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Omaha Hethu’shka Society Songs and Dances

Morgan Lovejoy in traditional costume

Omaha Hethu’shka Society member Morgan Lovejoy dances at the Library of Congress in 1985. Photo by John Gibbs.

Historically, the Omaha Indian Hethu’shka Society were a group of highly respected men, voted into the group by unanimous consent of the society, who aimed to set a strong example for their people of the best attributes of a warrior. Although traditionally deeds in combat were the central test for inclusion in the society, such deeds were not the only measure of a great warrior. They were expected to show courage; loyalty to comrades; selflessness; concern for the welfare of women, children, and the elderly; and clear-headedness. They assisted in settling disputes among Omaha people, and so an ability to remain calm when others were upset was also important.[1] Today, Hethu’shka Society members are may be United States veterans or may fulfill the requirements of membership in other ways.

The Hethu’shka Society is thought to have originated in a time when the Omaha, Ponca, and other related groups lived together as one tribe, before 1600. So these related groups share versions of this tradition (also spelled Helushka or Hedushka). In this 1985 recording made at the Library of Congress, Hollis Stabler tells the story of the foundation of the Hethu’shka Society. It is the story of a dead warrior calling upon the living to remember the heroic deeds of those who fought for them.

In 1983 the American Folklife Center published an LP, Omaha Indian Music, a compilation of various Omaha songs from wax cylinder recordings made by Francis La Flesche and Alice Cunningham Fletcher in the late nineteenth century.[2] La Flesche, who was the first American Indian ethnographer, made many of the recordings and  provided translations of songs as well as some cultural background. These recordings included examples of songs of the Hethu’shka Society. For example, here is a Hethu’shka Society song with lyrics translated by La Flesche as: “We walk here on earth. We, the Hethu’shka, walk here on earth.” The celebration of the publication of this LP, and the return of copies of Omaha songs to the Omaha people occurred at the Omaha inter-tribal pow-wow in Macy, Nebraska, in 1983, which the Center documented. This event included performances by Hethu’shka Society members. An example of a Hethu’shka Society Membership Document was given to Center staff at the pow-wow, so that they could better understand the tradition as practiced in the late twentieth century. This song, heard twice a day at Omaha pow-wows, is sung to encourage the dancers: the lyrics tell the dancers to “Stand up. Hurry up, get out there and dance.” In 1985 members of the Omaha Hethu’shka Society traveled to Washington, D.C. to perform their songs and dances on the steps of the Library of Congress, an event that was recorded.

As technology changed and LP and audiocassette versions of the Omaha Indian Music album became obsolete, the Center began a new project to work with the Omaha community to create an updated presentation online. The result was Omaha Indian Music. In 1999, then American Folklife Center Director Alan Jabbour interviewed Hethu’shka Society members Dennis Hastings, Morgan Lovejoy, and Rufus White about Omaha song and dance traditions to provide a new perspective on the songs and dances. The Omaha people were generous in allowing the early recordings previously released on the LP to be put online. In addition, many of the pow-wow recordings and all of the 1985 Hethu’shka Society audio recordings made at the Library were included. This is unusual in that Native Americans are understandably concerned about how their cultural materials may be regarded by those who are not educated about them and concerned about non-Indians appropriating their songs and traditions and using them without permission. The American Folklife Center strove to provide an example of a presentation that treated these traditions with respect. While many Indian societies are private, the Hethu’shka Society includes among its goals the preservation of the memory of the deeds of great warriors and the education of youth. So they sing their songs publicly and have allowed their traditions to spread to other Indian groups. This does not mean that their traditions can be used by non-Indians without permission, but the goal of education has inspired these Omaha Hethu’shka Society members to perform for non-Indian audiences.

Rufus White seated, playing a pow-wow drum.

Rufus White playing the pow-wow drum his uncle passed on to him for Hethu’shka Society dancers at the Library of Congress in 1985. In 2014 Rufus White received a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.

The Hethu’shka songs about the deeds of warriors and members of the society are chants that contain the kernel of a story which is acted out in the movements of the dance. So they perform tribal history. This song “The Young Man is Coming Home,” is explained in an interview with Rufus White, who says it tells of a young man who travels and then stops four times on his return because he is proud that he can bring food, save lives, and help the elderly. A more general song about the life of the Hethu’shka, “God Look at Me,” is also explained by White, who recalls how his grandfather explained it to him: that it is hard to be a Hethu’shka, a warrior. It is a song with great meaning for the Hethu’shka.

The Hethu’shka have worked hard to preserve their  traditions through periods of change. Even so, not all the stories or songs survive in a complete form. In this tradition women were allowed to sing to support the male singers,[3] and so participated in preserving songs. This song, recorded by Fletcher and LaFleche in 1897, is sung by an unidentified Ponca woman, a woman identified as “Charles Wells’s Grandmother,” Joseph Merrick, and George Miller. In a 1999 interview, John Turner, a Hethu’shka Society member, explains that the song on the cylinder recording is still sung today. He gives the translation as “a white horse with a Hethu’shka [warrior] is coming home toward the village. The people say, ‘He brings that dance over. He is coming home with it.'” Listening to another recording of a song performed by the same singers, concerning a battle with the Sioux,Turner gives a translation of the song slightly different from the one La Flesche had given, and sings the version of the song that he learned. The information that can be provided by those who have preserved the tradition as they listen to recordings made over a century earlier has helped piece together the past with the present for a few of the songs of the Hethu’shka Society.

The value of the archival recordings of Hethu’shka songs to the Omaha cannot be over emphasized, either as precious documentation of their history as a group or as part of the personal history of those who descend from the Omaha singers who were recorded. Speaking at the 1985 performance at the Library of Congress, drummer Rufus White explained that the drum he played for the concert is an heirloom passed on to him by his uncle, and that same uncle can be heard singing on the Omaha Indian Music LP that he had just been given by the Library. He said he would take his uncle’s voice home with him, so that all his uncle’s relatives can hear.  In this “Memorial Song,” the  Hethu’shka members performing at the Library in 1985 honor all of the Hethu’shka warriors of the past.

Notes

1. See: Alice C. Fletcher and Francis La Flesche (1992 edition, 2 vols.), The Omaha Tribe. University of Nebraska Press, pp 459-462.

2. Lee, Dorothy Sara, and Maria La Vigna, eds. (1985) Omaha Indian Music  (sound recording). American Folklife Center, Library of Congress, AFC L71. The essays from the album liner notes have been reproduced online.

3. Fletcher, Alice C. assisted by Francis La Flesche (1994 edition.), A Study of Omaha Music. University of Nebraska Press, p 26.

Resources

Native American Heritage Month

Omaha Indian Music, Library of Congress. (More Hethu’skha Society songs and interviews may be found by searching on Hethu’skha.)

Omaha Indian Song,” an article in the online presentation The Library of Congress Celebrates the Songs of America.

Willing to Serve: American Indians, a presentation of the Veterans History Project.

Indigenous American Cylinder Recordings and the American Folklife Center

As November is Native American Heritage Month, it seems a good opportunity to talk about some of the services the American Folklife Center provides for American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians, and for those who wish to learn more about them. The archival collections of the Library of Congress include the largest body of […]