Standingbear 6: Life Among the OmAha

Until age 8, Eugene Standing Bear stayed with the family of his Uncle White Bull on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota while his mom Laura was busy on- and off-reservation. At Pine Ridge he learned a lot about the traditions of his people and the conflict that was underway between the old ways and the new ways. Now he entered a new phase of his life, learning more about white people.

Carlisle’s second graduating class, 1890: Dennison Wheelock (Oneida). Stacy Matlack (Pawnee). Levi Levering (Omaha). William Tivis (Comanche). Jemima Wheelock (Oneida). Veronica Holliday (Chippewa). Benjamin Lowry (Winnebago). George W. Means (Sioux). Howard Logan (Winnebago). George Vallier (Quapaw). Percy Zadoka (Keechi). Lawrence Smith (Winnebago). William Morgan (Pawnee). Carl Leider (Crow). Benjamin Thomas (Pueblo). Rosa Bourassa Chippewa). Nellie Robertson (Sioux). Julia Bent (Cheyenne).  [The cutline associated with this picture doesn’t make it clear as to who is where in the picture. I’m thinking Eugene’s stepfather, Levi Levering, might be top row, third from left.]

In the course of her travels Laura met up with her old classmate Levi Levering, who had earned a reputation at Carlisle as “a man of excellent character” and then, after leaving Carlisle in 1891, had become prominent back home in the town of Macy, Nebraska, on the Omaha reservation. The two married in 1914, and Eugene spent the rest of his childhood living among the Omaha people and attending various boarding schools (Pipestone, Santee…).

Levi was a strong advocate of Native Americans integrating themselves into white culture by going to school, while he also worked hard to preserve the beliefs and traditions of his people. After graduating from Carlisle and finding his way, he reported back to the school administration, echoing or confirming what he’d learned at school:

“A Carlisle graduate can do more for the betterment of his people if he can first help himself and determine what he can do. Then he is helping his people. I feel that what I am doing to lift myself, my family, and my people requires talent, education, and the force of character.”

(Read more about Levi Levering….)

Living with the Leverings

In 1914, Laura and her son Eugene began living on the Omaha  reservation, where she found a teaching job, and where Eugene’s new stepfather worked at the Indian Agency.

With good corn land, the Omaha people were a relatively wealthy tribe. Eugene’s new stepfather, Levi Levering, was especially well off since he worked for the government as chief clerk on the reservation. The Leverings had a white, T-shaped, two-story frame house with five bedrooms, a spacious front room, a huge crystal chandelier, a black, coal-burning stove and even a phonograph; the old Edison model with stovepipe horn and cylindrical records. No one else on the reservation had a phonograph.

Levi was prominent in the Presbyterian church, and on Sundays the Levering boys dressed up in knicker suits, high­top, shiny shoes and Buster Brown hats. Yes, the Leverings were quite well-off by Omaha standards, which made the more traditional families a little stand-offish toward Eugene’s stepfamily.

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(adapted from googlemaps)

In the early years the Omaha tribe had lived in what is now Nebraska and Iowa, traditionally in wigwams (small birchbark houses), teepees, and longhouses. By 1900 they had been resettled on the Omaha reservation, a small patch of forest, prairie, sandstone bluffs, and rich farmland at the eastern edge of Nebraska along the banks of the Missouri River. Pronounced ah-MAH-hah, or ah-mong-hong, “Omaha” is translated to mean upriver people or people against the current.

Fitting, perhaps, since adjusting to life on the Omaha reservation was hard for Eugene… a struggle against several currents.

Use a stick

Most tribes at that time were clannish, and Eugene often heard Omaha boys muttering, “Shuh-uh Zhing-uh” (There’s that Lakota boy.) His mom warned him, “If you’re ever threatened by a group of boys or a bigger boy, use a stick to protect yourself.” Which is what he did one cold night outside the dance lodge when an older Omaha boy jumped Eugene from behind and threw him to the ground. Eugene scrambled to his feet, snatched up a three-foot stick, and beat the bully until he was bloody, screaming, and crying.

