Nebraska has an archeological record of a few Siouan-Speaking tribes (Omaha, Ponca, Oto, Ioway, Missouria) that lived in earthlodge villages.
By Breanna Fanta, Editorial Assistant
While Nebraska is known for its rich Pawnee history, the state also has an archeological record of several Siouan speaking tribes. “Siouan” refers to two linguistic families – the “Chiwere” and “Dhegihan” – used by Nebraska tribes such as the Omaha and Ponca (Dhegihan), and the Oto, Ioway, and Missouria (Chiwere).
John R. Bozell explains how archeology provides insight into Nebraska’s Indigenous history in “Archeology of the Siouan-Speaking Tribes in Nebraska,” featured in the Spring 2022 issue of Nebraska History Magazine.
“Missouria, Oto, and Ponca leaders, lithograph by Karl Bodmer based on watercolor portraits he made in 1833.” Wikimedia Commons
The earliest presence of Siouan-speaking Nebraska tribes was in the 1200s, but they retreated east in the 1400s and didn’t return for three centuries.
When they made their return in the 1700s, they resided predominantly in the eastern parts of the state, particularly along river valleys. The Omaha and Ponca, once believed to be a single tribe, lived in northeastern Nebraska. The Oto were located around the lower Platte valley area (between what is now Fremont and Plattsmouth) and were eventually joined by the Ioway and Missouria tribes.
Extensive archeological research during the 20th century produced significant records of these tribes’ lifestyles, technology, architecture, and social encounters.
Of the many Nebraska sites explored were Leary, Yutan, Ponca Fort, and Big Village.
Leary, located in the southeast, is now a National Historic Landmark. The 120-acre site was once home to hundreds of Siouan ancestors, though the specific occupations are unknown. The strategically located site may have been an exchange center between 800 and 600 years ago. Bison camps discovered nearby likely supplied valuable trade material.
The area was later abandoned in the massive retreat east.
“Early Siouan (Oneota) ceramic pots found at the Leary site.”
Named after chief Ietan, the Yutan village in the lower Platte valley was inhabited by the Oto tribe. It was the Oto’s longest standing village, having been built in the 1770s and lasting more than 50 years. History Nebraska’s archeology team studied Yutan during the 1930s and ’50s. They uncovered earthlodge floors and deep storage chambers containing assortments of plants, animals, pottery, and tools. European and American trade items were also found among the collection.
“1930s earthlodge excavation at the Yutan site.”
The Ponca Fort was constructed along the Missouri River. The large earthlodge village was ringed with a defensive fortification ditch. The impressive defense community served as a notable trade site. Jean-Baptiste Truteau, famed explorer and trapper, traded there in his “Ponca House,” which has since been washed away by the shifting of the Missouri River channel.
Around the time of the Ponca Fort’s existence, the Omahas built their largest and longest lasting community: the Big Village. The earthlodge town was located near Homer and was primarily inhabited from 1775 – 1819 (it was later reoccupied from 1834-1845). It was home to chief Blackbird who facilitated the Omaha’s dominance in local trade and developed the Missouri River fur trade.
These are just a few of the Siouan settlements established across Nebraska. In the 19th century, Bozell writes, “deadly epidemic diseases and a torrent of Euroamerican settlers” as well as pressure from rival tribes caused a dramatic loss of population “and grinding poverty on a dramatic scale. Archeological study… can add much needed detail to arriving at a sharper understanding of this dramatic and woeful period in Nebraska history.”
The entire article can be found in the Spring 2022 edition of the Nebraska History Magazine. Members receive four issues per year.