September 7, 2009


Filed under: Dialoguing — Editor @ 8:03 pm


Peter T. Suzuki

School of Public Administration

University of Nebraska at Omaha

Omaha, Nebraska, 68182-0276


Paper presented at the Western Social Science Association Annual Meeting,  Albuquerque,  Friday, April 17, 2009

American Indian Studies Section



When “fieldwork” and the anthropologists Margaret Mead and Reo Fortune are mentioned, typically what comes to mind is the South Pacific, including New Guinea and Melanesia.   As an afterthought, knowing anthropologists might include the Omaha Tribe as well.  This is understandable in view of the fact that Mead’s foremost interest was in the peoples and cultures of the South Pacific while Fortune’s most well known anthropological study undoubtedly is The Sorcerers of Dobu, a book on a people of Melanesia. This situation notwithstanding, both authored publications of lasting value on the Omaha Tribe of Nebraska.  For Mead it was The Changing Culture of an Indian Tribe and for Fortune Omaha Secret Societies; both appeared in 1932  A Mead biographer has observed that “…overshadowed by her better Samoan and Manus works, it is virtually ignored” (Rice 1979: 106). [2] Of Fortune’s study, the same writer has the following words that merit citing.

Omaha Secret Societies, brooding, wry, joking, apologetic,  by a mind that seems at home in its field but alienated in its

career, is one of those oddities one might encounter in any

discipline, a work so strange, moving and unusual that it

cannot be categorized, and thus is set aside by the more

formalistic members of the field.  “I have not been ex-

cessively  tender in my handling of the previous authorities,” Reo remarks of the anthropological establish-

ment, and they take the same attitude toward him.

Mead can add sadly, to the account of his troubles, “The

situation was so unusual, as Ruth [Benedict] had sensed

that Reo’s analysis did go unrewarded.  Americanists did not appreciate the detective skill, developed in his work with the Melanesian sorcerers, with which Reo had unraveled as unfamiliar fabric…. He is given very little [credit] for Omaha Secret Societies, the book in which he published the work he had the greatest difficulty in doing”

(Rice 1979: 107).

In reality, both were given difficult assignments, an issue that will be touched on below.

This paper will look at three different ceremonies of the Omahas .  The fact remains, these three aspects were described in the field notes but did not receive adequate coverage in their published works.   To this degree, they form significant lacunae; had they otherwise been covered, the information, in the case by Mead, in my opinion, would have given her book a richer text.  As for the topics themselves, they are worthy of  attention because they help round out the published books and  also provide a better picture of what Mead and Fortune had observed , thought about, and had written down as raw data.  More importantly, my position is that the hitherto unpublished information will be well received by the contemporary Omaha Tribe.

The field notes are deposited in the Manuscript Division of The  Madison Library of the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.         Before a discussion of the materials themselves, the following section provides a brief overview of the project that sent Mead and Fortune to Nebraska in the summer of 1930. [3]


In the winter of 1930, Clark Wissler, the chairman of the department of the American Museum of Natural History under whom Mead served as Assistant Curator, made available a grant from a special committee headed by a Mrs. Leonard Elmhirst (Mead 1979: 195). The grant of $750 (Rice 1979: 102; Howard 1985: 122) was to study the family life and social setting in an American Indian tribe with special reference to women, a subject that had not been broached before by other Indianists.   She and Fortune wanted to do a study of the Navahos but the proposal was rejected by Franz Boas because one of his former students, Gladys Reichard, and  another anthropologist, Pliny Goddard, who had been a lecturer in anthropology at Columbia University, [4] had already undertaken substantial fieldwork among the Navahos.  The Omaha Tribe of Nebraska was selected because Ruth Benedict had made funds from Columbia University’s Research Council for Social Science available for Fortune.   Owing to a nagging question about the Omahas’ lacking the tradition of vision-seeking by the men as was assumed to exist in virtually every Plains Indian culture with which Benedict was familiar and had been part of her doctoral dissertation under Boas (Howard. 1985: 112;  Fortune 1932: 7, on the Columbia University grant),  Fortune was asked to looked into this.

For Fortune, this was a heavy assignment given that the Omahas in 1930 were a dispirited people whose culture had gone through and was undergoing rapid change and was characterized more than once by Mead as having a  people with a “broken culture” (Mead 1932: passim). [4]

In their journey to the Midwest, they purchased a Ford to drive from New York to Nebraska.  Fortune drove, but Mead was “…frightened by the erratic driving, which on occasion took them off the road” (Lapsley 1999: 196) and drove into the heat of Nebraska: “Heat, frightful heat” (Rice 1979: 102). [ 5]

Based on Fortune’s financial record,  handwritten in a little black book, on May 28, 1930, he received $850 which was expended as follows (Fortune, Box N-119):

New York to Omaha    $73.72

[no further itemization]

meals, including tips           5.00

films           3.40

gas            5.20

car        255.

hotel (June 17-19)                                              4.30

]car] insurance          4.75

[car] license           3.13


total:           $354.51

In Omaha, June 10, 1930:

Purchased a used Model A Ford    $450.

