his Indian heritage as a mandate to speak for all American Indians in Indian Territory. Few American Indians saw him as their spokesperson.”

William Unrau writes:

“He championed the rights of Indian orphans and women even as he advocated the interests of the oil, gas, and coal companies that were cheating tribal governments of their natural resources.”

In 1898, Curtis wrote a bill to extend the provision of the Dawes Act over Indian Territory (now Oklahoma). The Act—commonly known as the Curtis Act—stipulated that tribal governments would continue to exist only to issue allotment deeds to tribal members and to terminate any other tribal business. The Act is officially entitled “An Act for the Protection of the People of Indian Territory and for other purposes.” In his book The Dawes Commission and the Allotment of the Five Civilized Tribes, 1893-1914, Kent Carter reports:

“The ‘protection’ part of the proposed legislation was intended to help all of the unfortunate whites (many from Curtis’s state, Kansas) who had entered Indian Territory, whether invited or not, but who had no voice in government, no schools, and no protection against criminals.”

One of the tribes for which the Curtis Act would have major impact was the Cherokee. The Cherokee objected to the bill and sent a delegation to Washington to testify but they were not allowed access to the rooms where committees were debating the bill. Corporate representatives, on the other hand, had free access to the committees.

While in the House, Curtis worked on a number of committees, including the Committee on Territories, the Committee on Way and Means, the Committee on Public Lands, and the Committee on Indian Affairs. His work for assimilation, allotment, and detribalization led to opposition by many of the tribal leaders in Indian Territory. Overall, his work set the stage for Oklahoma statehood in 1907.

With the 1902 Kaw Allotment Act, the Kaw Nation was officially dissolved. Since Curtis had not moved with the Kaw to their reservation in Indian Territory, his name had been removed from the tribal roles in 1878. He was returned to the tribal roles in time to share in the allotment of the Kaw reservation. As enrolled members of the tribe, Curtis and his three children received a total of 1,625 acres in Oklahoma.

In 1907, Curtis was elected to the United States Senate. He was defeated for re-election, but ran again in 1914 and served in the Senate until 1929.

While in the Senate, he attempted to prohibit the Indian use of peyote (a sacrament used by the Native American Church). His efforts on this matter, however, failed to pass.

In 1921, he supported the Secretary of the Interior’s efforts to minimize the sovereignty of Pueblo tribal governments. In his profile of Curtis in Notable Native Americans, George Abrams reports:

“Curtis was philosophically and politically antagonistic to some forms of traditional American Indian tribal government.”

In 1928 he made an unsuccessful bid for the Republican presidential nomination. However, he ran as Herbert Hoover’s vice-president and was elected. At the inauguration in 1929, he had an Indian jazz band perform. William Unrau writes:

“As vice president, Curtis called for improving the life of American Indians, yet he provided no details as to how this was to be accomplished.”

George Abrams puts it this way:

“During his tenure, Curtis spoke for American Indians whenever the occasion arose. He has generally been viewed as having served a rather lackluster tenure of vice president.”

When he retired from public elected life in 1934, having been defeated for re-election, he had served longer in Washington, D.C. than any active politician. He was the last vice-president to wear a beard or mustache while in office.

In addition to promoting Indian assimilation, Curtis was also a strong supporter of women’s suffrage and Prohibition. He died in 1936.

Treaty Rock and the Coeur d’Alene Indians

Long before the European invasion of North America, the Coeur d’Alene, who call themselves Schitsu’umsh, occupied a territory that included parts of eastern Washington, northern Idaho, and western Montana.

According to their tribal history:

“We were lake and rivers people who had permanent encampments along these waterways but also followed the natural cycle of life. We followed this sacred cycle, not only for survival but, to live live harmoniously with nature and to respect the delicate balance between creation and our ceremonial and spiritual way of life.”

The water ways that sustained the people included Coeur d’Alene Lake, Spokane River, Coeur d’Alene River, and St. Joe River. These waterways formed an aboriginal super highway between the villages and their resource areas.

Things began to change when the fur traders of the Hudson’s Bay Company and the North West Company began to enter their territory at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The traders brought the people new goods. Then came the missionaries in the 1840s who sought to make the Indians into European Christians. The Catholic Jesuits establish a mission at Cataldo.

In 1859, the Coeur d’Alene signed a treaty with the United States at the Cataldo Mission. Two years later, the United States established a road across Coeur d’Alene territory to connect Fort Benton in Montana with Fort Walla Walla in Washington.

In 1871, German immigrant Frederick Post met with Coeur d’Alene Chief Moses Seltice to negotiate the rights to a parcel of land. Treaty Rock symbolizes the verbal agreement between these two men that allowed Post to use 200 acres of tribal land on the Spokane River to start a mill. There was no formal treaty signed at Treaty Rock nor was any money exchanged for the land. Oral tradition indicates that Post promised to provide the tribe with lumber, but there is no record of that agreement being kept.

