Oldest Memorial Celebration

By David “Tim” Smith
(UCLA Graduate and Great Lakes Historian)


Above Photo is from the 1933 Winnebago Pow-Wow.

The Winnebago Nation of Nebraska has the oldest Memorial Celebration in the United States. It was started in July of 1866, in honor of the Last War Chief that our tribe had, Little Priest, the son of Little Priest. He was born in 1829 at Lake Kosh Ronona, Wisconsin and trained as a medicine man. At the age of fifteen, he was made war chief, after his accomplishments against the Lake Superior Chippewas. In order to help his people, he fought against the German settlers during the 1863 Santee outbreak.

When the Winnebago were shipped down the Mississippi and up the Missouri Rivers, he ordered John Omaha and Little Hog to fall off the boat and to swim to the Omaha at the Blackbird Bend and open up negotiations with them about acquiring some land in the northern part of their territory. At that time in 1863, the Lakota bands were making hit and run attacks all along the northern and western border of Omaha Territory until the Omaha were forced to move south. The attacks became worse as the months passed on.

The Omaha agreed to sell the northern part of their reservation to the Winnebago in 1863. The Omaha Chiefs made an agreement with John Omaha and Little Hog and signed their agreement on a beaded wampum belt. Some of our old beadwork has the agreement on them, if one knows where to look.

As a researcher I am experienced in this. In 1864, Little Priest traveled to the Omaha Reservation and agreed to the agreement. With him was one of the principal Chiefs, Little Hill. In 1863, General Sully made an agreement with Little Priest. If the War Chief helped him against the Western Sioux, then he would use his influence to help relocate the Winnebago to Nebraska. Little Priest knew it was wrong to fight against his own brothers, but in order to save his people he joined General Alfred Sully. He fought from 1863-66 with the United States Army against the Lakota Bands, Northern Cheyenne, Northern Arapahoe and the Santee Dakota Bands.

Little Priest was finally wounded outside of Deer Creek Fort in Wyoming by a band of Oglala Lakota and some Northern Cheyenne warriors. That was in April of 1866. He was shot four times, one in the lung. He returned to the newly bought Winnebago Reservation and died on September 12, 1866. A year before, the Winnebago sold their Crow Creek Reservation where they lost around 680 people, to the United States Government. They paid $50,000.00 to the Omaha for the northern part of their reserve to act as a buffer against the Lakota. The newly acquired reservation became an executive order reservation in 1865, and it was signed into law in 1866. The same year that Chief Grey Wolf asked the council of fourteen village leaders to honor his brother with a celebration for his death in the Sioux Wars and to honor the surviving members of the Company A, Omaha Scouts of the Nebraska Volunteers. Robert Fumas signed his name to the paper authorizing the celebration of the Powwow.

So this is a fact that the Winnebago, Ho-Chunks do have the oldest Memorial Celebration. The Harvest Festival of the Omaha Nation is different. They have that celebration to honor the creator for a good harvest, we always had these; they were called the Harvest Green Corn Dance. The earliest recorded Harvest Celebration for the Winnebago was in the year 1634, when Jean Nicolet visited us at Doty Island, Lake Winnebago, Wisconsin. These facts are all told in the Jesuit records. The oldest Memorial Celebration in written records was our 1634 celebration, for our victory over the Potawatomies in the Algonquian Wars from 1620-1630. We were honoring our veterans. Also in 1634, when Jean Nicollet visited, the whole tribe of 25-30,000 was together to celebrate not only our harvest dance, but honor our veterans from the Beaver War in Canada during 1634. We were victorious in that war.

We also have one of the oldest legends in the Western Great Lakes. Legends are based on historic facts. History is passed down through oral tradition. In the legend of a medicine man called Red Horn The Great, they are having a celebration in honor of their veterans for their victory over the Mississippian people, and the year was 950 A.D. I am a researcher second to none. I spent most of my adult life researching our tribal history. The Omaha Nation is celebrating their 200 plus something harvest powwow this year, I wish them luck with this. Unfortunately, they do tend to forget there was no harvest dance during the Sioux Wars of 1855-66, and there was no harvest dance during 1871-99, when all Indian religions and Indian Powwows were outlawed by the US Government.

The United States Government honored us for fighting for peace and freedom, just as we do today in Iraq, Sadan, Bosia and the Mountains of the Hindu Kush. So there is a difference between a memorial celebration and a harvest celebration. One is honoring the blood that has been spilled for peace and freedom, and the other is to honor the Creator for a good harvest.

If we wanted to, we could be celebrating our 372 annual harvest powwow (1634) or our 375 Memorial Powwow (1631), and if we wanted to push the time line further back to 950 A.D., it would be our 1056 Annual Memorial Celebration.

But, we are a humble tribe and we would not do these kinds of things. We are celebrating the death of our last War Chief Little Priest and all of our veterans who fought in all of our battles since Red Horn the Great. Our military record is second to none. So as the Winnebago celebrate their Memorial Celebration and the Omaha celebrate their Harvest Dance this summer, I wish them both well. Our two celebrations are the two oldest in the Nation.