Research compiled by Deven W., Jocabed C., & Trinity W.
The city of Omaha is known for many things, including beef, the Union Pacific railroad, and attractions like the Henry Doorly Zoo and Werner Park. However, many people do not know that the city is named after a Native American tribe, the Omaha. Omaha means, “to go against the current,” and the tribe was given this name because they went upriver and migrated to the Nebraska Territory. In the 1700s, the Omaha tribe settled along the Missouri River and lived there until the Civil War era when white American settlers began moving into the area. In 1854, the Omaha tribe ceded their land and moved to a reservation that is located in present day Macy, Nebraska. Once the U.S. government controlled this land, the city of Omaha was founded. However, this did not mean that the tribe disappeared. They continued to adapt to life on the reservation, and by the twentieth century, many had moved back to the city of Omaha. In this project, you will learn about the Omaha tribe’s ongoing legacy to better understand the people that our city is named after.
Published on Jul 22, 2016
Students interviewed Eduardo Zendejas, a UNO professor and member of the Omaha tribe, and they created this documentary as part of the Omaha Public Schools Making Invisible Histories Visible initiative.
An earth lodge depression in Fontanelle Forest.
The Omaha Tribe originally lived in the Ohio River Valley. In the 17th century, other tribes located as far as the east coast of the United States began moving into this area as well. The tribal group that eventually became the Omaha responded by migrating west, ultimately reaching the Mississippi River. Here, half of the tribe decided to go south, while the other half decided to go forward and upstream. This group became known as the Omaha, meaning “going against the current.”
As the tribe continued to move west, they eventually crossed the Missouri River, creating a settlement near Sioux City, South Dakota, and named their new territory “Big Village.” However, the Sioux Tribe already lived in this area, and disliked the Omaha—particularly because they were in competition for buffalo during hunting season. Buffalo were extremely important to Native American tribes, as they used the animal for food, shelter, clothing, weapons, and other tools.
The Omaha migrated south out of the Sioux territory, and entered present-day Omaha, near what is now Fontenelle Forest. This area became their permanent home, and they began building earth lodges. The depressions from these dwellings can still be seen today in the forest, like the above image shows. In addition, the tribe started a fur trade with the French and continued trading with white settlers. The Missouri River became a valuable resource for trade, and allowed the tribe to farm crops like corn. The Omaha tribe stayed in the area until 1854, when the U.S. government sent them to a reservation.
The first page of the Treaty of 1854, which stipulated that the Omaha Tribe would cede all of their land to the U.S. government and move to a reservation. (Courtesy of Oklahoma State University Library)
After settling and living in what is now the Fontenelle Forest area for many decades, the Omaha Tribe encountered difficulties. They were still having conflicts with the Sioux, but now the U.S. government wanted the Omaha’s territory to continue expanding westward. The Omaha were faced with the option of leaving their lands or making war with white American settlers.
After much debate, they decided to negotiate with the United States, leading to The Treaty of 1854. As part of the treaty, the Omaha agreed to cede their land to the U.S. government and move to a reservation near what is now Macy, Nebraska. The fact that they could stay in the Nebraska Territory was significant to the Omaha tribe because at this same time period, many tribes were being forced to move away from their homes and onto reservations in Indian Territory, or modern-day Oklahoma. Other terms of the Treaty of 1854 specified that the tribe had to use all the reservation land or the government would take it back. They also could not leave the reservation and were not allowed to make war with other Native American tribes or white, American residents who were encroaching on the area.
As the tribe moved to their new reservation and the Treaty of 1854 was ratified, a man named Jesse Lowe used his ferry company to help establish a city on the west side of the Missouri River, which became Omaha, Nebraska. Jesse Lowe decided to name the city after the tribe because the Omaha had owned the land before the Treaty of 1854. While choosing to name the city after the tribe may seem to honor the Omaha, it does not expose the forced removal of the tribe to a reservation and the many challenges they would face in the years to come.
A man sits on a bench in Jefferson Square looking facing 16th Street. January 1954. (Courtesy of Durham Western Heritage Museum)
Once tribes across the country were forcibly removed onto reservations, the U.S. government implemented several policies that attempted to assimilate Native Americans into white U.S. culture. Boarding schools, like the Carlisle School in Pennsylvania and the Genoa Indian School in Genoa, Nebraska, were created. By the mid- twentieth century, Native Americans were encouraged to leave their reservation for a larger city through the Voluntary Relocation Program in 1952. With this program, many people from the Omaha tribe moved from Macy to the city of Omaha.
The relocation program was responsible for the movement of more than 30,000 Native Americans all around the country. Those who moved became known as urban Indians. Many people partook in the program because of the incentives it promised. The U.S. government was supposed to provide a house for a family unit and eighty dollars a week for four weeks. Despite these benefits, many urban Indians struggled with the assimilation process, felt homesick and, ultimately, moved back to their reservations.
The land near Creighton University in North Omaha, close to where Interstate 480 is located today, was one of the neighborhoods where many of the Omaha moved during this relocation era. This area was called Jefferson Square and can be seen in the photo above. The expansion of Creighton University during the 1960s slowly took over this neighborhood and forced the Native American community to continuously move around Omaha looking for new homes. This kind of dislocation was common for many urban Indian communities around the country. Today, the Omaha are settled in many areas across Nebraska, including the reservation near Macy, Nebraska, and the city of Omaha.
Being uprooted so often made it difficult for many Native Americans to build community in cities. However, many still tried to bring people together by creating centers and organizations for urban Indians. In 1987, students at the University of Nebraska at Omaha revived American Indians United to build relationships among Native students and to teach young Natives to be proud of their heritage. (Courtesy of Archives & Special Collections, Criss Library, University of Nebraska at Omaha. The Gateway Newspaper Archive)