Post carved his name and the date in the rock to acknowledge the agreement. There are also pictographs on the rock done in red ochre. According to the Coeur d’Alene tribal history:

“Treaty Rock, as it is known in written history, is a special place for both the Coeur d’Alene people and the residents of today. It represents a moment in time when great change occurred and affected both a growing nation and a people that had been on these lands for thousands of years.”

The Political Organization of the Omaha Indians

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Omaha Indians were living in what is now Nebraska where they were a farming people who engaged in buffalo hunting. The Omaha fields would be planted in May and tended until the corn was well established, usually late June or early July. Then the entire village would leave on the summer buffalo hunt and return to harvest the corn in September and October.

One of the principle features of Omaha social organization was the patrilineal clans. These clans were named, and membership was through the father, that is, each person belonged to the father’s clan.

The Omaha had a central government which was composed of a council of seven chiefs who were overseen by two principal chiefs. Decisions made by the council had to be unanimous. Each of the chiefs was the leader of a clan which possessed a pipe. The number seven is a sacred number because it is made up of the four cardinal directions plus up, down, and the place in the center where all directions meet. Noting the importance of the two pipes in Omaha government, ethnographers Alice Fletcher and Francis La Fletche, in their 1911 book The Omaha Tribe, wrote:

“The retaining of the two Pipes as the supreme or confirmatory authority within the council rather than giving that power to a head chief was consonant with the fundamental idea embodied in the tribal organization.”

Attending the Omaha council meetings in an ex oficio capacity were the keeper of the Sacred Pole, the keeper of the Sacred Buffalo Hide, the keeper of the two Sacred Tribal Pipes, the keeper of the ritual used for filling the two pipes, and the keeper of the Sacred Tent of War. According to Alice Fletcher and Francis La Flesche:

“None of these five keepers had a voice in the decisions of the council, the responsibility of deciding devolving solely on the Seven Chiefs who composed the council proper.”

At the Omaha council meetings, one of the members would raise an issue or question. It would then go around the circle, starting with the man next to the man who had introduced the issue. The matter would pass around and around the circle until all came to an agreement. It was not uncommon for an entire day to be spent in deliberation in this fashion. In making a decision, ethnographers Alice Fletcher and Francis La Flesche report:

“All must accept it and then carry it through as one man. This unity of decision was regarded as having a supernatural power and authority.”

In addition to the seven clan chiefs and the two principal chiefs, there were two other orders of chiefs among the Omaha. There were an unlimited number of lower chiefs known as Brown Chiefs (Ni’kagahi xu’de) and a higher and more limited number of Dark Chiefs (Ni’kagahi sha’be). To become a dark chief, there were seven grades which a man had to pass through. The first of these was to obtain the materials for the staff carried by the leader of the buffalo hunt. The seventh grade involved the giving of gifts to maintain peace in the tribe. When a man had done a hundred of these acts of gift giving, he was eligible to join the Night Blessed Society and to have his daughter tattooed.


With regard to law, accusations of serious wrongdoing, such as murder, were not taken lightly. Many of the tribes safeguarded the social order with some form of punishment. Among the Omaha, for example, there was in the Tent of War a staff of ironwood which had a rough end. Rattlesnake poison was placed on this rough end and a person who was guilty of a major offense would be prodded with the stick, usually resulting in the offender’s death. This punishment was decided on by the council and carried out by a trustworthy man. One of the offenses punished in this way was making light of the authority of the chiefs.

Among the Omaha, deliberate murder was punished by banishment for four years. During this time the murderer had to camp outside of the village and was to communicate to no one. The offender was also required to wear a special garment which was not to be removed during the period of banishment. After the chiefs passed the sentence of banishment, they would take the Sacred Pipes to the murder victim’s family. They would present the family with gifts and ask that they not seek any further punishment on the murderer’s family.


Among the Omaha, the true function of war was to protect the people from outside enemies. Ethnographers Alice Fletcher and Francis La Flesche report:

“Aggressive warfare was to be discouraged; any gains made by it were more than offset by the troubles entailed.”

It was, however, difficult to stop the young men from going to war. However, there were steps that had to be taken. A younger man would go to one of the keepers of a war bundle and invite him to a ceremonial feast. By obtaining the permission of the war bundle keeper, the leader of the war party was relieved of any responsibility should a member of the party be killed. Chiefs were required to use their influence for peace and could not initiate war parties.

During the nineteenth century, Omaha war parties tended to be small: 10-15 warriors. The war party would usually leave the village at night. The warriors would wear no feathers or ornaments. When returning from a successful battle, the war party would light a fire near the village to signal their return.

Among the Omaha there were two classes of war parties: (1) those undertaken to capture horses and other valuables, and (2) those undertaken as revenge for attacks by other tribes.

The Omaha recognized six grades of war honors which could be taken from the body of an enemy:

  • Striking an unwounded enemy with the hand or with the bow. This was the highest war honor and only two warriors could take this honor from the same person.
  • Striking a wounded enemy with the hand or bow.
  • Striking a dead enemy with the hand or bow.
  • Killing an enemy.
  • Taking a scalp.
  • Severing an enemy’s head.