For trade-in of their car  (credit)      100.

Down payment                                                     25.

Balance due                                   $325.

(Fortune, Box N-119)

Fortune then followed this set with a typed report:  “Statement of R.F. Fortune June 1 – September 16, 1930.”

Receipts [grants]:  June 1, 1930,  $850.

July                 137. 17


Total:      $987.17

Expenditures.  Trip and including R[ail]. R[oad]. fares, meals, tips, baggage transportation, one week in a hotel, automobile licenses, automobile insurance, and driver’s license, field equipment:       $173.06

Upkeep of automobile in field        38.11

Living expenses in field                 131.89

Payments to informants        540.91

Return trip in field automobile        53.23

Depreciation on field automobile         50.00


Total Receipts  $987.17; Total Expenditures         $ 987.17

[N.B.  His addition was off by .03 cents]

(Box N-119)

Although the Omaha Tribe was in an impoverished state, concerning payments to informants, in a letter dated July 16, 1930, Mead wrote to Franz Boas: “Work is quite expensive here, especially the endless contributions to feasts and gasoline for everywhere is five miles from everything else” (Box N-119).  Five days later in a letter to Ruth Benedict, she wrote “…they [Omahas] aren’t poor enough to be tempted by anything less than $25 or so, and then there is no check on their telling the truth…” (Mead1979: 97).  To a small degree, the penurious state of the tribe the two were studying worked to their advantage, as pointed out by Fortune: “Fortunately for my work on the secret societies I had some informants literally under the rack of extreme privation and want, and so I was able to penetrate into secrets that are not usually admitted” (1932: 2).    These statements help account for the inordinately large sum spent for informants and general research.

That $540.91 for informants was more than a princely sum

in 1930 can be appreciated by citing costs of some things that year.

For example, clothing:

Women’s sweater      $1.00

Women’s bathrobe        1.00

Leather or suede bag        2.25

Men’s wool sweater        1.00

Men’s broadcloth shirt        1.00


Gas stove        $19.95

Table lamp             1.00

Doll              1.00

Mechanical toys               3 for .59


Food in 1930:

12 eggs        .17

Loaf of bread       .08

Sugar, 10 pounds                 .39

Pork loin roast a pound      .15

( source: www.thepeople

Gallon of gasoline                                                              .10


In consideration of the cost of living in 1930 and the total amount of the grants received by wife and husband, the $750 received by Mead was not  necessarily “…pitiful and small…” (Rice 1979: 102).

What the itemized list of expenditures does not include are purchases that both Mead and Fortune made for the Museum of Natural History’s Indian collection.  In a memorandum to Wissler, Fortune informed him that they had collected 33 “…specimens and handiwork, porcupine quill work…” for the sum of $100 (Box 119; n.d.), while Mead noted in a letter to Wissler dated September 8, 1930, that their subjects sold such items “…only in an emergency” of which she had “…samples of most of the distinctive art styles…” (Box N-119).

It is not clear from the documents whether a separate fund was available for purchasing Omaha artifacts.

Once on the reservation, they lived in a house in Macy – on today’s roads, 80 miles from the City of Omaha.  Macy was and is where the post office and other government agencies were/are situated; while the Bureau of Indian Affairs is on the Winnebago Reservation, eight miles from Macy (the two reservations share a common border).  The house was furnished with furniture borrowed from the superintendent of the Winnebago Agency, C.M. Ziebach (Mead letter to Ziebach, September 8, 1930; Box N-119).

In 1930, in writing to Boas in the letter to him cited above, Mead observed that “…very little of the old life is left, but solidarity of race and language are till absolutely untouched.  Everybody speaks Omaha by preference.”  She was able to hire a young English-speaking Omaha female to help at home but who also provided solid information on the culture.  What follow are Mead’s own words.

The Indians were not cognizant of the fact that any such

investigation was being conducted, but believed that I was merely killing time in idle conversation or attendance of ceremonies.  For the most part, no notes wee taken in the informants’ presence but conversations were written up immediately afterwards.   The one exception to this was detailed reorganization of census material which the informant believed I was doing for another investigation.  Such unawareness was essential to the successful prosecution of a study involving intimate details of contemporary life.  I took into the house with me a young Indian girl from one of the more conservative families.  ….  As I became responsible for her chaperonage, I gained a most vivid insight into the mother and daughter situation on the reservation.  At the same time, as I accompanied her in a less official capacity to many festivities, I also became well acquainted with her age group.  (1932: 16-17)

