Omaha Tribe History

The Omaha are a federally recognized Native American tribe which lives on the Omaha Reservation in northeastern Nebraska and western Iowa, United States. The Omaha Indian Reservation lies primarily in the southern part of Thurston County and northeastern Cuming County, Nebraska, but small parts extend into the northeast corner of Burt County and across the Missouri River into Monona County, Iowa. Its total land area is 796.355 km2 (307.474 sq mi) and a population of 5,194 was recorded in the 2000 census. Its largest community is Macy.

They migrated to the upper Missouri area and the Plains by the late 17th century from earlier locations in the Ohio River Valley. The Omaha speak a Siouan language of the Dhegihan branch that is very similar to that spoken by the Ponca. The latter were part of the Omaha before splitting off into a separate tribe in the mid-18th century. They were also related to the Siouan-speaking Osage, Quapaw, and Kansa peoples, who also migrated west under pressure from the Iroquois in the Ohio Valley.

About 1770, the Omaha became the first tribe on the Northern Plains to adopt equestrian culture. Developing “The Big Village” (Ton-wa-tonga) about 1775 in current-day Dakota County in northeast Nebraska, the Omaha developed an extensive trading network with early European explorers and voyageurs. They controlled the fur trade and access to other tribes on the Upper Missouri River.

Omaha, Nebraska, the largest city in Nebraska, is named after them. Never known to take up arms against the U.S., members of the tribe assisted the U.S. during the American Civil War.

  • Omaha Pow-Wow
  • Susan LaFlesche Picotte Center
  • Blackbird Hill

Among the specific contributions of the Umonhon  is a sacred ritual drawn from the social society of the He’thushka, known today in its secular form as the Pow-Wow. One of the dances concluded in a sacred manner in honor of the He’thushka is known in our time as the “Grass or Omaha Dance,” universally performed both nationally and around the world. The melodies and harmonies of a number of songs now used in worldly competitions are drawn from those originally composed for use in the sacred He’thushka .

The Dr. Susan Picotte Memorial Hospital is located in Walthill. The one-and-one half story, frame building was constructed in 1912-13 to serve as a facility for the practice of Dr. Picotte. Susan Picotte was the first Native American woman doctor to practice modern medicine in the United States. In addition to a distinguished medical career, she was an active supporter of the temperance movement, and represented the Omaha tribe at the local and national level, working to improve their quality of life. She was also involved in community affairs on a continual basis. As the only modern medical facility established in the area, primarily for the Omaha Indians, the hospital stands today as a reminder of Picotte’s important role in the lives of Native Americans in Nebraska and the nation.

This prominent topographic feature, located about three miles north of Decatur near Milepost 152 on US 75, overlooks the Missouri flood plain. Traditional Omaha tribal accounts indicate several prominent chiefs, including Blackbird and Big Elk, are buried here. The promontory served as an important natural landmark and meeting place for early European and American travelers including Lewis and Clark (1804-06), naturalist John Bradbury (1809), and George Catlin (1833). In a downslope gorge, natural sandstone bedrock exposures display a fascinating collection of Native American rock carvings, or petroglyphs, which depict human and animal figures as well as supernatural beings. Tribal or chronological affiliation of the carvings is unknown; however, one resembling a human on horseback suggests that it was created after A.D. 1700.

© Dr. Susan LaFlesche Picotte Center