From the Desk of Roger Welsch: The Importance of the Omaha Language

RogerWelsch_colorRoger Welsch is an adjunct professor of anthropology at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. He is a former essayist for CBS News Sunday Morning and the author of more than forty books, and wrote the introduction to Dance Lodges of the Omaha People: Building from Memory (Nebraska, 2008). He has been active in Native issues all his life, and was adopted by the Omaha in 1967 with the name Tenugagahi (Big Bull Buffalo) in the KonCe Clan. Below he writes about the publication of The Omaha Language and the Omaha Way: An Introduction to Omaha Language and Culture (Nebraska, 2018).

My first contact with Omaha language and culture came as a class assignment in a UNL linguistics course more than sixty years ago. And here I am, still fascinated, completely absorbed, and now myself a part of that language and culture.

Early in my own work and affection for the Omaha and their ways I ran into a kid who, like me, was an unapologetic Wannabe, Mark Swetland. He was already assembling a dictionary with his adopted family, Charles and Elizabeth Stabler, and researching (although at that early stage he would have called it “messing around with”) cultural expressions like Omaha lodges and societies, lamenting that he lacked the academic training to do the work “right.” I spent long hours with him urging him to return to his studies, now refreshed and inspired by his passion and knowledge of his Omaha friends and family. It seemed like too high a mountain to climb but Mark attacked the crags and cliffs and drew within site of the summit.

Sadly, Mark Awakuni-Swetland died before he could enjoy the view from the top but fortunately others with similar dedication and affection took on the task and now we have the final product of so much work, hope, and pain. Frankly, I was surprised to see this book; I thought it died with Mark. But clearly it has instead taken inspiration from him. And I am astonished. This is NOT simply a language text; for me the jewel in the title is the three words “the Omaha Way” and last of the subtitle “Culture.”

In fact, I think this handsome book is more an ethnology than a language text. Anyone— anyone—who is at all interested in the Omaha people MUST read this book. There are amazing treasures in the notes about Omaha ways in the past and present. I cried real tears when I got the package with this book because it was like finding a long lost friend, and has been the case in my life whenever I had the opportunity to sit down with Mark or with any of my Omaha friends and relatives. What little I knew was brought back to memory, and again and again I was amazed at insights I had not noticed myself in the past sixty years when I thought I was being a thorough observer of Omaha ways.

I am proud. Mark would be proud. The authors and compilers, everyone associated with the University of Nebraska Press, should be proud of what they have done in bringing this book to print.

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