While interacting with the Indians, she spoke “Indian English” (Mead 1965: xiii).  She chose the name “Antler” for the Omaha Tribe, “…to shield   the feelings of the individuals and to give no affront to the tribal pride” (Mead 1932: 16).  Concerning the use of a  pseudonym,  in 1965 she wrote, “Why I realized from the beginning that I would want to protect the identity not only of the individuals…but also of the tribe, I am not sure.  But this is a decision I have never regretted and to which I still adhere” (Mead 1965: xx).  On the same page she does admit that this put her at a disadvantage because she could not cite the important published materials that had appeared some years earlier (e.g., Dorsey 1884; Fletcher & La Flesche 1905-06, 1911) so had to rely on Fortune’s research materials that cited previously published studies on the Omahas.   In my opinion, inherent in the use of pseudonym was Mead’s inability to compare what was going on in 1930 with what had gone on before.  Recall that this in a book on change.  In other words, one must ask, Change from what base line?  In my view, to some extent she had a stereotyped view of Northern Plains Indian culture (Mead 1965: e.g., xiv & passim) to use as a basis of comparison as one notes a sense of lamentation that the Plains Indian culture with its bisons, tipis, horses, counting coup, sun dance, etc., had disappeared.

It did not take long for others to know and publicize who the Antlers really were, given the established reputations of Mead  and her husband (e.g., Goldenweiser 1934).

For the Winnebagos, she chose the pseudonym “Black Faces.” Why this unfortunate name was selected is difficult to fathom.  This term carried a negative connotation although Mead provided no substantial information on the Winnebagos.



This was an entirely new dancing and hand game for girls that was organized on July 4, 1930, by two girls, F.M. and F.G. [6] It was somewhat modeled on a girls’ game “The Short Skirts,” of an Indian girls’ society in Walthill, a town some four miles from Macy.   These two girls visited girls in Macy to invite them to the July 6 event and

were told to bring sandwiches because no food would be served.

People started gathering around 6 P.M.  But a crowd large enough

to start did not assemble until 9 P.M.; a main reason was that fallen

branches had blocked a road leading to the site that required clearing.   The male drummers were late, and they did not have enough drum sticks.   Also, one of the drummers was drunk.  Some 15 girls had assembled and lined up.  C.G., an older man, announced that there would be a stump dance first; this was led by two boys of the F. family, with the girls slipping in between each two boys.  The boys started off first and the girls joined them.  Some were stump dancing, some were doing turns, clapping hands in doing something similar to a Virginia reel while crawling under hands, with some squatting, which not every girl did.  All the girls except the four young married women were short skirts and high heels and silk stockings.  One small girl had on a pair of gingham pajamas.  F. and M. had black beaded shawls worn tightly around their waists.  There was no order of sitting, when this took place.  Two girls who came late did not take part.

In his speech C.G. announced that this was the inaugural game organized by school girls and that no meat such as pork was going to be served and that everyone was supposed to have brought sandwiches and some sweets.   Six rounds of the hand game were decided on.   In addition to the other boys, only one small boy played, whereas a number of small girls participated.  After each round was completed, it was followed by a round dance.  The girls lost each hand game played.  Donations were collected which included five pies from H.T. and a bottle of whiskey from a woman, S.B.   The widow M.S. gave $2 as a symbol that her period of mourning had ended; another lady gave $1.  One man gave a speech why he was not able to contribute. In all, approximately 15 adults were present. Other donations included gourds and drum sticks.  The total dollar amount contributed was $6.  After the food was served another stump dance took place.  The activities started at 8:30 P.M. and concluded Monday morning at 1:30.

( “Honey Bunches,” July 7; Box N-120)


This was held at another family’s place.  It started at 10:30 P.M. and attracted at least 16 adults and about 12 girls.  There were “lots of boys.”  C.G. and H.T. conducted the program; the latter appointed J.P. to lead the stump dance followed by southern dance that was accompanied by new songs.  These were followed by a variation of the grand reel with everyone exchanging places so that eventually everyone held the hands of everyone in the group.  Because no one knew the rules, there was a mix-up that attracted boys into the group, but they were soon shooed away.  “Everything was done in a slovenly way.”  Inside the girls’ circle the boys and danced the forty-nine with shouts and stumping.  At the second honey bunches, they followed the traditional style thereby forfeiting their position; but in the sixth, this penalty was abandoned as everyone was following the traditional style.

J.C. provided the food.  Excluding what Mead and Fortune contributed, the total collected was 90 cents.  Dancing continued until 2 A.M.

(“Sixth Honey Bunches,” August 22; Box N-120)


The information on the Honey Bunches is important for several reasons.  Whereas Mead sets aside several paragraphs in her book on hand games, with special attention paid to the attire of women at such occasions (1932: 159-62), and devotes a paragraph to the role of women in hand games (139), failure to describe at all what she witnessed as Honey Bunches’ activities is striking.  On a book dealing with change with special reference to women, Honey Bunches as an innovative activity

started by girls would have been a logical and integral part of the study and would have shored up her position that Omaha women were not necessarily subordinate to the males.  Indeed, on their own initiative, they interested and motivated people to take part and organized the hand games that included dancing and traditional payments.  What is most revealing is that the very first gathering was an indisputable success that attracted adult men and women and girls and boys along with male drummers.  This clearly showed that Omaha girls had enough status and prestige in a culture that conferred prestige on the elderly to effectively start a new tradition with a newly formed group ultimately involving all age groups and both sexes.  The activity held in August also informs us that by then, Honey Bunches had been successfully institutionalized, irrespective of some of the “ragged edges” of the sixth Honey Bunches.

