Historical Context

Francis La Flesche and Historical Native Literary Traditions: An Example of the Complications

Robert Brooke, John E. Weaver Professor of English

Readers interested in Native poetic traditions that predate Nebraska statehood would do well to consider the complicated example of Francis La Flesche (1857-1932). As an Omaha ethnographer, La Flesche collected many examples of Omaha oral songs and ceremonial music on early wax cylinder recordings now archived by the Library of Congress. As an academically-educated writer, La Flesche also labored throughout his career to craft Western literary pieces from his Omaha traditions.   He published a memoir, wrote a play, collaborated on an opera, and worked on a number of short stories, as addendum to a career as a professional ethnologist and linguist.  His work illustrates the complexities of moving between the historical oral traditions of Great Plains native peoples (communal, social and ceremonial), and the traditions in Western culture of individual literary labor.

In the Encyclopedia of the Great Plains (2004), Frances W. Kaye describes the origin of literary traditions in the whole Great Plains region:

The tradition began with the oral literatures of the many Native nations who have lived in the area and with the folktales and dramas of the early European and mixed-blood peoples. . . . Living oral tradition as well as transcriptions by literate observers have preserved much oral literature. Narratives of a sacred or semisacred nature explain the origins of the universe, of the particular nation, of the hero figures of the nation, and of the holy ceremonies of the people. Thus the Blackfeet tell how Napi (Old Man) created the universe, and the Kiowa tell of how that nation came into this world through a hollow log. White Buffalo Woman brought the sacred pipe to the Lakotas, and the animals in the medicine lodges gave curing ceremonies to the Pawnee doctors. Orphan Boy among the Omahas, the Tai-Me twins among the Kiowas, and Scarface among the Blackfeet are heroes with long story cycles. Trickster, called Nanabush or Nanapush among the Ojibwas and Crees, Iktome among the Lakotas, and many other names in other languages, is a ubiquitous figure in these narratives. The Winnebagos have a particularly well-developed Trickster cycle. . . . Songs, chants, and prayers are also characteristic of traditional oral Plains literatures.  Much oral literature consists of events in the lives of the people, gossip, campfire stories, and examples of both proper and improper behavior to be told to young people. Winter counts are such ordinary happenings compiled by year, and they serve as both a calendar and a mnemonic device for remembering and recounting the history of the people.

While what came to be later known as “poetry” undoubtedly emerged in these oral literatures, University of Nebraska-Lincoln English and Ethnic Studies Professor Thomas Gannon cautions that:

the “oral tradition” of songs, chants, etc., is radically different enough from the post-medieval Western aesthetic of “poetry” that it’s hard to be fruitful in dealing with it but for pointing out vast differences. Western modernity created the “individual” author (as Michel Foucault argues in “What is an Author?”), who signed his/her name to poems et al., who could have a career in such an activity and, above all, achieve some individual renown (after death, usually!)—above and apart from the TRIBE, as it were. This is fairly alien to the Native singers, etc.—who might be considered more akin to the old anonymous English balladeers who mostly transmitted an earlier poem, with a few personal variations tossed in.  Also alien is the whole notion of writing/discourse and songs and chants as something “aesthetically” beautifulfor their own sake; all such discourse, in traditional Native cultures, were also inextricably bound up in religious practices and cultural mores and food acquisition.  In sum, both the notion of an individual auteur and that of art-for-art’s-sake (if you will) are pretty poor matches for talking about pre-contact Nebraska.

Hence, while it’s true that Native oral literatures certainly predated Euroamerican settlement of the Great Plains, it’s also true that “poetry” and “the poet” as we now define them weren’t features of the cultural landscape.

In this context of cultural contact and conflict, the life and work of Francis La Flesche becomes especially important.  Francis LaFlesche was born in 1857 on the Omaha Reservation in what is now Northeastern Nebraska, and after his death in 1932 he was buried in Thurston County.  His work and writing encompassed the changing nature and understanding of literacy and literature:

  • La Flesche worked as an interpreter for Standing Bear, during the 1879-1880 tour of the eastern United States after the historic Standing Bear vs. Crook decision.
  • With ethnologist Alice Fletcher, he wrote The Omaha Tribe (1911), a multi-volume ethnography.
  • In the 1890s, he created wax cylinder recordings of important Omaha songs and music, now in the collection of the Library of Congress.
  • He published a memoir, The Middle Five, in 1900, an account of his boyhood at the reservation school.
  • He wrote a five act play, Da-o-ma, which he converted into an opera with composer Charles Wakefield Cadman.
  • He worked sporadically throughout his life on fictional accounts of Omaha experiences, published long after his death as Ke-ma-ha: The Omaha Stories of Francis La Flesche.
  • He completed his own ethnographical accounts of the Osage, resulting in a host of articles in the 1920s and The Dictionary of the Osage Language in 1932, the year of his death.

During his lifetime, La Flesche published most of the ethnographic or “scientific” writing listed above.  With a master’s degree from George Washington University Law School and an official appointment at the Smithsonian, he was clearly understood by Euroamerican contemporaries as an able anthropologist.  But he struggled to publish, and even finish, most of his “literary” writing.  James Parins and Daniel Littlefield’s introduction to Ke-ma-ha (published more than a half century after his death) details La Flesche’s often curious exchanges with editors of presses (Doubleday, Small) as he sought to imagine how to complete, place, and publish his memoir and his fiction.  Some of the editors, clearly relying on stereotypes of the opening American West, urged him to write material more “wild” in character.  His opera collaboration never came to fruition, breaking down over differences of opinion again about the character of the drama.  Quite possibly, what the Euroamerican editors wanted from La Flesche as a “Native author” was at odds with what La Flesche himself sought to create.

La Flesche’s life and career clearly straddled the boundaries between the cultural traditions of some of the tribes living in what became Nebraska and the Euroamerican cultural practices of a career as author/scientist/writer.   Central to La Flesche’s lifelong study was the question of how to document Omaha and Osage traditions in a changing world of cultural contact.  At various times during his life, he supported policies of allotment (such as the reservation system for allotting separate space to Native peoples), assimilation (such as his own experience learning from and being assimilated into Euroamerican culture), and cultural preservation (including the gathering and preserving of traditional Native materials) as overarching goals for how Omaha and Osage peoples might engage Euroamerican society.

Francis La Flesche is but one example of a Native person who worked to contribute to the “literary” traditions of both his tribe and his adopted Euroamerican cultures. His story points to the complications inherent in the cultural landscape of the Nebraska territory and statehood period (1850-1900).  Readers interested in probing Native history for literary work predating contact with Euroamericans are advised to consider these complications.

Works Cited

Foucault, Michel. “What is an Author?”  originally published in Bulletin de la Societé Française de Philosophie 63, no. 3(1969). © Society of College de France.  Now widely available on the web.

Gannon, Thomas.  Personal Correspondence, Feb. 2016.

Kaye, Frances W.  “Literary Traditions.” Encyclopedia of the Great Plains. Lincoln, NE: Nebraska UP, 2004.

La Flesche, Francis.  1893.  Collection: Collection: Omaha Indian Music. Library of Congress.

Online Biographies of Francis La Flesche

Parins, James and Daniel Littlefield, Jr.  “Introduction.”  Ke-ma-ha: The Omaha Stories of Francis La Flesche. Lincoln, NE: Nebraska UP, 1995.