Bringing the Voices Home: The Omaha Pow-Wow Revisited
Reproduced from Folklife Center News 8:4 (October-December 1985): 7-10.
At Main Gate
August 14, 1983.
"Don't believe anything you hear and only half of what you see," goes the old saying. Off and on since 1973 I have worked with sound recordings in the collections of the Library of Congress documenting early ethnographic field work, so I have had good reason to reflect on what can or cannot be learned from the sounds cut for us by the early collectors from among the densely textured sights, sounds, and movements they experienced.
I had occasion to think further on what fieldworkers bring back for others to see and hear this last September, when I accompanied Folklife Center director Alan Jabbour, Federal Cylinder Project director Dorothy Sara Lee, and sound engineer Mike Rivers to the Omaha Tribal Pow-wow in Macy, Nebraska. We had been invited to present the tribe with the newly released album Omaha Indian Music: Historic Recordings from the Fletcher/La Flesche Collection. I am not a specialist in American Indian culture, so this article represents only an informal series of personal impressions from a brief but memorable visit.
I first heard the Fletcher/La Flesche recordings around 1980 in the course of my work as technical consultant to the Cylinder Project. I remember being struck at the time with the vividness of the voices they preserved. It was not merely that the recordings had less surface noise than most and were exceptionally free of damage and distortion. It was not, in fact, what the recordings lacked; it was what was there, surviving years of neglect -- a kind of freshness of presence, enabling the listener to imagine not only the singers but the setting, almost evoking the clarity of light and the quality of the air. I had seen an old photograph of a grove of oak trees on the Omaha reservation in Macy, Nebraska, where gatherings were held . . . . But the demands of preservation work do not allow time for fanciful daydreams, so I dutifully sent the voices in the wax to their places on tape, interspersed with my own identifying announcements and technical remarks, and went on to the next batch of cylinders.
Several years later, in the spring of 1983, Dennis Hastings, the Omaha Tribal archivist, visited the Cylinder Project team. Although I was no longer a full-time member of the project staff, I had returned to the Folklife Center under contract to do further preservation work on the cylinder recordings. Dorothy Sara Lee brought Dennis around to the recording lab to show him the cylinders and play him some of the Omaha material. He listened with motionless intensity, his excitement clear. Folklife Center staff had already been thinking about producing an album of the Omaha material with accompanying notes, but it was Dennis's enthusiasm that sparked the project to life.
Dorothy Lee and Dennis Hastings Listen to the Tape of Mr. Edward's Indian Chipmunks
August 12, 1983.
Dennis added new dimensions to the plans for the recording: that the Center propose a collaboration with the Omaha Tribal Council, and that the release of the album coincide with the annual pow-wow in Macy. It was for this event that Alan and I met in St. Louis on Labor Day weekend and flew on to Nebraska. We were not attending the pow-wow as mere observers (if there is such a thing outside the academic mind) -- we would be participating in a shared celebration of the return of the recordings, a part of Omaha heritage that had been lost and now was being given a solemn but joyful welcome home by the Tribal Council, the newly revived Hethu'shka (Warrior) Society, and the Omaha people.
Alan and I arrived in Macy about 7:30 p.m. Already in its second day, the pow-wow was in full swing. In the half-light behind the risers that defined the arena the immense, gaudy feathered headdresses and bustles worn by the fancy dancers glared as though they had an inner source of light. The bells attached to the leggings of the costumed men made a steadily pulsing, high-pitched, shivery noise like a field of crickets. It sounded to me disconcertingly like surface noise on a cylinder -- somewhere at the back of my mind I kept identifying the sound's frequency, as though I could reach for a knob and edit it away. It took a while before I could not only accept it but enjoy it.
It was bewildering to walk at early evening through the very oak grove I had seen in the old photograph, and bewildering to hear the songs that I had heard before thinly rendered on wax and tape now shake the air and even make the ground beneath my feet throb. The overload of alterations and continuities was confounding. But food is a great convincer; after I had eaten several tacos served on fry bread and further fortified myself with a bowl of corn soup, I was ready to sort out and even welcome any further confusions of time, place, and identity the weekend might bring.