Furthermore, had the ethnography of the Honey Bunches been incorporated in the book, it would have given more meaning to the topic of hand games than the rather abstract picture of hand games present in Mead’s published work (1932: 159-52) and could have lent authority to her observation on women and hand games (139).


This game is not covered in any of the earlier ethnographies but in the following pages, was described in full by Mead.  It is not mentioned in her book.  Therefore in the pages that follow, I have included the entire description.  The only changes made are corrections of typographical errors.  The game took place on June 27. The field notes of the game are recorded as follows.

    Held at the Little Grizzly Lodge, out doors.  People gather around five and six o’clock, the majority in [horse] teams and one seaters.  When we [Mead & Fortune] arrived, a group of women were cooking by an outdoor fire, some young men were heating  the drum, which was fastened on a small hog’s head.  It has to be heated to be taught.  Finally a few raps on the drum made the people gather.  W.H. and his wife and were the heads, and they sat in the middle in one end of a three-sided square.  The young men sat on the other side.  Men sat on W.’s right and women and child in a long line on the left side.  About twice as many women and children as men.  The drummers were all young men: L. S., T.S., J.W, T.M.  there were two half-breeds present, G. and S.  F.L. and his Winnebago chauffeur who has lived here eight years and can understand but not speak Omaha, C.L. and his daintily clad little girl were there.  F. L. looked like some timeless ageless Chinese idol in modern dress, infinitely removed from all about him.  Many people went up and shook hands with him.  The moccasin game was played first.  The drummers drummed and sang; the stone was hidden in one of the four tightly rolled up moccasins by the men who won the toss of a coin.  The four are laid on a blanket, and a woman, guessing wand in hand, advances, waving the wand in time to the drum, advances, and still in time, whisks two of them aside, and then points to one, and then points to one.  Great mirth if she chooses when the stone was in the other of the pair.  Eight points make a game.  It was played twice; women lost both times.  When they lose they are presented with two gourds, which lie in front of the head of the ceremony.  Two of the losing side are selected to receive the gourds.  They dance about slowly, with heads down, singing, “We have been very negligent; we will take care that it does not occur again.”
    The two so selected will have to bring food next time as a forfeit.  Then a hand game was played.    This time there are two [stones], held in one hand by each of two players.  The closed fists are shaken in time to the drum. The one who is to guess receives a small bit of otter skin and goes up, and also moving the hands and arms in time to the music, throws out one hand and indicates which players she will guess.  Eight points here also.
    The men lost twice.  Once they held the gourds but refused to dance, the second time it had gotten dark so they danced and cut up instead of dancing carefully.
    As the guessing went on, the side guessing sent a guard over to stand by the stone-holders to see that they didn’t cheat.  Even so the men hid the stone under the crooked thumb and there was much teasing and pretense of cheating.  M. said to me, “If you have to guess again, take hold of the man’s hand; now that it is dark, don’t just point or he may hide the stone and cheat you.”
    When a side won there was much cheering and lots of friendly advice shouted back and forth.  Now to end it, the drummers all got in the center and sang and the women danced around them, in a circle, all with shawls ,the essential item of costume, moving slowly, in time to the drum and singing.  They sang two songs without words, one World War victory song, and one song with English words, “I love you, I will meet you tonight; do you remember the place where we meet?”
    P.P. danced with the women.  At the end, the drummer got out of the circle, and W. and another man led off and men and women followed in behind in pairs.  This was the end.  Then all the food was taken up and laid in front of W.  A man made a speech saying, “There is just a little food tonight.  When we go [to] the other lodges there is a great deal of food but this time only a few women have brought food.  So, we understand that is hard to get food this time of year. When we go to the other lodges there is a great deal of food but this time only a few women have brought food.  So, we understand that it is hard to get food this time of year.  We think those who brought food and because there is only a little we ask you not say anything.”
    The drummers were served first, then the men.  Earlier the official water carrier had gone about serving water.  Then there is an official water carrier.  It is not polite to drink from your own water and even if you have brought it.  People carry their own water everywhere they go and use lard tins or small milk cans.  They also bring a plate, cup, and large spoon for each member of the  family — all tied up in a square dish towel.  W. changed a few sentences of thanks at the beginning of the meal saying it was holy.  Then C.G. who is one of the leaders of Peyote prayed.  M.  remarked,  “He always prays so long and talks too much about himself.  In this case he spoke of his sister who was motoring to Oklahoma and asked that she be kept safely.”
    Then all the food was distributed: chicken, biscuits, rolls, slices of bread, cake, soup, and afterwards coffee.  W. said, “Eat.”
    Until then no one had begun.  When C.G. prayed he took a little of the soup in a ladle and poured it on the ground as an offering to the dead.  Sometimes M. said he ours a little bread, chicken and coffee too.  The woman who came last to the feast was given a whole kettle of soup because “she was the last comer because she had to work late.”  Next time she will have to bring a substantial contribution to the feast.
    In the whole affair there was an easy,  happy give and take, much joshing, much mirth, much interest in the outcome of the game.  The little girls wrap themselves two in a group, playing shinny and shooting off fire crackers not even coming up when it time for the feast.  There were a fair number of two- and three-year old babies, being dragged away and lifted about awkwardly by small girls of six and seven.  Mothers didn’t pay much attention to them.  Only a few little babies.  When two- and three-year olds cried no attention paid to them.  Old women and old men joined in the game as much zest as the young people.  The young men played the drums with admirable address and sobriety.  The whole atmosphere was that of a jolly parlor game between simple people who knew each other well.  It was notable that there were twice as many women as men.  About 200 people in all.  The little boys formed a gang; the older girls went about in twos and threes with arms about each other’s waist not talking to the boys.   The little girls went about in pairs or stayed close to their mothers.  When the women watched the dance commented on a change in a step being, one a slower or faster step and second, a different motion of the bodies. [End of field notes]
    (Mead, Box N-120).