Among the Omaha, warriors who were recognized for their bravery were allowed to wear a Crow Belt bustle: two trailers of hide covered with feathers hung from the belt and eagle wing pointer feathers protruded upward from the base of the bustle. In an essay in Painters, Patrons, and Identity: Essays in Native American Art to Honor J.J. Brody, Aaron Fry describes the bustle:

“The main body of the bustle was made of an eagle skin with head and tail still attached; the eagle was associated with the destructive powers of the Thunder Being and the destructive nature of war. A wolf tail was tied to the right side of the skin; a stuffed crow skin was tied to the left.”

To be able to wear the Crow Belt, a warrior had to be the first to strike an unwounded enemy in battle; to be the first to touch a fallen, live enemy; to be the second to touch a fallen, live enemy; and then to repeat all three of these deeds of valor. The Crow Belt, originally created when the Omaha, Osage, Quapaw, and Kansa were living as one tribe, represents the mythic relationship between the warriors and their patrons, the wolf and the crow.

Gender Among Northern Plains Indians

The Northern Plains include what is now North and South Dakota, Eastern Montana, northeastern Wyoming, and the Canadian provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan. In general, the Indian nations of the northern Plains can be divided into two major groups: (1) the buffalo hunters and (2) the agricultural nations along the Missouri River in the Dakotas.

In traditional Northern Plains Indian life, men and women often had different roles. Most frequently, the men took on the roles of hunters and warriors, while the women were involved with gathering plants and with the home. In the agricultural tribes, the women worked the fields and therefore they owned the crops, the fields, agricultural implements, and the lodges.

While there was division of labor by gender, this was not a rigid division. It was not uncommon for women to be warriors. Among the Indians of the Northern Plains, the role of warrior was an alternative which was open to women. According to anthropologist John Ewers, in article in Skeletal Biology in the Great Plains: Migration, Warfare, Health, and Subsistence:

“There is ample evidence that a number of women of many tribes joined raiding parties and took active parts in them.”

John Ewers also points out:

“What is known of these woman warriors does not suggest that they were sexual deviants.”

With regard to the Cheyenne, George Bird Grinnell, in his book The Cheyenne Indians: Their History and Lifeways, reports:

“While it was not common for women to go on the warpath with men, yet they did so sometimes, and often showed quite as much courage and were quite as efficient as the men they accompanied.”

Most of the Plains Indian nations also recognized a third sex, generally referred to as a Two-Spirit or, in the older literature, a berdache. There were some boys who preferred the company of girls and who eventually dressed as girls. Among the Crow, at about the age of 10-12 a young boy might take on female clothing and female work. The male Two-Spirit was accepted as a third sex and might “marry” a man. Edwin Thompson Denig , writing in his 1856 book Of the Crow Nation, says:

“He is not to be distinguished in any way from the women.”

Among the Blackfoot, the behavior of the Two-Spirit was attributed to being inhabited by spiritual forces. The Two-Spirits were in great demand as wives because of their physical strength and their artistic abilities.

Writing about the Sioux, historian William Nester, in his book The Arikara War: The First Plains Indian War, 1823, says:

“Homosexual men were allowed to don female dress and live at the camp’s edge.”

He goes on to say that they

“believed that the dual nature of the transvestite (winkte) gave him great spiritual power, and they both respected and feared him for it.”

The Two-Spirits also had important ceremonial roles. According to anthropologists Wendell H. Oswalt and Sharlotte Neely, in their book This Land Was Theirs: A Study of Native Americans:

“in the Sun Dance certain rituals could be performed only by a berdache.”

With regard to the Hidatsa, ethnologist Alfred Bowers, in his book Hidatsa Social and Ceremonial Organization, reports:

“Since the berdaches were viewed as mystic possessors of unique ritual instructions secured directly from the mysterious Holy Woman, they were treated as a special class of religious leaders” and “The berdaches comprised the most active ceremonial class in the village.”

Among many of the Plains tribes, the Two-Spirit was felt to have strong curing powers. Among the Cheyenne, for example, war parties often included a Two-Spirit whose job was to care for the wounded. In addition, the spiritual powers of the Two-Spirits were felt to bring good luck. According to anthropologist Walter Williams, in his book The Spirit and the Flesh: Sexual Diversity in American Indian Culture:

“Their presence on war parties was also desired because of their special spiritual powers.”

Large war parties were seldom without a Two-Spirit.

While much of the literature about the role of the Two-Spirit or berdache in Northern Plains cultures focuses on men, there were also many instances of women who wore men’s clothing and took men’s roles. Some of these women married other women, some were warriors, and some were chiefs. Among the Blackfoot, women who took on the aggressive roles of men were referred to as “manly hearted women.” They would usually begin to take on these roles as teenagers when they would join war parties. They would wear male dress, marry women, and often obtain leadership positions as warriors and/or spiritual leaders.

Joseph LaFlesche, Omaha Chief

From the viewpoint of non-Indians, particularly government officials in the nineteenth century, a progressive Indian leader was one who advocated the assimilation of Indians into “mainstream” American culture. One of these progressive Indian leaders was Joseph LaFlesche.