Eugene threw the stick aside and ran into the lodge to join his mother, who was sitting near the back of the room on a blanket on the floor watching the dancers. A few minutes later the door guards came in carrying the bloody, whimpering Omaha boy to the front of the lodge. The dancing stopped and several women began to moan with wide eyes. Eugene nudged his mother with his elbow, she leaned her ear toward him, and he panted in an excited whisper, “I did that.” Laura cringed, boxed him in the ear, and hissed, “Shush-h-h! Don’t let them know you did it.”

Rattlesnake whips

Most adults avoided the steep sandstone bluff east of town called Snake Hill, but it held a fascination for a lonely, nine-year-old Lakota boy. Approaching on a hot summer day, Eugene could see dozens of coiled rattlesnakes that looked like pimples and pockmarks on the massive rock. As he climbed the bluff, a few shaking tails hissed a warning that quickly grew to a sibilant clamor as alarm spread among the vast community of rattlesnakes. Eugene would carefully approach a big snake, distract it with a stick with his left hand, then grab it by the tail with his right hand and whip it in the air until its head snapped.

White people living on the reservation

Big John was the first white man Eugene had ever gotten to know. His name was John Gilder, but everyone called him Johnny-tonga (Big John). He was a friendly giant of a man with a handlebar mustache who loved the Omaha people and did odd jobs for everyone. Eugene befriended him immediately, followed him around like a pup, and learned a lot of simple skills and tricks from the grinning Goliath. Everyone liked Big John, but they were suspicious of him. He was a white man with a white man’s mind. He had the biggest feet Eugene had ever seen. Though Laura wasn’t thrilled with her son’s friendship with this strange white man, she grudgingly accepted it.

The Adairs were a lazy white family living in a dilapidated, one-room shack across the creek from the Levering family’s home. Both Adair parents and all nine boys chewed tobacco. The mother chewed, spit, and smoked a corncob pipe at the same time. They didn’t have an outhouse, so their yard became something of a minefield. Everyone avoided the Adair family.

The Johnsons also lived near the Leverings and leased land from the Omaha tribe to grow crops and livestock.

Most of the Omaha people were suspicious of all of these white people living on their land.

Graveyard races

When someone died on the Omaha reservation, the family and friends decorated their graves with gifts of gold and silver pieces, money, textiles of silk and calico, beadwork, and smooth, cut-glass dishes filled with fruit, candy, and cake. The gifts, which were placed at the head of the grave after the funeral ceremony, would be taken along to the next life by the spirit of the deceased.

When a funeral procession climbed the hill toward the new grave, Old Man Adair could usually be seen at the far end of hilltop cemetery, wide-brimmed  hillbilly hat in his folded hands, looking like a man simply paying his respects. He observed quietly until the ceremony ended and the mourners left the grave and were over the hill and out of sight. Then he waved his big, dirty hat wildly over his head.

Meanwhile, during the funeral all of the Johnson and Adair boys had gathered at the bottom of the hill on the opposite side, waiting with anticipation. As soon as Old Man Adair raised his hat, all the boys scrambled up the face of the treacherous hill into the cemetery, weaving in and out of crosses and headstones until they reached the embellished gravesite. The best runners grabbed the gold, silver, and money, then everything was up for grabs. There was scrabbling, screaming, and shouting amid a blur of arms and legs that sent dishes and candy flying through the air and scattering across the ground, leaving deep footprints in the fresh clay above the new grave.

Everyone probably knew what was going on, but what could they do? This was life on the rez.

In time, Big John convinced his athletic little friend to join the races. “You know, Eugene, the stuff is going to be looted sooner or later anyway. You might as well take advantage of the opportunity.” He riveted some baseball cleats onto a pair of old sneakers to give Eugene an edge.

Fortunately Laura never found out about the treasure chest full of prizes that her son had pirated for Big John.

Reservation burials

Big John’s many odd jobs included digging graves and engraving tombstones. When he realized that Eugene was handy with a pencil, he delegated him to letter eulogies, names, and dates on the tombstones before they were engraved. Eugene’s mother wasn’t thrilled by the idea that her son’s friend worked with the dead, but she shrugged him off as “a stupid old white man.”