As described above, it is clear that the moccasin game was fairly encompassing as regards the number of people involved and that it involved a ritualized number of steps so that like the Honey Bunches event, it had a tradition and had been institutionalized.  Irrespective of the Omaha Tribe as being  a “broken culture,” this game is one piece of evidence that the culture was still functioning however tenuously, as observed by an outsider.  While it is true that the older values and main institutions such as the role of women, marriage, religion,  oral traditions, etc., were undergoing change, a ceremony such as the moccasin game was going far toward linking the past with the present thereby lending a sense of stability to the culture.   On the other hand, this game also gives credence to Mead’s position as revealed in the following statement.    “The student [of culture] finds not an organic social background but an odd collection of traditions, once integrated, now merely coexistent” (1932: 13).


Mead’s book provides a fairly detailed description of a funereal which she and her husband had witnessed.  Certain details — such as the funeral she describes was one for two babies and the roles of various individuals — are lacking.  In large measure the ethnography of the funeral in her book is based on her field notes.  Although eye witnesses to the funeral, nonetheless, the field notes are based on information supplied by an Omahan.  The resultant document is entitled “Funeral of L. Babies: Indian Point of View, July 3, 1930” (Box N-119).  Information in this one-and-three-fourth pages single-spaced typed document gives a detailed, objective account of what took place at the funeral in the order of activities that accompanied it. (For Mead’s coverage, see 1932:  e.g., 110-12, 153).

Here then are the notes of the funeral “From an Indian’s point of view,” July 3, 1930, see  Box N-119.   The informant was undoubtedly a woman.

    Two of the children of J.L. were dead….boys, the most desirable sex.  It was bad enough to lose one baby but here were two dead within a day of each other.  They sent to Sioux City for two caskets costing  $35 each….  The funeral was to be at the L. house and H.L. was asked to be the master of ceremonies.  There was so little time that he could not ask a great many people to help. He got his wife’s two clan brothers, J. and F.T. and his own two sons.
    On the morning of the third day they dug the grave, not a very deep one for the children were very small.  The people gathered at the house of the parents, almost all were relations; it
    was a small funeral for they did not have time to invite very many people.  There was no wake.  The two little bodies were laid out very prettily in little dresses made of striped material, and cunning little shoes which wee a gift.  The babies’ tiny moccasins were laid beside the bodies in the caskets.  Fine soft handkerchiefs were placed over their little faces and paper flowers and pretty ribbons were laid on their little breasts.
    The freight train coming from Sioux City was late and all the people had to wait a long time.  Sometime during the wait the women cried. and sometimes all just sat and waited.   Most of the men waited outside while the women cooked.
    The plain wooden coffins were taken into the room.  While the little bodies were laid in the caskets everybody cried again.  The mother and one of her brothers stayed at the heads of the caskets to fan away the flies.  It was very close in that room.
    In  the other room carpets and quilts had been laid about the wall so that all the men could sit down.  The women and children sat in the kitchen.  First water was passed to everyone— first to the leader then clockwise around the circle to everyone.  They would have smoked but it was so late now that they did not.  B.L.  gave the little bag of tobacco from which the cigarette would have been smoked to everyone in the circle….  B.L. had prayed before in the room where the caskets were.  Now he prayed again to God.  Then he spoke and thanked the people who had come, and said how hard it was to lose the two  boy children whom the family counted on to care for them in their old age; but God had thought otherwise.  Then the grandmother spoke thanking everyone for helping.
    M.  gave a quarter; the white man and his wife [Fortune and Mead] gave $1.25.    Old J.L. thanked them saying how hard it was to collect any money these days and how grateful he was to the white man for helping to bury his little grandchildren.  The grandmother spoke too.  Then J.L.  said he would give $5 tomorrow; he would give $1.25 now.  M.M. spoke saying that the white people had not come out of curiosity  but so that they might learn the customs of the Indians.  B.L. spoke first in Indian and then in English thanking the white people and saying that it was not often that white people came to Indian ceremonies and they were grateful.
    Before the feast B.L.’s eldest boy, directed by his father, cut a bit of each kind of food into for pieces and put them in a saucer, then put a piece in a cup of coffee and set everything on a chair between the two caskets.  Then the caskets were brought in, and the pieces of food scattered to the four winds; these were for the babies.
    They had a feast of bread, chicken, two kinds of meat stews, rolls, coffee and chicken soup.  The master of ceremonies said “Eat.”  After the meal he made a speech and thanked the family for the feast saying that he and his helpers were all well satisfied and now they would go and bury the bodies.  The two little caskets were brought into the room.  Cedar was brought in burning and set down in front of the master of ceremonies.  With a beaded eagle feather fan he wafted the smoke to the four directions and over the little coffins.  Then he told everyone to stand up, beginning with the man on his left; they all marched around to the middle of the other side of the caskets, looked long at the babies and then marched out.
    After the men had filed out the women came in and marched around the caskets, clapping their hands together and crying for the babies.  The young girls just cried but all the women reached down and caressed the babies’ faces, pinched their nose and put their faces against the babies’.  All the time the master of ceremonies kept wafting the smoke over the two caskets.  Now they closed the caskets and the women cried louder than ever.  They carried them out and put them one in one wagon and the other coffin in another.  They drove to the cemetery then put one casket in the grave and then the second one.  When they screwed on the lids on the coffin, the master of ceremonies threw a little dirt on each and prayed again.  Then all the men filled the graves.  While this was going on, the women cried.  After the work was completed, the step-grandmother cried over the grave of her husband who had died suddenly the year before – he had just fallen down dead at a feast.
    This same day a white girl, J.B., the daughter of the leader of the Pentecostal Church, was buried.  But she was buried by the [Thurston] [C]ounty.  The Indians built the Pentecostal Church; they provided the sand and the lumber and then the white people said they were going to have one side just to themselves and not have greasy, dirty Indians sitting all mixed up with them.  Two Indian women, neither of them Omahas, stayed with the church though. [End of field notes]