Joseph LaFlesche was the son of a French fur trader and a Ponca woman. When he married an Omaha woman he was formally adopted into the Omaha Elk clan and was thus considered to be Omaha. When his adopted father, Omaha chief Big Elk, died in 1853, many people considered Joseph LaFlesche as principal chief of the Omaha.

While many Omaha considered Joseph LaFlesche a chief, and even the principal chief, the Americans and Joseph LaFlesche considered Logan Fontelle to be the principal chief. Historian Judith Boughter, in her book Betraying the Omaha Nation, 1790-1916, reports:

“Because his father was a French trader and he was never adopted into the tribe, Logan Fontelle probably did not qualify for chieftainship.”

Logan Fontelle was killed by a Sioux war party in 1855.

Joseph LaFlesche favored adopting American ways. For example, he refused to allow his four daughters to be tattooed in the Omaha fashion as he wanted them to be able to freely mingle in Euro-American society. He also encouraged the Omaha to build houses in the American style.

One aspect of American society which Joseph La Flesche opposed was alcohol. In 1856, together with the Indian agent for the reservation, he established an Indian police force for the purpose of eliminating alcohol on the reservation. This police force was headed by Ma-hu-nin-ga (No Knife).

In 1857, the Presbyterians, with the encouragement of Joseph LaFlesche, established a mission day school for the Omaha. The children were all given English names. The LaFlesche children attended this school.

At this same time, a group of Omaha under the leadership of Joseph La Flesche began to build American-style, two-story frame houses. For this reason, the other Omaha referred to them as “Make-Believe White Men.”

In 1858, chief Joseph La Flesche organized a great council of the Omaha because of rumors that the government was planning to reduce the size of their reservation. The council reaffirmed their commitment to the Americanization program, and strenuously opposed any reduction in the reservation.

The Omaha reservation in Nebraska had been established in 1854 when the Omaha ceded all of their lands west of the Missouri River to the United States. As a part of this treaty, the United States was to protect the Omaha from attacks by other tribes, particular the Sioux.

In 1860, a Sioux war party under the leadership of Little Thunder attacked the Omaha within sight of the Presbyterian mission. As a result of this attack, many Omaha left their villages. Joseph LaFlesche and other Omaha leaders met with the Indian Agent and demanded that their treaty’s clause which called for the United States to protect them from raids by other Indian nations be honored.

In exchange for ceding much of their land to the United States, the Omaha were to receive an annual annuity payment. In 1862, Joseph La Flesche began asking why most of their annuity was paid in paper money while the more rebellious tribes received theirs in gold and silver. According to historian Judith Boughter:

“He considered the practice unfair, since it made a $7,000 difference in the Omahas’ yearly income and since the government expected its payments in coin.”

In 1865, the United States asked the Omaha to sell 100,000 acres of their reservation in Nebraska to provide a new home for the Winnebago. In the treaty, negotiated by Joseph La Flesche, Standing Hawk, Little Chief, Noise, and No Knife, the Omaha were to receive $50,000 to be used by their Indian agent to improve their reservation. The Omaha were also to be provided with a blacksmith, a shop, a farmer, and mills for 10 years.

In 1866, the Indian agent for the Omaha Reservation accused chief Joseph LaFlesche with producing discord among the tribe, leaving the reservation without permission, lending money at usurious rates, encouraging the tribal police to inflict unfair punishments, and refusing to allow people to deal with licensed traders. The agent called for him to be deposed as tribal chief and to be banished. LaFlesche’s protector, the Presbyterian mission school superintendent, was then dismissed. LaFlesche and his family hastily fled from the reservation.

A few months later, the Indian agent agreed to allow LaFlesche to return to the reservation, but only if he agreed to be subordinate to the agent. Historian Judith Boughter reports:

“LaFlesche did return home, but he never again held a seat on the tribal council and apparently was recognized as a leader only among his band of followers in the young men’s party.”

Joseph LaFlesche had several wives and at least ten children. With Mary Gale, he had five children, including Susette LaFlesche (Bright Eyes) who became an Indian activist and Susan LaFlesche who became the first Indian woman physician. With Elizabeth Esau, he also had five children, including Francis LaFlesche, who became an ethnographer.  Joseph LaFlesche died in 1888.

Choctaw Migrations

The Choctaw, at the time of European contact, were a loosely organized confederacy composed of three distinctly different divisions: Okla Falaya (Long People), Okla Tannap (People of the Opposite Side), and Okla Hannalia (Sixtown People). The people were living in more than 100 autonomous villages.

While the Choctaw, like the other Indian nations in Eastern North America, were sedentary farmers, they also have traditions which tell of times when they lived elsewhere. Choctaw oral tradition speaks of a time when they had lived to the northwest. However, their population increased and the game grew scarce which forced them to seek a new home.

Their migration was led by Chahta (also spelled Chah-tah) who carried a magical staff. Each night when they camped, he would place the staff upright into the ground. In the morning, he would inspect it and then he would lead the people in the direction in which the staff leaned. At the ancient mound of Ninih Waiya (“Leaning Mountain”) near present-day Philadelphia, Mississippi, the staff remained upright in the morning. Thus it was here that the Choctaw settled. It was in this country that the Choctaw established their government.