Dorothy and Alan, who had both been in Macy before, introduced me around and helped me find my feet. Dennis, a thoughtful head host, was always handy to guide us through the intricacies of protocol we faced. Unexpectedly, I found that my voice (on preservation tapes from the Cylinder Project already circulating in Macy) represented a point of recognition to those I met -- just as my sole familiarity with them was through the voices of their grandparents on the cylinders, they knew me by voice through the announcements on the recordings. It was like a meeting of people who had only talked on the telephone: an odd blend of surprise and reassurance.
On Saturday the weather was hot enough that the recreational vehicle rented by the Folklife Center as a recording station and headquarters became a kind of retreat for both our staff and pow-wow participants -- a distraction patiently endured by sound engineer Mike Rivers. If my knowledge of the Omaha had heretofore been limited to what I could gather from books and recordings, his must now be firmly bounded by the aluminum frame of the vehicle's window through which he observed all the proceedings. Throughout Saturday we kept the boxes containing disc and cassette copies of Omaha Indian Music under wraps, saving them for the ceremonial presentation Dennis and pow-wow MC Clifford Wolfe were planning for Sunday.
The dancing and singing was steady and compelling. Even when it was broken by the "specials," formal opportunities for honoring individuals and giving away goods, one could still feel the music in the same way that the feeling of being rocked by waves continues after leaving a boat. The specials and other breaks in the dancing were opportunities to listen appreciatively to the forceful skill with which the Omaha endow their speechmaking. There was no pretense of informality or casualness about it. It was clearly serious business to speak, and speak from the heart. We knew that we would be expected to speak ourselves on Sunday, and hoped that we would somehow measure up.
August 14, 1983
Dennis reminded us that we would be expected also to dance during our honoring song. There were half a dozen clowns, male and female, scattered among the dancers, whom Clifford Wolfe referred to with glee as visitors from Washington, D.C. from the renowned BIA tribe. I prayed that we would acquit ourselves as dancers acceptably if not with honor, and that pow-wows to come would not include a comic contingent from the long lost AFC tribe. My observation of the movements of the women dancers took on a desperate intensity.
Perhaps for this reason, despite the more dramatic and flamboyant leaps and feints of the men dancers, it is the image of the women dancing that remains with me most clearly. Too firmly rhythmic to be a glide, and too smooth to be a pace, the step is different and personalized for each woman, and yet the overall effect as the women move around the arena is of harmonious and poised revolution. Several times in the course of the women's dances MC Clifford Wolfe called out ecstatically "How beautiful! How gracious! How delicious!" It was a curiously reverent and accurate review, and one which did much to help me, however briefly, "see with a native eye" (to use Barre Toelken's useful phrase).
Sunday's events began for us with a lunchtime feast given by Charlie Holt on behalf of the Hethu'shka Society and attended by members of the society and their families. We sat in a circle on a windy hillside by an abandoned Mormon church and ate our fill. Then, led by Hollis Stabler, one by one the men of the society stood and spoke to us of the meaning for them of the recordings that we had had a part in bringing back to Macy, and the meaning for them of the songs of the past in making one's way now as an Omaha in white man's society. I thought of many hours spent in a chilly back studio over the course of the last eight years, working on these and other old recordings, and gave a silent thanks for the chance to have shared in this process and, finally, this meeting on a windy Nebraska hillside.
There is much more that could be said. I wish that I could list the many men and women whose generosity and hospitality made our visit so special. Perhaps it is right simply to express gratitude to all the Omaha people, past and present, who made the event possible. Sunday afternoon, during the formal presentation of the recording at the pow-wow, I found myself imagining the arena crowded not only with the participants of the day but with those who had consigned the songs to wax ninety years ago, perhaps hoping for just such a renaissance of appreciation. I thought, too, of Alice Fletcher. My studio at the Library in Washington was only a block from where the house once stood that she shared with her adopted son Francis La Flesche, and now I was in the grandstand of the arena in the grove of oak trees old already when she made her recordings. How ironic that of the many schemes by which she sought to benefit the Omaha people the only one bearing fruitful dividends today is her ethnographic fieldwork, a task she undertook in the urgent certainty that the tribe's days as a distinct cultural group were numbered. Thank God she was mistaken. And thank God her mistake resulted in a body of song now finding its way home to the repertory of a proud people, today very much alive.
* Previous newsletter articles on Omaha collector Francis La Flesche, the disc and cassette recording, and the annual Omaha tribal pow-wow appear in Volume IV, No. 1, January 1981; Volume VI, No. 2, April-June 1983 ("Director's Column"); and Volume VI, No. 4, October-December 1983.