Otoe (Native Americans of the Great Plains)

Otoe or Oto, from Wahtohtata, "lovers" or "lechers," referring to an alleged incident between the children of an Otoe and a Missouria chief. An earlier self-designation may have been Che-wae-rae. Otoes are closely related to Poncas, Ioways, Missourias, and Winnebagos. All Southern Siouans had elements of both Plains and Woodland cultures.

Location Late-eighteenth-century Otoes lived along the Platte River in eastern Nebraska. In the 1990s, most lived in the Red Rock region of Oklahoma.

Population Otoe population in 1780 was about 900. There were about 1,550 enrolled tribal members in the mid-1990s.

Language Otoe-Iowa-Missouria is a member of the Chiwere division of the Siouan language family.

Historical Information

History According to tradition, the Winnebago, Ioway, Missouria, and Otoe once lived together north of the Great Lakes. In the sixteenth century, groups began migrating toward their historic areas. The Otoe and Missouria continued past the Ioway and especially the Winnebago until they reached the junction of the Missouri and Grand Rivers, in the late sixteenth to early seventeenth century.

There the two tribes had a falling out, traditionally ascribed to a love affair between the two chiefs’ children. After the split, the Otoe moved west along the Missouri. Trade with the French began soon after Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet encountered the Otoe in 1673 and continued for about a century. Between 1680 and 1717, the Otoe lived along the upper Iowa River and then the Blue Earth River. From 1717 to 1854 they lived along the Platte in various locations, including its mouth at the Missouri River. The people acquired horses early in that period and became much more involved in hunting buffalo.

The Otoe people absorbed the smallpox-decimated Missouria, with whom they had been fighting the Sauk and Foxes for years, in 1829. Several difficult decades followed, during which the people battled disease as well as Indians and non-Indians. By treaties in the 1830s and 1854, the Otoe-Missouria ceded all land and moved to a 162,000-acre reservation on the Kansas-Nebraska border, along the Big Blue River. Two more land cessions occurred in 1876 and 1881.

Two factions developed in 1880 over the issue of acculturation. The Coyote, or traditional faction, moved to the Indian Territory (Oklahoma). The Quakers ceded their land for a 129,000-acre reservation near Red Rock in north-central Oklahoma. Most Coyotes joined them by 1890, having lived for a time in a separate village on the Iowa Reservation. The reservation was allotted by 1907.

By 1900, the tribe had established a court system for both civil and criminal cases, Many individuals grew crops of grains and potatoes at that time. After oil was discovered on their land in 1912, the United States forced many Otoe-Missourias to give up their allotments. During the early to mid-twentieth century, intermarriage truly created one tribe. Many Indians left the region during the 1930s. The tribe received a $1.5 million land claim settlement in 1955 and another payment in 1964. Both were divided on a per capita basis.

Religion Wakonda was the universal spirit, to which people could draw closer by fasting and acquiring visions. There were a number of secret curing and dance (religious) societies as well as a hereditary priesthood. In a ceremony related to the Ojibwa (Woodland) Midewiwin, members of a religious society "shot" an initiate with a magic shell. He was later "restored" by older shamans.

Government Political and military leadership was provided by hereditary clan and war chiefs.

Customs There were about ten patrilineal clans, each with particular responsibilities. The people played lacrosse, among other games. Corpses were placed in a tree or buried in ground. A four-day mourning period followed funerals, during which a horse was occasionally killed to provide transportation to the spirit world.

Dwellings Otoe villages were composed of from 40 to 70 semi excavated earth lodges. Each lodge was about 40 feet in diameter. People caked clay or earth over a wooden framework interwoven with brush and grass. Skin tipis were used on hunting trips.

Diet Women grew corn, beans, and squash in river bottomlands. Men assisted in this work but mainly hunted buffalo (twice a year), deer, and small game. Hunting, in fact, was a major occupation, and once on the Plains the people gradually shifted to rely more on buffalo than on crops. Women gathered plant foods such as nuts, berries, and roots. The people also ate fish.

Key Technology Crops were stored in underground, bell-shaped caches. Material items included buffalo wool bags; a combination quiver and bow case; twined rectangular storage bags; rawhide trunks or containers, bent and sewn into place; and soft-twilled buffalo-hair wallets. The latter two were items more typical of Woodland tribes such as the Sauk or Fox.

Fish were caught using spears and possibly weirs and basketry traps. Women used elkhorn scrapers (post-eighteenth century) in the tanning process. They also wove reed floor mats over a bark-cord foundation.

Trade During the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, Otoes traded heavily with the French, supplying Indian slaves, among other commodities.

Notable Arts Artistic endeavors including weaving and woodworking.

Transportation Otoes acquired horses in the early eighteenth century.

Dress On the Plains, Otoes dressed similarly to other local Indians. Skins tanned by women formed the basis of most clothing. Men wore leggings and breechclout, and women wore a one-piece dress. Both wore moccasins. Cold weather gear included shirts, robes, and fur caps.

War and Weapons Traditional enemies included the Pawnee, Sauk, Fox, Omaha, and Dakota. Otoes often joined forced with the Missouria.

Contemporary Information

Government/Reservations About 800 Otoe-Missourias lived in Oklahoma’s Red Rock region in the mid-1990s. The tribe is governed by a tribal council under a 1984 constitution.

Economy Some jobs are provided by federal and tribal governmental projects. Most Otoes work within the local economy.

Legal Status The Otoe-Missouria tribe is a federally recognized tribal entity.

Daily Life Children study the native language in school, assisted by a Chiwere grammar published in 1975. In the late 1970s, the people began buying land and adding to their land base. At that time they received a number of federal grants to reconstruct tribal facilities and institute certain services. Religious affiliations include Protestant, Catholic, and the Native American Church. Traditional kinship and family ties remain important. In addition to the annual powwow held in July, other ceremonies and gatherings take place regularly, often in the tribe’s cultural center.

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