According to one version of the story, a group of people led by Chikasa, Chahta’s brother, had camped on the other side of the creek. There was a heavy rain and flooding, following which the staff was still upright indicating that this is where the people were to stay. However, Chikasa’s party had proceeded on, not knowing that the promised land had been found. Arthur DeRosier (1970: 7) writes:

“Many Choctaws maintained that this was how they and the Chickasaws became separate, though kindred, nations.”

The Choctaw migration story tells that the people traveled for 43 years and that during this migration they carried the bones of the ancestors. Choctaw historian Donna Akers (1999: 67) writes:

“Many of the people carried so many bones that they were unable to carry anything else. Some were so overloaded that they would carry one load forward a half day’s journey, deposit it, and then return for the remainder.”

The task of carrying the bones was a sacred duty.

Another oral tradition says that the people emerged from the underworld at Ninih Waiya. The first to emerge were the Creek, who dried themselves in the sun and then went east. Next to emerge were the Cherokee who tried to follow the Creek but got lost and settled in the north. The third group to emerge was the Chickasaw who followed the Cherokee. The last group to emerge was the Choctaw who settled near the mound.

Another variation of the story tells that the Choctaw were the first to settle near Ninih Waiya following their migration. After a while, however, there were some internal disputes and some of the younger warriors and hunters abandoned the people to settle in distant regions. Tom Mould (2003: 115) writes:

“Thus, from the body of the Choctaw nation had sprung those other nations which are known as the Chickasaws, the Cherokees, the Creeks or Muscogees, the Shawnees, and the Delawares.”

There is also a Choctaw migration story that tells of the people coming from the bosom of a magnificent sea which is considered to be the Gulf of Mexico.

Horse-Mounted Buffalo Hunting on the Northern Plains

The Northern Plains include what is now North and South Dakota, Eastern Montana, northeastern Wyoming, and the Canadian provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan. For the Indian nations who called this region home, the single most important animal was the buffalo (technically bison, but commonly called buffalo). The buffalo provided them with food, clothing, shelter, and tools. For many of the Indian peoples, buffalo was “real food” and the meat from other animals was considered inferior.

Writing about the Blackfoot in his book The Blackfeet: Raiders on the Northwestern Plains, anthropologist John Ewers says:

“So long as there was buffalo available, these Indians needed no other meat.”

The buffalo provided the Blackfoot with more than 100 specific items of material culture.

Nineteenth century Indian trader Edwin Thomson Denig writes in Five Indian Tribes of the Upper Missouri: Sioux, Arickaras, Assiniboines, Crees, Crows of the Sioux use of the buffalo:

“Every part of this animal is eaten by the Indians except the horns, hoofs, and hair.”

In addition to providing food, the buffalo skin was used for clothing and for lodges, the sinews were used for bow strings, and the bones were made into tools.

While the popular image of Indians is that of the horse-mounted buffalo hunter, the horse as we know it today came to this continent with the Europeans. When the horse reached the Plains in the early 1700s, it dramatically changed the Indian ways of life.

After the acquisition of the horse, the buffalo could be hunted from horseback. The Blackfoot would use the straightway chase in which each hunter singled out an animal in the herd, rode along side of it, and killed it at close range. The hunter would then continue on to another animal. The weapons used for buffalo hunting included the bow and arrow and the lance. In hunting buffalo from horseback, the preferred weapon was the bow and arrow, even after firearms became common. The bow was preferred for two reasons: (1) it was difficult to reload a muzzle-loading gun at full gallop, and (2) the hunter could easily reclaim the animals by looking at and identifying their own arrows.

Writing about the Crow in the Handbook of North American Indians, anthropologist Fred Voget reports:

“A man’s average kill was four or five buffalo, but successful hunters might kill 15 buffalo in one hunt, identifying their kill by the marks on their arrows.”

With regard to the bow and arrow, Minette Johnson, writing about the Gros Ventre in her master’s thesis Return of the Native: Buffalo Restoration at the Fort Belknap Reservation, reports:

“The bow and arrow remained the weapons of choice because they could be shot accurately at high speeds and be reloaded easily. The hunters aimed their arrows behind the last rib-bone of the buffalo, so it would penetrate the lungs, killing even the largest of the bulls.”

Blackfoot chief Mountain Chief describes hunting buffalo with a bow and arrow:

“Sometimes when a hunter rode side by side with a buffalo, and shot the animal, the arrow would go clear through. The Indians were very proud and careful of their arrows. They did not wish to break them. That is the reason why they shot them on the side, so that when the buffalo fell the arrow would not be broken.”

With regard to the use of the lance by Cheyenne buffalo hunters, George Bird Grinnell, in his book The Cheyenne Indians: Their History and Lifeways, writes:

“The rider usually ran up on the right side of the animal, and held the lance across his body, the right hand the higher. The buffalo was a little ahead of the horse, and the man, using both hands, thrust with his lance downward and forward.”

While the lance was most commonly used before iron-tipped arrows were common, it continued to be used until the end of buffalo hunting.