These pages are then followed by a full-page, single-spaced typed document, “Indian Funeral as Seen Through White Eyes, A Composite of Comments.”  The contrast between the Indian’s and the White’s views of the same funeral is strikingly different.

    Do you know two little babies died at once over at that J.L.’s son’s place – you know, that old fellow with long hair, and he’s lousy.  His daughter said she wouldn’t have him in her house anymore he was so lousy.  He’s a morphine fiend too.  Every time he gets any money he goes over to that doctor in Decatur [a town approximately five miles from Macy] who’ll do anything for money though they say that a doctors allowed to give anyone a sot of morphine in his office if it will do them any good, but he’s not allowed to sell it to them [Indians].  He gives this old fellow a shot in his heel and that gets him home.  Them children of his are just as poor as dirt.
    What the babies died of?  Oh, after effects of the measles.  I suppose they never had no doctor.  Oh, they did; did they, and brung’em home I suppose just as they was getting better.  Oh, they did? Took’em to Winnebago [where the Indian Health Service Hospital is] did they, and brung’em home I suppose just as they was getting better.  Oh, the doctor said they was going to die and let’em go did he?  Well, they do that; they’d ruther they die at home if they’re goin to die.  And they had a regular funeral did they’ A feast? Where’d they get the money?  I seed that old J. this morning and he was drunk then.  The mother of the children’s a big fat ugly squaw ain’t she?
    Yes, and the house where they had the funeral.  Like all Indian houses, no screens, hardly any furniture.  They sell all their furniture powwow time so they can go to powwow.   Just a dirty little frame house, nothing in it, just a big picture of Indians on the wall, and a picture stuck full of the funniest snapshots, one of some boys with a pennant in front of them and some just of real old squaws.  And it took them hours and hours of course.  They never start anything when they say they will.  The men spent a whole day on it, I suppose, when ought to have been at work.
    Took five men to dig the grave did it’  Oh it would; aren’t they lazy?  Did you ever notice how short an Indian’s arm is?  Well, he never raises it except from his plate to his mouth.
    They got caskets from Sioux City [,Iowa].  Paid $35 EACH for them.  Why for little kids like that they could have gotten them for $12 or $15.  They never went over to the [Indian] Agency and asked for one of them war coffins, I suppose. Oh, of course, trust an Indian; they always want to do everything in style.   When he’s got money, it’s just the best he wants.  Does he pay $5 for a hat; no $25 and $15 for shoes.  They had them poor little babies laid out on chairs; didn’t even have a decent bed for them. They was dressed awful funny, in dresses made of shirting and artificial flowers on them – roses and nasturtiums; think of an Indian doing that.  Shows they have some feeling anyhow.  But they don’t take good care of their children, just sling’em around on those boards, and then the women go to a feast and just throw the little babies down in a row on the floor and  one of’em will have measles or whooping cough or small pox and they all get it.  The little baby had pricks on his forehead, bled it.  Say, somebody ought to stop this bleeding.  There’s an Indian doctor goes around here and he takes a quart of blood out of them.  Cures them all right; next day they have to send for the undertaker.  Somebody ought to stop that fellow.  Where was those pricks?  Oh in the forehead; that ain’t bleeding  that’s for a headache.  You watch lots of them you’ll see them all scratched up.  What did they have to eat [at the funeral]’  Chicken, oh they did.  Could you eat it?  Oh, I couldn’t touch any of that stuff they cook.  They cook the meat till it’s just as stringy.  And what kind of bread? Store bread; oh yes, they’re too lazy to bake.  And what’s that; they sprayed Flit over the casket.  Isn’t that so disgusting; keep the bodies so long that they smell.  But I don’t suppose they mind.  And then they stuck some of the food on a plate beside the bodies.  Well of all the funny ignorant things!  And a lot of speeches, and then a lot of wailing, not real grief.  I looked and hardly any of them had any tears in their eyes, just yelling away to get their dinners, I suppose.  They didn’t have the hearse, d’rather have the feast I suppose, and they took the bodies up in an old wagon.  When they got there no one had a screw driver and they had to screw the lid down with knives and an old shovel.  It took forever.  And then an old squaw sat down and started to yell over another grave and they had to wait for her.  [End of field notes]