One day he hired Eugene to help with a more serious job: moving a grave. Like most Plains Indians, the Omaha people had traditionally led nomadic lives, and it made sense to dress the bodies in their best clothes, wrap them in hides, and lay them out on scaffolds along with bundles of special possessions such as pipes and weapons. A natural end to a natural lifetime that worked well in the old days when tribes were always on the move.

Once the tribes were settled on reservations, many of them began burying their dead in shallow graves behind the house. But as more of the young people attended schools in the early 1900s and learned about Christianity and sanitation, many of those family corpses were being dug up and reburied in deeper graves in conventional cemeteries. Many of the old full-bloods balked at the idea of moving the dead into deep pits beyond the reach of nature, but their protests were overridden by the younger generation who’d been Americanized.

Gene told me that the government applied pressure, too. “The Indian Bureau in Washington decreed that all of those family graves would have to be moved into cemeteries, six feet under,” he told me. I suspect he was probably right, though I can’t find any documents online referring to government mandates in the late 19th, early 20th centuries to move shallow Native American family graves into cemeteries.

Big John had been paid by a family to move a relative from his backyard grave to the cemetery. Dealing with a corpse sounded kind of spooky to Eugene, but Big John persuaded him to give it a try. “There ain’t nothing to worry about, Eugene. Moving a person’s bones is the same as moving the bones of a dead horse or dead cow. The soul’s gone. It’s the live ones walking around you gotta’ watch out for. A dead person can’t move or hurt you in any way….” Also, he’d pay Eugene $3 for helping, a lot of money in those days.

So Big John dug up the shallow grave and told Eugene to step in and slip a pair of leather straps under the corpse of a young man dressed in a full buckskin suit, beads, and jewelry. He’d been dead a long time; his flesh had turned to black dust and leather. Eugene was half-petrified by the time he secured the straps under the bony shoulders of the corpse. Big John told him to guide the body carefully out of the grave while Big John used a winch to draw it slowly upward.

Suddenly a strap began to slip, so Eugene lurched forward to adjust it, but in his fear he bumped heads with the corpse. The jolt caused the dead man’s spine to snap, and the corpse fell to the ground in two pieces. Eugene flew out of the grave, his mouth and eyes wide open, and hit the ground running. Big John stuck his foot out and tripped him. As Eugene scrambled to his feet, Big John spoke words that would stop any frightened warrior in his tracks. “If you run you are not a man. You will have to wear a dress.”

Eugene collected himself, and the two of them got the bones out of the grave and hauled them up the hill to the cemetery.

Eugene returned home late that afternoon and proudly showed his mother the $3 he’d earned for a day’s work. She beamed until her son explained in vivid detail how he’d earned it. Then her eyes got big and the corners of her mouth turned down.

Laura had learned at Carlisle that death was a dirty, disease-ridden thing.

Eugene saw the change of expression and was ready to bolt, but Laura grabbed him by the ear and marched him out the door into the woods near the creek. She gave him some matches and ordered him to build two fires.

While he collected wood, she returned to the house, filled a tub with water, poured in some disinfectants, and carried that and a bar of strong, homemade yellow soap back to the woods, where both fires were now blazing. She mounted the tub over one of the fires, and as it came slowly to a boil she fumed and scolded Eugene and had him remove all his clothes and throw them into the second fire, along with everything he was carrying in his pockets… including the $3. He was naked now, holding the money in his hand, reluctant to throw it away until Mom began to pull out the slim, green switch that she always carried under her apron. He took one last look at the money before tossing it into the fire.

Laura ordered Eugene to scrub himself, then left. She returned a while later with Big John in tow, giving him the same lecture she’d given her son. “… and if you don’t listen and obey, you will never set foot in the Levering home again!”

As she and her disinfected son left the woods, Big John was peeling off his clothes.

Becoming a Dancer

When Eugene was ten, his parents had him initiated into the Omaha Circle of Dancers. A major part of the initiation was the giveaway ceremony. For more than a year Laura and her relatives from Pine Ridge had collected handmade and store-bought blankets, beadwork, clothing and countless other items for Eugene’s big day in the summer of 1916.