Among the Assiniboine, horse-mounted hunters supervised by the Soldiers’ Society and using bows and arrows would surround the buffalo herd. In an hour’s time, 80-100 hunters could kill 100-500 buffalo. The hunter who killed the animal claimed the hide and the choicest pieces of meat. All who aided in the butchering were entitled to a portion of the meat.

Buffalo hunting was generally a communal undertaking. A lone hunter could startle the herd and as a result little meat could be taken. Therefore, most of the tribes had one of the warrior societies supervise the hunters to make sure that no one hunted early. Blackfoot chief Mountain Chief describes what happened when a lone hunter would disobey the warrior society:

“When they got him, they broke his gun, his arrows and bow, broke his knife, cut his horse’s tail off, tore off his clothes, broke his saddle in pieces, tore his robe in pieces, cut his rope into small bits, also his whip. Then they sent him off afoot.”

The Indians of the Northern Plains used fire as a means of modifying the environment to support more buffalo as well as an aid in buffalo hunting. James Philp, in his University of Montana master’s thesis reports:

“It is more likely that Indians, including the Blackfeet, developed seasonal patterns of burning the prairies in association with bison herd movements because the hunter-gatherer economy of the semi-nomadic tribes was centrally focused and largely dependent upon bison and bison ecology.”

From time to time, Indian hunters encountered a white buffalo. For most of the tribes, the white buffalo is considered a powerful spiritual symbol. Among the Mandan, for example, a white buffalo hide was not only good medicine, it was also quite valuable. Among the Mandan, a white buffalo robe would bring 10-15 horses if traded. Historian E. Douglas Branch, in his book The Hunting of the Buffalo, reports:

“Three or four years after the purchase, piety demanded that the skin be offered to the dessication of wind and rain.”

With regard to the Cheyenne vision of the white buffalo, George Bird Grinnell writes:

“Some of them say that the white buffalo belongs far to the north; that it comes from the place where, according to tradition, the buffalo originally came out of the ground.”

If a hunter killed a white buffalo, it would be left where it fell and the hunter would immediately seek out the old man who had the spiritual power to perform the correct ceremony. The hide would then be ceremonially removed and tanned. The hide of the white buffalo was not used, but was given as a sacrificial offering.

A Short Overview of the Ute Indians

The state of Utah is named for the Ute Indians whose traditional territory extended from the southern Rocky Mountains in present-day Colorado, west to the Sevier River in Utah. Their traditional territory extended as far south as the upper San Juan River in present-day New Mexico and as far north as southern Wyoming.

While anthropologists generally classify the Utes as a Great Basin tribe, they were traditionally more of a mountain-dwelling tribe. Carl Waldman, in his book Encyclopedia of Native American Tribes, writes:

“The forested slopes of the Rockies offered much more wildlife than the Basin floor and the Basin uplands. And the rivers flowing westward from the Great Divide provided plentiful fish for food.”

With regard to language, the Ute language is a part of the larger Uto-Aztecan language family and within this large language family it belongs to the Southern Numic sub-family which also includes Mohave, Paiute, Kawaiisu, and Chemehuevi.

The Ute were never a single unified tribe. There are several bands of the Ute:

(1) the Weminuche (Weeminuche) or Ute Mountain Ute whose homeland is the San Juan drainage of the Colorado River,

(2) the Tabeguache (also known as Uncompahgre),

(3) the Grand River band,

(4) the Yampa whose homeland is in northwestern Colorado,

(5) the Uintah whose homeland ran from Utah Lake east through the Uinta Basin,

(6) the Muache (Moache) whose homeland ranged south along the Sangre de Cristos as far south as Taos,

(7) the Capote of the San Luis Valley and the upper Rio Grande, (8) the Sheberetch in the area of present-day Moab,

(9) the Sanpits (San Pitch) in the Sanpete Valley in central Utah,

(10) the Timanogots near Utah Lake,

(11) Pahvant who lived in the deserts surrounding Sevier Lake, and

(12) the White River (Parusanuch and Yamparika) in the White and Yampa River systems of Colorado.

Each Ute band had a well-defined territory, but their territorial claims were not exclusive. Attorney Parker Nielson, in his book The Dispossessed: Cultural Genocide of the Mixed Blood Utes, points out:

“Land was viewed as a gift of creation, to be shared in common, and was not an object of private possession.”

Presently, under the administration of the United States the Utes occupy three reservations:

Southern Ute Reservation: located near Ignacio, Colorado, this reservation includes the Mouache and Capote bands.

Ute Mountain Ute Reservation: this reservation includes land in Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah.

Uintah and Ouray Reservation: located near Fort Duchesne, Utah, this reservation is the home of the White River descendants.

The Horse

The domestic horse was brought to North America by the Spanish colonists in New Mexico. Following the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, the horse was traded to other tribes and brought many changes to Native cultures.

