A Visit to the Otoe Indians

By: M.R. Harrington

Originally Published in 1913

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Although well known as an offshoot of the great Siouan stock, and as similar in dialect and habits to the Iowas and Winnebagoes, the Otce Indians have been little visited by anthropologists, and but few specimens illustrating their arts and customs have ever found their way into museums.

In December, 1912, I had the good fortune to visit the Otoes in the interests of the University Museum. As in the case of my previous Oklahoma expeditions the expense of the work was borne by Mr. George G. Heye. I found the Otoes living in fairly comfortable frame houses scattered about over the prairie and along the bottoms, each on his own allotment, from the vicinity of Redrock, Oklahoma, eastward toward the Arkansas River and northward toward the little town of Bliss and the pasture lands of the great 101 Ranch.

A bundle of objects tied together with gourd rattles hanging out
Fig. 88.—Otoe Indian war-bundle, with sacred flutes, carved war club and gourd rattles.
Image Number: 12935

As I drove toward the Agency the outward prospects did not look very bright, for I could see nothing whatever to suggest the old Indian life. The Indians I met were all attired in everyday citizens’ garb. In fact, one of the first Indians I saw was the athlete, Thorpe, who happened to be visiting friends among the Otoes.

At the Agency itself I did not receive much encouragement. Although I was received with courtesy, I was assured that almost nothing had been seen for a long time of the old Indian work. Even the interpreter was not at all sanguine. He thought I might pick up a few moccasins and wooden bowls; but as for sacred bundles he was convinced that the few that remained in the hands of those who still believed in them could hardly be obtained.

A medicine bag made of an otter skin decorated with porcupine quills
Fig. 89.—Otoe Indian medicine bag of otter skin showing porcupine quill rosette.
Image Number: 12934

But the results surprised everybody, even myself, for during my brief visit I was able to secure more fine specimens illustrating the arts and customs of the people than I ever had done before in a similar period of time. Among the more unusual things were a number of fine otter skin pouches used in the Medicine Dance, some of them beautifully decorated with porcupine quills; an unusually fine ancient peace pipe; some good feathered calumets; a buffalo robe bearing quaint, faded paintings to commemorate someone’s exploits in war; a scraper with elk-horn handle upon which had been laboriously carved the pictographic record of a foray against the Cheyennes; a magic war club, one of the finest I ever saw, bearing the carved figure of an otter, the original owner’s familiar spirit or helper; twenty-four sacred bundles; and, rarest of all, a buffalo-skull shrine.

Of the bundles, nine were large clan war bundles, one of them containing a tattooing outfit; two tattooing bundles, the best of which belonged to the Missouria tribe, now amalgamated with the Otoes; five war bundles belonging to the Red Medicine Society; seven bundles used by the Buffalo Doctors Society; and one hunting bundle.

Like the war bundles of the Iowas and many other tribes previously visited by the Museum expeditions, the large Otoe war bundles contain curious assortments of magic amulets and medicines for protecting the warrior and bewitching his enemy.

Tribal tradition relates that the bundles were given to the Otoes by Wakanda, the Great Mystery, himself. “In a vision the bundle was given,” says the legend, “a vision which lasted four days and four nights. Wakanda talked with the man who made the first bundle, and told just how it should be made, and the meaning of each thing within it.”

Only because they felt they could no longer care for them properly, and realized that the Museum could and would preserve them, were the Indians willing to let such sacred objects go. Said one old man, “While these bundles were in my house it seemed as if the old people were still with me in spirit, the forefathers who made them. But now they are gone. The dreams of men long dead lie wrapped within those covers.”

As to the contents, some of the Otoe war bundles bear a closer resemblance to those of their distant cousins, the Osages and Kaws, than those of their closer kinsmen, the Iowas. This is well brought out in a bundle belonging to the Bear clan, which contained among many other things a fetish, the dried skin of a hawk attached to a deerskin strap to sling about the neck. To the hawk’s tail were tied pieces of nineteen scalps, each one of which represents a successful war expedition. The hawk fetish was supposed to protect the entire war party and to endow them with the bird’s predatory powers. This, together with a weasel skin amulet carried by scouts to give quickness and ease of concealment, and an eagle foot, used as a magic wand to symbolically claw at the enemy to get them within one’s power—into the claws of the eagle, as it were—all find their counterparts in the bundles of the Osages and Kaws. The bundle also yielded an enchanted sash to wear across the shoulder, a bird-skin amulet to tie upon the wearer’s scalp-lock, a magic whistle, blown to hypnotize the enemy, a buckskin sack containing herbs which, chewed and rubbed on the body, were supposed to act as a charm for turning away bullets and arrows, and another packet containing a herb mixture for poisoning one’s own missiles against the foe.

