In 1989, tears of joy and happiness flowed among the people of the Omaha tribe, as they were given back a venerated object that had been removed from them 100 years earlier. The sacred object is the umoⁿ’hoⁿ’ti (also referred to as the “Real Omaha”), a cottonwood pole that was esteemed amongst the Omaha peoples.
How the Sacred Pole Was Created
The origination of the pole is told through a story in which the Omaha tribe was seeking a way to prevent its extinction. During the meeting of the elders of the tribe, a son of one of the chiefs went hunting and got lost in the woods. He tried to follow the North Star as a guide back home. While trying to find his way back the young man saw a light.
The light was coming from a tree. The branches and trunk appeared to be on fire, yet the tree wasn’t consumed. When he finally made his way home, he told his father about the tree. The chief then passed on the story to the chiefs of the other tribes.
Four men cut down the tree and placed it amid the Omaha people. The chiefs trimmed the tree and dressed it. On the top was placed a scalp with hair. Around the center was tied a basket and it was said that the tree is a human being.
Then they told the people:
“Whenever we meet with troubles, we shall bring all our troubles to Him (The Sacred Pole).
We shall make offerings and requests.
All our prayers must be accompanied by gifts.
This (the Sacred Pole) belongs to all the people, but it shall be in the keeping of one family in the Honga clan.”
The Removal Of Umoⁿ’hoⁿ’ti
In the late 1800s, tribes were being forced off the land. It became an existential crisis for many Native Americans, including the Omaha tribe. A friendship had developed between the tribe of Omaha and Francis La Flesche, an anthropologist from the Peabody Museum.
In 1888, Francis offered a proposal to Umoⁿ’hoⁿ’ti’s last guardian, Yellow Smoke. The proposal was that Umoⁿ’hoⁿ’ti be taken to Peabody Museum for safekeeping. After some contemplation, Yellow Smoke accepted the offer.
Umoⁿ’hoⁿ’ti was taken away from the Omaha tribe and placed within the trust and care of the Peabody Museum. He was to remain at this new location for the next 100 years.
Umoⁿ’hoⁿ’ti Returns Home
The threat of the Omaha tribe becoming extinct never eventuated. For 100 years, the tribe persevered through the tribulations brought about by colonialism. On his way back to the Omaha people, Umoⁿ’hoⁿ’ti had a slight detour and was temporarily housed at the University of Nebraska. This turned out to be a fortuitous event.
At the University of Nebraska, were the remains of the Ton’wontonga people. The Omaha tribe had been seeking to have these returned to them for reburial near the Missouri river bluffs. By allowing the University to temporarily store Umoⁿ’hoⁿ’ti, the institution agreed to release the remains of the Ton’wontonga.
The Omaha people saw this arrangement as the work of Umoⁿ’hoⁿ’ti. On July 12, 1989, Umoⁿ’hoⁿ’ti was escorted back to his people. The Omaha tribe now had their Venerable Man back. They could touch him and talk to him. They now had the chance for the first time in a century to share with him their troubles and desires.
Though Umoⁿ’hoⁿ’ti had always been with his people, a century of separation has seen some generations grow up without his physical presence. Now that he is back where he belongs, old tales and narratives are shared with the younger generation.
New generations also have the chance to add their own stories about Umoⁿ’hoⁿ’ti. It’s said that he provides a bridge – a bridge between the old ways and the new ways. That’s the power of Umoⁿ’hoⁿ’ti. The power to unite peoples and tribes.
Umoⁿ’hoⁿ’ti was there at the beginning. He was still with the Omaha tribe in spirit while housed at Peabody Museum. Now he is back, and the Omaha people are excited about their future knowing that this sacred and treasured object is exactly where it should be.
For they know that their future is guided and blessed by Umoⁿ’hoⁿ’ti, their Sacred Pole.