Characterizing these two views of the funeral as exhibiting  a “Rashomon effect” is appropriate.  It will be recalled that in the famous 1950-film directed by Akira Kurosawa, a woman is raped, and there are eye-witnesses but each witness, including the victim, offers a different version of the crime.   In like manner, the two versions of the funeral are instructive.  The one by the Indian is a matter-of-fact report whereas the one by a white is obviously replete with offensive racist comments.  The latter’s visceral reactions underscore what often hears in Indian country; viz., the closer to an Indian reservation a white resides, the stronger white prejudice appears to be against Indians.


The 1930-summer experience on the Omaha Reservation has been characterized as an unhappy period for Mead and Fortune for various reasons, such as: the nature of the Omaha Tribe as being a broken culture; for Fortune, the immense difficulty of reclaiming myths, ceremonies, and tradition, much of what had been lost as activities, to the point of even bringing out in him “… a streak of paranoia…” (Lapsley 1999: 197; cf. Mead 1972: 184; Rice 1979: 106-08); the truculence of informants unless compensated “properly”; the pressure both were under to have successful field work (e.g., Rice 1979: 106; Howard 1984: 123-24), and physical factors such as the unbearable heat.  Withal, the books they wrote were a tour de force.  Despite the adversities, their publications are important contributions on Omaha culture of a period when, despite the changes that had taken place and were going on, the two anthropologists captured for later students of the Omaha Tribe and culture features that would not have been recorded otherwise and would have been irretrievably lost to the world.

The financial data covered in this paper show that the grants received by Mead and Fortune were adequate, viewed in the context of the cost of living in 1930, despite the picture presented by others that the funds were meager.   Another important expenditure not brought out in any publications on their  field work but pointed out in this paper are the purchases of Omaha materials for the New York Museum of Natural  History’s Indian collection.

However, the most important elements brought forth by the unpublished field notes are those dealing with The Honey Bunches, the moccasin game, and the funeral.  As has been noted previously, the first-named game is important because it underscores the status of girls in the tribe and their capability to initiate and undertake an entirely new form of game.  Of commensurate importance is that they were able to garner a following of adult men and women and to institutionalize the game.  The mechanics and rules of the game are of lesser significance and therefore the entire text of the field notes has not been presented word-for-word in this article.   What needs reiteration: the significance of Honey Bunches lies in the gender factor and the change females were able to wrought in a male-dominated culture.

Shifting now to the moccasin game, the entire written materials by Mead have been presented here because this game is not reported in the earlier thorough publications on the Omaha Tribe.  Additionally, while Mead sets aside sections on games (e.g., Mead 1932: 158-63 et passim) this game is not given any attention.  Inclusion of the field notes in this article is justified because it helps supplement what is found in her book on the topic of games.

If we now turn our attention to the funeral, the information in Mead’s book is a general description, partially based on what she had observed.  From the Indian informant’s report presented  here in full, we get a more detailed picture of the specific steps that comprised the ceremony, including the meal, that were observed and the roles of men, women, and children attending it.  Likewise, the contrastive view by the white informant of the same funeral sheds light from an entirely  different angle not only of the ceremony but, of equal importance, of the biased perspective of a white.  It is important to include the latter’s interview to show what probably was a prevailing attitude of many whites living on or near the Omaha Reservation.  There is no gainsaying that this countervailing view manifested the underlying tensions that existed in 1930 between the Omaha Indians and whites.