A sack deocrated with five rows of thunderbirds joined together
Fig. 90.—Woven sack in which tattooing outfit was kept, showing figures of Thunder-birds. Made by Missourian Indians.
Image Number: 12938

Anyone having much to do with war bundles soon gets accustomed to seeing and handling scalps, hut I confess it gave me an uncanny sensation to find dried human forefingers in two of the Otoe sacred bundles. These had been cut off at the second joint, but had been left attached to part of the skin which had been carefully stripped off from the hand and arm so as to form a band, by which the finger could be suspended from the neck. One touch of the dead finger, the Indians said, would revive a fainting man, or one knocked unconscious or crazed by a blow.

The bundle of the Wolf clan contained one of these fingers, with part of a scalp fastened to the carrying-band of human skin, a large buckskin doll representing an enemy in the power of the owner of the bundle, a stone ball representing lightning and giving lightning power, four hawk-skin amulets, an eagle feather dyed red to symbolize blood, together with a headdress of deer hair, two magic weasel skins, a ground-squirrel skin, a remarkable old porcupine quill necklace bearing a quilled sack for war medicine, a buffalo-hair necklace with two sacks for war-paint, a war whistle decorated with quills, a lot of magic herbs, a buffalo-hide sack containing paint bags and sweet grass used as incense, and finally a few scraps of dried meat.

Several tattooing instruments including four needles
Fig. 91.—Tattooing outfit used by Missouria Indians showing spatulas of buffalo horn, needles mounted on handles, charcoal used as pigment, and cane tube used as a stamp.
Image Number: 12937

One of the best things was tied on the outside of this bundle, a fine old war club, symbolizing the power of the thunderbolt, upon which were scratched the rude outlines of a man and an antelope connected by a line supposed to represent the magic power flowing into the owner of the bundle from his familiar or guardian spirit, the antelope. On the outside of the bundle were also fastened a war whistle, a gourd rattle used in the bundle ceremonies, and a tube of cane for blowing the ceremonial fire.

Many of the other bundles contained articles of unusual interest, including fine old porcupine quill work, especially valuable because the art of embroidery with porcupine quills has long been lost among the Otoes.

Both of the tattoo bundles contained the tools and pigments for making the indelible designs in blue seen upon the faces and hands of Otoe men and women—designs regarded as sacred marks of honor. As in the Iowa and Osage tattoo bundles the wooden handles bearing at one end the needles used for pushing the coloring matter into the skin, are tipped at the other end with bunches of rattles made of heron quills. A unique feature was seen in the Missouria tatoo bundle—several spatulas of buffalo horn for rubbing in the pigment.

A partial buffaloe skull
Fig. 92.—Buffalo skull shrine of the Otoe Indians.
Image Number: 12941

The buffalo-skull shrine obtained on this trip consists merely of a slab of stone slightly hollowed out on top to form a rude platter, and containing cedar leaves upon which rests a buffalo skull, the right horn and eye socket painted red, the left black, while between them runs a double stripe of the same colors. Horns, eye sockets and stripe are also outlined in appropriate paints upon the stone slab beneath. It was kept in the owner’s house, facing east, except for four days in the spring and four in the fall when it was taken out to figure in a great thanksgiving ceremony and dance. The story of this shrine sheds much light on the origin of many Indian ceremonies. About the year 1884, Bill Fawfaw, the Indian from whom the shrine was purchased, had a dream or vision while mourning, in which a spirit buffalo and other spirits appeared to him and told him how the ceremony should take place. Immediately he called the tribe together and related his vision, with the result that the ceremony was enacted as he described it, and was repeated twice a year thereafter until recently. The ceremony was also introduced among the Iowas, Kaws and Osages, where it flourished exceedingly for a time.


An antler with five figures carved into it
Fig. 93.—Record of war-exploits engraved on the elk-antler handle of a skin scraper. The Otoe Indian who made the implement presented it to his daughter as a lasting momento of his warlike fame. The rude carvings represent five Cheyenne Indians killed by his hand, of whom three were beheaded and one scalped.
Image Number: 12939

Cite This Article

Harrington, M.R.. "A Visit to the Otoe Indians." The Museum Journal IV, no. 3 (September, 1913): 107-113. Accessed July 24, 2024. https://www.penn.museum/sites/journal/285/

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