For the Ute, the adoption of the horse brought about many changes in their lifestyle. While their food preferences and their migrational patterns remained somewhat the same, with the horse they were able to cover more territory and to be more efficient in the use of the resources of their territory. Historian Richard Young, in his book The Ute Indians of Colorado in the Twentieth Century, reports:

“With increased mobility and the ability to transport food over greater distances, previously disperse family groups now concentrated in large band camps. Hunters ventured far out onto the plains and hunted buffalo much more frequently than in the past; food became more plentiful and hunger less of a concern.”

With the horse came an increase in intertribal conflicts. Richard Young writes of the Ute:

“During the seventeenth century, the previously peaceful Utes often waged war on their neighbors.”

One of the prime objectives of Ute warfare was to obtain horses as well as other loot. In addition, the Ute warriors would often capture Indian women and children who they could trade with the Spanish and other settlers for horses.


As with Indian nations in other culture areas, trade among the peoples of the Great Basin was well-developed long before the coming of the Europeans. In addition, there was also trade with Indian groups from other culture areas. Regarding the Ute, attorney Parker Nielson writes:

“They bartered with the desert tribes to the west, with the Navajo and Pueblo Indians to the south, and with the Plains Indians as far distant as the panhandle of present-day Texas and Oklahoma.”

The Ute would often trade deer and buffalo hides and meat with the Pueblos for corn and other agricultural products. They would also trade hides with the Spanish and other Europeans for horses, knives, and manufactured articles.

It was not uncommon for trade to revolve around human captives. The Ute, for example, would obtain Indian women and children from other tribes either through raids or through trade with other tribes. They would then trade them to the Spanish settlers for horses. Historian Richard Young writes:

“Hispanic settlers who purchased the captives in this illegal but popular form of trade would then either resell the captives or raise them in their own households.”

Political Organization

Among the Ute, as was typical of many gathering and hunting tribes, the primary political unit was the band. Loosely organized, the band leadership had only a limited, non-coercive authority. In other words, leaders led through their ability to persuade. Membership in Ute bands was easily changed. Historian Richard Young writes:

“Families were free to leave bands, and an individual’s band membership was easily changed.”

As with other Great Basin groups, band membership among the Ute was very fluid. Parker Nielson reports:

“Change of Ute band affiliation was a casual affair in which Utes freely intermarried with or adopted members of other bands and tribes.”

With regard to Ute social organization on a larger scale, anthropologist Bertha Dutton, in her book The Ranchería, Ute, and Southern Paiute Peoples: Indians of the American Southwest, reports:

“Defensive war and the social bear dance were the only activities requiring the cooperation of a tribal unit larger than the family.”

Ute villages generally had two chiefs: a chief spokesman and a civil chief. During times of war there might also be a war chief. As with the other Indian nations of the Great Basin, there were no ruling families and no hereditary titles. Status and prestige were based on individual accomplishments, not on family lineage. With regard to the process of selecting a new chief among the Ute of Colorado, historian Richard Young reports:

“The Weeminuche did not have a hereditary chieftaincy; rather, the chief was chosen for his personal character and abilities, often by his predecessor.”

While nineteenth-century non-Indian politicians seemed to believe that Indian nations were somehow lawless since they didn’t have formal police departments, jails, and courts, all Indian nations did have laws which were based on oral traditions.  Among the Southern Ute, for example, crimes such as stealing and murder were not seen as a concern of the band, but of the family. The primary methods of social control were gossip and ostracism.

Many Indians tribes, particularly the Great Plains tribes, had voluntary associations or warrior societies. These tended to be absent among the Great Basin tribes. The only association among the Southern Ute was the Dog Company that functioned as both a warfare training mechanism and as a young men’s elite. Not all young men joined the Dog Company, as often their families could not spare them. When the camp moved, the Dog Company acted as lookouts and lagged behind as a rear guard.

Frank White, Pawnee Prophet

In 1889, a Paiute prophet known as Wovoka in Nevada died during an eclipse and then returned to life with a message and dance for his people. The word of Wovoka’s vision quickly spread to other tribes and the religious movement known as the Ghost Dance began.

In 1890, Sitting Bull, a Northern Arapaho spiritual leader from the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming, brought the Ghost Dance to the tribes in Oklahoma, including the Comanche.

One of the visitors at an 1891 Comanche Ghost Dance in Oklahoma was Frank White. He sat on the north side of the dance area and ate a lot of peyote. When the Comanche asked him who he was, he said that he was Pawnee. Following the Comanche Ghost Dance, he attended a Ghost Dance among the Wichita. There he once again ate peyote, he watched the dance, and then he joined it.

While dancing, Frank White went into a trance where he saw the stream, the tree, the Messiah, and the village of the people. He saw the people dance, and in his trance he joined them and from them he learned Ghost Dance songs in Pawnee. The English words to the first song he learned are:

The place whence you come,

Now I am longing for.

The place whence you come,

Now I am ever mindful of.

When he woke from the trance he told the people what he had seen. In this way, Frank White became a prophet and the people felt that he had the same power as Sitting Bull, the Arapaho Ghost Dance leader.

When he returned home to the Pawnee he began to teach the doctrine and the songs of the Ghost Dance to the southern bands. He told the people:

“The kingdom is coming soon now, so the people must prepare. This that I have is called ghost dancing. You must stop working because when the kingdom comes you won’t take plows or things like that along. That’s not ours.”

