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Ancestral Bones

Reinterpreting the Past of the Omaha

By Paulette W. Campbell | HUMANITIES, November/December 2002 | Volume 23, Number 6

At the end of the eighteenth century the Omaha Indian tribe controlled the fur trade on the upper Missouri River. Without the say-so of Chief Blackbird, French and Spanish fur traders could not do business with tribes farther up the Missouri. Under Blackbird’s leadership the Omaha gained wealth, political prestige, and military strength. But in 1800, the tribe was ravaged by smallpox, one of the diseases that accompanied Europeans. The epidemic killed as many as one-third of the Omaha, including Blackbird. By the time Lewis and Clark visited in 1804, the Omaha culture that survived was decidedly different from the one first encountered by Europeans in 1750.

New archaeological research of two Omaha gravesites–one used before 1800 and one maintained after–has shed light on the life of the tribe during this period. Within the few decades after the Omaha settled in 1775 at Big Village or Ton won tonga, (what is now northeastern Nebraska near the town of Homer), the community changed dramatically–particularly in its economic roles–and the bones of its people offer clues to how and why.

The archeological remains of the Omaha were first excavated in the late 1930s and 1940s as part of the Works Projects Administration (WPA), an employment relief program begun during Roosevelt’s New Deal. More than ten thousand objects were taken from the burials of about one hundred members of the tribe. Since that exhumation, the Omaha have fought, as have many other American Indian tribes, to retrieve their ancestral remains. In 1989, they received 106 skeletons and related artifacts for reburial. Before reburial, however, the Omaha asked that the University of Nebraska study the remains. Part of the reason, says Dennis Hastings, director of the Omaha Tribal Historical Research Project, was the hope to correct misinterpretations of Omaha history.

What we know about the Omaha has been gleaned mostly from the diaries of traders and the extensive journals of Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. The French trader Zenon Trudeau wrote in 1794 that “The village of the Omaha would be a propitious place to establish a post for merchandise and provisions to supply the trade on the Upper Missouri. . . . In order to pass above, this is absolutely necessary, in order to place the great chief of the Omahas in our interest as well as for the commerce with his nation as with those of the Upper Missouri, which will not be easy to do without his consent.”

Beyond this kind of ethnohistory, not much has been known about the Omaha people in the eighteenth century, says Karl J. Reinhard, associate professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s School of Natural Resource Sciences and co-author of Learning from the Ancestors: The Omaha Tribe Before and After Lewis and Clark. The book, due out in 2003, is based on Reinhard’s analysis of the skeletons of the Omaha tribe.

“The most revealing discovery is that the Omaha were fully equestrian buffalo hunters by 1770,” Reinhard says. “That makes them the first documented equestrian culture in the Northern Plains. This is nearly one hundred years earlier than in the Dakotas.” Reinhard documents this by finding similar bone patterns between the Omaha and those of an English cavalry. But a key piece of evidence is unique to the Omaha. “The Omaha used a ‘toe stirrup,’ which was essentially a thong that went around the big toe,” Reinhard explains. “Because riding, mounting, and dismounting puts pressure on the toes, the first toe joints went arthritic prematurely.”

Reinhard and his team have been studying the ancestral remains in the contex of their cultural and historical significance. “Human skeletons make a kind of record of the life of each person,” Reinhard says. “Skeleton study reveals aspects of life such as occupation, disease, age, sex, and sometimes cause of death. By combining the information from skeletons with artifacts from the burials, the role of each person in the society can be seen.”

The remains of a fifty-year-old woman tell about the daily life of an Omaha woman before 1800. For instance, the bones reveal severe arthritis in her right elbow, probably caused by repeatedly performing tasks such as such as wood chopping, farming, and food grinding. “Before the epidemic struck, the women seemed to have had long lives,” Reinhard says. “They were having many children and were as healthy as and tended to live as long as the men. But after the epidemic, the women took on more of the responsibility for manufacturing, and this wore them down. We can see that in the bones. There was a constant bending over and scraping the hides that stressed the lower back. And when we look at the teeth of the women, we see that they’re very badly worn from chewing hides to prepare them for trade.

“None of them lived past the age of thirty,” he says about the women buried after 1800. “They weren’t living long enough to regenerate the population. There weren’t enough children born to keep the Omaha population viable, so the population was definitely in a decline.”

Both men and women had strenuous lives. In women there is a pattern of degenerative disease in the lower backs, consistent with activities such as hand farming. The bones of women tend to show disease of the lower neck and back caused by the use of a “burden strap,” a band of leather or cloth strapped around the upper chest or head to support weight carried on the back. “One woman who has stress fractures of the first ribs may have gotten them from lifting and carrying excessive loads with a chest strap, which would distribute the weight evenly to both sides of the body and cause the fractures,” Reinhard notes. “The evidence from the ancestors supports the ethnographers who describe burden carrying as primarily a woman’s task.”

The artifacts show that there were many more roles for men than there were for women, especially before the 1800 smallpox epidemic. Specific bone formations and varied artifacts point to men who were archers, warriors, gunsmiths, and merchants. Ceremonial roles apparently were exclusive to men. The remains of four men between the ages of twenty and fifty were found buried with bundles of animal bone and other items of ceremonial significance. One was buried with a drumstick. “These artifacts indicate that the formal religious system involved men,” Reinhard notes. “Because some of these men died as young adults, ceremonial roles could be assigned to individuals early in adult life.”

“The death of Chief Blackbird brought an end to the traditional Omaha society in which men had more roles than women,” Reinhard says. “After that period, there seems to have been more social mobility. Virtually no silver artifacts were found with women before Lewis and Clark visited in 1804. After Lewis and Clark, most of the expensive silver ornaments were found with women.” The change in the Omaha culture resulted not just from disease, which forced the remaining Omaha to take on new roles, Reinhard says, but also a change in economics.

The nature of trade after Chief Blackbird’s time was markedly different. “The trade until 1800 was largely in arms and ornaments,” Reinhard says. After they began trading under the auspices of the United States “there was an influx in trade in tools and clothing such as scissors, axes, top hats, and buttons. I think that this contributed to the emergence of new economic roles because of technological diversification.”

Some of the findings of Reinhard and his team are different from previous archaeological studies, which did not use modern techniques. “That led to some errors,” says Reinhard. For example, research conducted after the 1930 exhumation mislabeled some men as women and the number of infants and children was underrepresented. “This led to the conclusion that the 1800 epidemic did not affect the tribe. Modern analysis shows that this conclusion is absolutely spurious.”

Earlier studies also argue that there was significant evidence of warfare. Reinhard says, “Previous archaeologists interpreted ‘disarticulated’ burials as war dead. Such burials really come from two problems. In the past, some graves were robbed and the bones were disarticulated. This happened so long ago that the field archaeologists did not recognize that that the burials had been robbed. Modern skeletal analysis shows that the burials were originally articulated and then were robbed.”

The remains have been reburied now, and Dennis Hastings says he feels a burden has been lifted. “We got our remains reburied and we got the additional knowledge about our ancestors,” he says. “There are many other tribes focusing only on reburying the remains of their ancestors. In the long run, they’re going to miss out, they’re going to miss the study of their skeletal remains--and maybe the skeletons have something to say to them.”

About the Author

Paulette W. Campbell is a writer in Burtonsville, Maryland.

Funding Information

The University of Nebraska State Museum and the Department of Anthropology received a $110,000 NEH grant to study the mortuary remains of the Omaha Indians. The remains were reburied in 1991.