“The Otoe”

Acrylic on Canvas   |   40  x  30   |   $4000

At one time, the Otoes and Missourias, along with the Winnebago and Iowa Tribes, were once part of a single tribe that lived in the Great Lakes Region of the United States. In the 16th century, the Iowa, Otoe, and Missouria broke away from that tribe and moved to the south and west. Eventually the Otoe moved to the general area of Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri and Kansas and became known as one of the Prairie tribes along with the Missouria, Omaha, Iowa, Osage, Quapaw and Ponca tribes.

In the summer of 1804, the Otoe and Missouria were the first tribes to hold council with Lewis and Clark in their official role as representatives of President Jefferson. The captains presented to the chiefs a document that offered peace while at the same time established the sovereignty of the United States over the tribe.

Unfortunately, contact with Europeans also brought new diseases. Smallpox decimated both tribes and weakened their hold on the region.

This Otoe man wears two important pieces of ceremonial clothing, distinctive among the Western Great Lakes and Prairie cultures, the otter skin turban and the grizzly bear claw necklace.

Prairie men commonly wore open-top turbans of various animal pelts, including otter, beaver, cougar, fox, skunk, and wolf. Otter was universally prized, not only for the beauty of its fur, but also for philosophical reasons. Indians observed that this charismatic creature occupied itself both in water and on land, and therefore deemed it to be a liaison between aquatic and land beings.

When worn, in characteristic fashion, the head end of the pelt is oriented clockwise around the wearer’s head. Native peoples considered this direction as “sunwise”–the path the sun takes as it daily courses its way across the sky. Consequently, the otter’s head lies at the wearer’s right temple. The tail, cut from the body of the skin, is attached as a pendant at the left side of the wearer’s face.
A fully beaded medallion and beaded human hand decorate the front of the turban. There are at least two explanations that can be offered for the use of hand symbolism among the Prairie tribes. The first version declares that the wearer had killed an enemy in hand-to-hand combat. The second suggests the presence or blessings of Wakonda–the Great Spirit and represents the open hand of God.

The grizzly bear claw necklace was an ornament that represented high esteem and accomplishment for senior men of the prairie tribes. Grizzly bears had once roamed the river valleys of the prairies west of the Mississippi. Their claws grew to exceptional length in this grassy environment. Now that the range of the grizzly bear has shrunk to the rocky, mountainous regions of the west, their claw are much shorter. Prairie men used only four claws from each forepaw of the grizzly, so that four grizzly bears, at least, contributed to the over 30 claws used for this necklace. Only specialists, those individuals who owned the ancestral right, could make bear claw necklaces. If a man wanted one, he would have to assemble all the materials along with a substantial display of gifts, such as a wagon and a team of horses, and give them to a specialist who would then agree to make a necklace. Otter fur is wrapped around the necklace and an entire otter pelt is used to create a long, narrow “tail” or “drop” that hangs off the back of the necklace. Large spherical glass beads made in Venice and acquired from traders were used as spacers between the claws. Three large pendants representing the cardinal directions decorate the front of the necklace.