When the day arrived, the Leverings left for the brush arbor on the pow-wow grounds with several trunks loaded with gifts, a small herd of Levi’s horses, and a fat beef steer that would be donated to the feast for visiting tribes, including Eugene’s extended family from Pine Ridge and Rosebud. Before the giveaway could begin, Eugene would have to dance.

The eYAbaha (leader of ceremonies) made his announcement.

“YO-O-O-O-ho-ho-ho-ho-ho-ho-ho!       Heh-h-h-h-h!  Heh! Heh!   Heh!… Heh !  Heh!”   (Now hear this!)

There was a brief pause as the crowd settled down, then he continued in the Omaha tongue, calling to the crowd: “Today is a great day for the Leverings! Levi Levering , one of the leaders of our tribe, and his Lakota wife, are proudly initiating their boy Eugene into the Om-AH-ha dancing group. TODAY he will dance for the first time!”

Of course, Eugene had danced many times before. He’d danced all his life, even as an infant. Like most Lakota infants, Eugene had often been picked up under the arms by uncles who danced the child on their chests. There were even special dance songs designed for infants, “Ko-ko Kay. Ko-ko Kay….” (Little Crazy. Little Crazy….)

But Eugene had never danced as a recognized dancer. After today, after being initiated into the Omaha Circle, he would be an accepted member of a Plains Indian dancing society.

Eugene rose to his feet and walked to the center of the brush arbor. The main Omaha drum started the beat. It was the size of a bass drum, was made of wood and rawhide, and was mounted on wooden stanchions near the chiefs.

Eugene began dancing to the beat of the slow war song as it played through the first time. The second time through it picked up tempo, pulsing faster and faster until Eugene was dancing full speed.

The dancers standing around the side of the arbor began to feel the tempo, and one by one they joined in. Before long, the center of the arbor was packed with dancers, and all the spectators were pulsating in time with the beat of the fast war song.

When the dance ended, the giveaway began. Eugene’s mother and a number of relatives sat beside the trunks filled with gifts while his stepfather handed the eYAbaha a list of names of the recipients. One at a time the eYAbaha called names—old people, guests, tribal leaders, friends—and one by one the recipients approached the relatives and accepted a blanket, a shawl or some beadwork.

The recipient then walked to where Eugene was seated on the ground. He might touch hands with the honored youth (a firm hand­ shake was never customary among Plains Indians). The boy and the adult would clasp hands very loosely and very quickly, then release. Or, instead of touching hands, the adult might extend the palm of his hand within inches of Eugene’s face, then sweep his hand slowly downward past Eugene’s chest.     Then the adult would rub his hand on his own chest as if to say, “May your honorable qualities become a part of me.”

Eventually the trunks were empty, and a dozen horses were herded into the arbor. Among the small herd was Eugene’s pony. The boy’s eyes opened wide. He didn’t realize that his beloved pony was in the deal. His mother had bought it from the 101 Ranch during her travels with the show and had given it to Eugene for Christmas one year. The pony was nervous. Eugene bit his bottom lip almost off to keep from crying. Like all Lakota youngsters he’d been taught not to shame his parents, so he held his emotions in check.

Three of the finest horses were separated from the herd, slapped on the rear and sent galloping out of the brush arbor. One of them was Eugene’s pony. These three horses would belong to anyone who could throw a rope around their necks. If several ropes happened to hit the mark, the bottom rope decided the new owner.

The other horses were then given to selected guests or members of the tribe.

Eugene knew the giveaway was important, but his own pony….

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Eugene said later that one thing he learned among the Omaha people was that sacrifice and adversity can build character, but when all that’s close to the heart is trampled the future becomes dark until the heart is restored.

Next up: Indian Shools

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About Mark Macy

Main interests are other-worldly matters (www.macyafterlife.com) and worldly matters (www.noblesavageworld.com)
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2 Responses to Standingbear 6: Life Among the OmAha

  1. John Day says:

    Om Aha…nice….and Johnny-tonga too.

    • Mark Macy says:

      🙂 I’m finding that the Omaha have a great heritage, as do the Lakota. And the Osage. All Native American tribes, probably… if I had the time to explore.

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