The version of the Ghost Dance that Frank White gave to the Pawnees was not the same one Sitting Bull had given to the Caddos. In addition, the dance had a different focus than Ghost Dance advocated by the Paiute prophet Wovoka.

While White saw himself as a prophet as a new religious movement, he was also respectful of Pawnee culture. He met with the elders and discussed his vision. The elders accepted his vision and were satisfied with him in the role of Ghost Dance prophet.

Frank White, who was of the Kitkahaxki band, began holding regular Ghost Dances and members of the Skiri band were attending. At first, the songs included Arapaho and Wichita songs as well as the Pawnee songs he had learned in his trance. During the dances, people would have visions which explained other ceremonies which they should be doing. In this way, the Ghost Dance began to grow among the Pawnee.

The Ghost Dance doctrine among the Pawnee held that the dead could communicate with the living through the visions brought about during the dance. Hundreds of Pawnee gathered to dance the new dance so that they could see their deceased loved ones. Anthropologist Alice Beck Kehoe, in her book The Ghost Dance: Ethnohistory and Revitalization, reports:

“Then a truly marvelous thing happened: In the visions, people saw not only relatives but also the dead doctors and priests. These leaders instructed the visionaries in the performances of the rituals and healing arts and advised them to carry out the practices as best they could under the reservation circumstances.”

In addition to face painting, the Pawnee Ghost Dance included the use of feathers as hair ornaments. In the trance visions, people usually found themselves associated with either the eagle or the crow and thereafter they wore feathers to symbolize this vision.

At the beginning of each dance a woman would be chosen to bless the dance grounds. She would be seated at the door of White’s tipi with her face painted. For this one day she was holy. At the end of each day of dancing, the dancers moved to the center of the circle and then back out slowly shaking their blankets and shawls. In this way they cast off the burdens of the day.

The United States government became concerned about the growing popularity of the Ghost Dance movement and in 1891 the Indian agent wrote to Frank White and ordered him to cease holding Ghost Dances. In addition, White was ordered to return to the Kiowa or Wichita agency. In an article in Chronicles of Oklahoma, Todd Leahy reports:

“White, however, chose not to leave his people or abandon the Ghost Dance. Moreover, he moved to widen the ceremony’s body of adherents, and in late December 1891 Delawares, Otoes, and Osages attended dances on the Pawnee reservation.”

In 1892 the government realized that the Pawnee were still doing the Ghost Dance and set out to stop it. The Indian agency clerk met with Frank White and told him that he was an impostor and that he was to leave the reservation and never return.  The following morning, over 200 Pawnee, painted with Ghost Dance colors, surrounded the agency and demanded a council. The agent told them that they were following a false Messiah and that the Ghost Dance would not be tolerated. In the words of the agent:

“I plainly told them that the dance could not be tolerated and would not be; that this government would last and assert her power, and that they should be obedient to the law and be good Indians, return to their homes and cultivate their farms and raise something to eat.”

Following the meeting, the Pawnee continued to gather in secret in order to Ghost Dance.

Fearing that the Ghost Dance would interfere with the government’s plan to break up the reservations into allotments, Frank White was arrested remanded to jail. The Pawnee decided to fight to get their prophet back and a party of armed warriors gathered at the railroad station to take him from the marshal. However, the agent sent a telegram and when the train arrived it was filled with soldiers. The Pawnee decide that there were too many soldiers and so the marshal left with White.

While Frank White was away, many Pawnee were persuaded to choose allotments. According to anthropologist Alexander Lesser, in his book The Pawnee Ghost Dance Hand Game: Ghost Dance Revival and Ethnic Identity:

“It must be remembered that in dividing up their land, and selling a good part of it, the Pawnee were doing something which was opposed to the faith and doctrine of the Ghost Dance.”

After several days in jail a writ of habeas corpus was issued. The judge gave White a lecture on the dangers of indulging in the Ghost Dance. He was then released and returned to the reservation.

While Frank White was in jail, William Hunt emerged as a new Ghost Dance leader. Hunt drastically altered the Ghost Dance.  Rather than dancing, Hunt offered a doctrine that included the laying on of hands. White was angered by the new development and demanded that Hunt be arrested and deported for practicing the Ghost Dance. The agent ignored the demand feeling that it was to his advantage to let the Ghost Dance leaders quarrel among themselves.

Among the Pawnee, Frank White was considered to be the sole authentic prophet of the Ghost Dance and its doctrine. Those who had visions reported them to him. White granted permission to use the vision, to wear feathers, to paint the face, and to put on a dance. For conferring these rights, White was usually given gifts.

Frank White did not live up to the ideals of conduct for a spiritual leader among the Pawnee.  He used peyote – which the Pawnee felt made him wise – but he drank whiskey at the same time. According to one of his contemporaries:

“Whiskey and peyote do not mix, they cannot go together. That’s what killed him.”

He died in 1893, but the Ghost Dance that he brought to the Pawnee continued to live.