One is constrained to wonder why Mead did not include information on the Honey Bunches, moccasin game, and the funeral as detailed in her field notes.   In speculating, one reason may be that her vision of a culture was to see the larger institutional forms and to avoid getting “bogged down” in minutiae.  Another might be that she felt it was more parsimonious to gloss over certain details as both she and her husband were under great pressure to write up their results responsibly while at the same time preparing for their impending fieldwork in the Pacific; or she felt that her general observations on such topics as games and a funeral had been adequately covered through what she had written for publication (Mead 1972: 184).

What is certain about the white man’s view of the funeral is that its exclusion from Mead’s book reflected her “protective” nature regarding the Omaha Tribe, that included using the pseudonym “Antlers,”  owing to the unpleasant language and attitude evinced in it.  However, had she included the two views in her book, readers could have gained a better understanding of Omaha-white relations prevailing at that time and of specific details of an Omaha funeral, and, in a small sense would have  “anticipated” the Rashomon effect.

The omissions noted above in no way detract from Mead’s publication; but my position in writing about the three Omaha activities and including the original field notes is the following.  I firmly believe that the Omahas are owed this archival information written by one who had visited them and were not aware that they were being observed by this person who happened to be an anthropologist (in this case, a famous member of the profession).  It is hoped the Omahas will therefore have a more complete picture of what their tribe was like in the summer of 1930, thanks to this article.  Reciprocally, I believe this paper also shows Mead’s admirable note-taking and observational skills that justly limn her as a great anthropologist with a sense of fairness. [8]

      • NOTES
  1. I was privileged to have  had two courses taught by Margaret Mead while getting my B.A. and M.A. (in anthropology) at Columbia..
  1. One Mead biographer has characterized The Changing of an American Indian Tribe as “one of her minor works” (Cassidy 1983: 33). It is not clear whether he means the book as a contribution to anthropology or as compared with the other books she had authored.
  1. I am grateful to the late Mary Wolfskill of the Library of Congress for her assistance during my three visits there.
  1. Goddard (1859-1928) in 1907 authored a linguistic study of Navaho myths, prayers, and songs.   In 1915 he was appointed lecturer in anthropology at Columbia, thanks to Franz Boas.
    Reichard (1893-1955) studied for her M.A. and Ph.D. in anthropology under Boas and taught at Barnard, the women’s college of Columbia.  For one of her books on the Navaho, see Reichard, 1934.
    5. A foreigner could have characterized American culture with the
    same term owing to the Great Depression that was engulfing
    American society in 1930.  In a letter to Malinowski dated August 9, 1930, she describes Omaha culture as the “…most dilapidated American Indians from which our very souls recoil” (Box N-119).  For a much different situation of cultural revitalization in more recent times of this tribe, see Suzuki 1996.

6.  As one who endured many summers in New York City with-

out the benefit of air conditioning and as a Nebraskan since 1973, I found the high humidity of the former during the periodic heat waves as much more “frightful” than those of Nebraska..

7. Although the notes provide the names of the participants,

in keeping with Mead’s policy of using pseudonyms,  only

initials will be used.

8.  I had one of my former students, a member of the Omaha

Tribe, born and raised on the reservation, study

Mead’s documents on the genealogy of his family (they give the names of each individual listed).  He was very excited because of the accuracy of the information in them.


Dorsey,  J. Owen, 1884.  Omaha Sociology. New York: Johnson  Reprint Corporation. [1970]

Cassidy, Robert, 1982.  Margaret Mead: A Voice for the Century.  New York: Universe Books.

Fletcher, Alice C. & Francis LaFlesche,  1905-06, 1911, The Omaha Tribe. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press Bison Book Reprint (1992).

Fortune, Reo, 1932,  Omaha Secret Societies. New York: Columbia University Press (Columbia University Contributions to Anthropology, Vol. XIV.)

Goddard, Pliny E., 1907.  Navaho Myths,  Prayers, and Songs with Texts and Translations. University of California Publications in American Archeology and Ethnology 5: 21-63.

Goldenweiser, Alexander, 1934.  Review of The Changing Culture of an Indian Tribe by Margaret Mead, American Anthropologist, 36: 609-11.

Howard, Jane, 1985 [1984], Margaret Mead: A Life.  New York

Fawcett Crest.

Lapsley, Hilary, 1999, Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict: The Kinship of Women. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.

Mead, Margaret, 1932, The Changing Culture of an Indian Tribe.

New York: Columbia University Press.

Mead, Margaret, 1965, The Changing Culture of an Indian Tribe.

New York: Capricorn Reprint (with a new introduction).

Mead, Margaret, 1972, Blackberry Winter: My Earlier Years. New York: William Morrow.

Mead, Margaret, 1979.  Letters from the Field, 1925-1975. Ruth Nanda Anshen  (ed.). New York: Harper & Row.

Reichard, Gladys A., 1934.  Spider Woman: A Story of Navaho Weavers and Chanters. New York: Macmillan.

Rice, Edward, 1979, Margaret Mead: A Portrait.. New York: Harper & Row.

Suzuki, Peter T., 1996, “Pan-Indianism, Ethnicity, and the Omaha Tribe of Nebraska,” Contemporary Societies: Tribal Studies, I: 103-14.


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