GALLAGHER: Omaha Tribal tie stretches 4,700 miles, to Berlin and back
MACY, Nebraska -- Francis La Flesche, the first Native American anthropologist, was commissioned by a museum in Germany 120 years ago to collect and catalog items showing aspects of life and culture among the Omaha Tribe of Nebraska.
His remarkable work endures today and, in part, returned to the Omaha Reservation this week as Elisabeth Seyerl, representing the Ethnological Museum of Berlin and the Humboldt Forum, met and interviewed a number of La Flesche’s descendants, forging a connection between Berlin and the Nebraska Indian Community College in Macy, an institution that has taught from works of La Flesche for years.
Professor of Omaha Tribal History Wynema Morris, for example, learned this week that blue and green were the colors used in the war shirts for Omaha warriors, a detail preserved by La Flesche in his 1898 work for the exhibit in Berlin, parts of which have shown off and on throughout the decades.
Francis La Flesche, who was born in 1857 on the Omaha Reservation, had provided a picture of the uniform with his collection and wrote, “Ha-u-non-zhin or War Shirt. The color of the War Shirt was always blue or green. The design used in the decoration, formally embroidered in porcupine quills which have been lately superseded by beads, always referred to the object seen by the wearer in his vision, in the present instance it is the Bear represented by its foot. A fringe of hair can only be added to the War Shirt by the consent of the warrior friends of the owner, each strand standing for one of their war honors.”
Nearly all of the 60 or so artifacts La Flesche collected here in the late 1890s will be shown in an exhibit bearing his name, an exhibit that opens in 2020 in Berlin. Each artifact has a description provided by La Flesche, as well as an introduction that detailed the history of the Omaha people.
The artifacts varied from clothing to weapons to kids’ games to tools to ceremonial pieces.
“It’s special as it is so well documented, plus he was an Omaha and an anthropologist,” Seyerl said. “He was an insider in this culture.”
Pierre Merrick, an Omaha Tribal member from Macy and a grandson of La Flesche, conveyed his respect for Seyerl’s work and shared how proud the Omaha people are when it comes to their culture, traditions and spirituality.
“I didn’t know some of these things he (Francis La Flesche) collected and had preserved,” said Merrick, 58. “It made me think about the thoughts Francis had for the generations to come. Today, because of his efforts and this college, parts of our heritage are being preserved. Francis must have had a lot of thought and prayer for those of us alive today.”
This guide to the Omaha Nation’s past will help shape future discussions and teachings, Merrick and Morris agreed. The discussion, according to Seyerl, will go both ways as an outgrowth of the La Flesche exhibit in Berlin will involve a connection between the Humboldt Forum and the Nebraska Indian Community College in Macy, a school that stands not far from where La Flesche was buried.
Only three of the 60 or so artifacts were lost in the 12 decades since La Flesche compiled his important work. Those items, according to Seyerl, were lost when the original exhibit was relocated outside Berlin during World War II.
Merrick invited Seyerl to attend a sweat lodge ceremony on Wednesday at his brother’s home in nearby Rosalie, Nebraska. Unfortunately, Seyerl couldn’t commit as her travel plans had her heading back overseas at that time. Merrick left the invitation open for his guest, another bridge between cultures.
“This discovery, our relationship with a museum in Germany is a total surprise,” he concluded. “I am comforted in knowing that our things will be cared for and respected.”
The exhibit, “Francis La Flesche,” is set to open in 2020, a featured exhibit for the Berlin Ethnological Museum within the Humboldt Forum, a place, through separated by more than 4,700 miles, maintains a bond with the Omaha Nation.