Born in 1938 on the Omaha Reservation in Macy, Nebraska, Rufus White is a tradition keeper and featured performer of traditional songs of the Umonhon (Omaha Tribe of Nebraska). White, known as Shuda Gina (Calls for Smoke) in Umonhon, was raised to follow traditional ways by his grandparents and father after the death of his mother in his infancy. At the age of ten, White began learning to sing from his father and grandfather who were both spiritual leaders and taught him both the songs and the history behind them. He is a resource for not only Omaha songs but also their related customs and stories.
As a tradition bearer in his tribe, White has played a major role in passing on the songs of his tribe by performing them at powwows and intertribal gatherings both at home, across the country, and internationally as part of cultural exchange. He is also sought after for many other social and ceremonial occasions because his repertory includes a large number of family songs, Hethushka (War Dance) songs, specific Handgame songs, Gourd Dance songs, War Mother songs, and sacred songs from several Omaha tribal societies. White's knowledge extends to knowing which songs are appropriate for which occasions and when during an event they should be sung.
White's singing has been recorded for local schools to use as well as by the Library of Congress, adding his knowledge of Omaha tribal songs to a collection which features Omaha songs on wax cylinders going back to 1893. He has taught songs to young singers through a Nebraska Arts Council's Traditional Arts Apprenticeship grant in addition to teaching in the schools on the reservation. At the Umonhon Nation Public School he has also been instrumental in teaching the Umonhon language, as well as sharing traditional and family stories, songs, and cultural traditions.
Listen to August 22, 1985 Library of Congress recordings with Rufus White:
Rufus on the drum | Commentary on Farewell Song | Flag Song
Buffalo Dance and commentary | Grand Finale Song and talk
Interview with Rufus White by Josephine Reed for the NEA
September 19, 2014
Edited by Lindsay Martin
NEA: Tell me about your upbringing. Where were you born?
Rufus White: I was born in Macy, Nebraska, where the reservation is located on the other side of town. I was more or less raised out in the country. After I was about five years old, my mom was called home and kind of left me in the dark there for a while. And I asked myself, "How come God did something like this to me? Why?" And my grandmother must have felt sorry for me. She said, “Don’t worry. Come stay with us.” So I was raised by my grandmother and grandfather. I got to be with my uncle, my great-grandfather, grandfather, and my father. They’d sit down and sing together every evening, sing traditional songs, got their drums out, and one day my uncle said, “Nephew, come sit by us. Pay attention to what we’re doing, and listen.” And I used to sit with him; I used to always listen to them songs. There’s a story behind each song. And I listened to them and [paid] attention and [they told me], “Maybe someday you can take one of these seats and be a singer for the Omaha tribe.” And pretty soon I was called on to sing.
I was 15 years old. I was asked to sing for the powwow. And we had people from all over come to the powwow. And I had a brother named Fred—he sat with me. All the different tribes sat in that room with me. I couldn’t believe myself: "I’m gonna be singing for my people in there." And just by listening to my uncle, my grandpa, [and] my great-grandfather sing, the songs stuck with me. They said, “These are the songs you want to sing from the beginning. These are the beginning songs.” So I started singing and all the people that were there—they knew the songs. They all got to help me, and my brother was thanking them. He said, “I’m real thankful that you people could be here and sit here with my little brother.”
And ever since then I’ve been singing and teaching my grandchildren. I have a grandson [who's] been singing right with me. Now I got another one, he’s about eight years old. He wants to sing with grandpa, and I’ve been teaching him. "All you have to do is pay attention like I did. Listen, I’m gonna sing a couple of songs for you, over and over, make sure you catch ‘em.”
NEA: Can you explain what a powwow is for people who might not know?
White: [A] powwow is to bring people together. A lot of times that’s the way [we] used to visit our relatives coming back from different places. I have nephews in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Arizona and different places. That’s sort of the time to get to visit relatives or meet with relatives, to bring them all together. And they enjoy one another, visit, and we have all kinds of dancers coming in.
NEA: Your way of singing, the Omaha way, the Northern Plains way, is very different from the Southern Plains. How is it different?
White: Their song is different. The way they sing, they have real high pitch. Ours is medium. Sometimes we sing high and low, it depends on the song. A lot of people go on the hill [to] fast [and] they bring a song home. I had an uncle [who] went on the hill four days and nights, [and] that last morning, he said he felt this breeze and there was a song in the breeze. He was listening to it. And after that morning that he was supposed to come down from the hill, he started making the song, just by listening to that wind. He composed a song.
He came home and put out food and meat, invited some singers down to sit down and he sang that song for ‘em. “That’s what I brought back from going on the hill. Just listen to the wind. There was a song in that wind. So I made a song here. I brought it back. We can use it during the powwows.” And he invited me because I was real young, trying to learn how to sing. I got to sing with a lot of old people that knew all them old songs. I got to sit with them and different tribes.
I was telling my grandson, “You want to be a singer, you have to pay attention to these songs that have meaning. Somebody might [ask you], ‘That song you just got done singing, what does it mean?’” And you can come out and tell them.
NEA: What’s a family song?
White: The families, they have their own songs. I made songs for [some of] them. They have different ways of singing that song. And I used to listen to all the family songs so I knew what to sing in case some [family] might want [to hear] their song. Now I tell my grandson the same thing. I said, “This family might want a song. You have to know them songs. They might ask you to sing it. You better know what you’re gonna sing.” And then I recorded all their songs for him, the families that have a song.
NEA: What are some other kind of songs? There are so many.
White: Yeah, there’s round dance [that has] the audience come out and dance. The non-Indians, they can go out and dance to them songs. And other songs—they call them “49” and there’s different ways of singing them. And then [there's] war dance. That’s a powwow song. Then they have a green corn dance. They have a song [to] honor their veterans coming home, “War Mothers.”
NEA: And sacred songs as well. Tell me about them, where they come from, when you use them.
White: There are certain times, like during the fall, they have songs [that] ask for a better winter. They’re kind of spiritual songs. They have their drum and their gourd they use to sing with. And they just pass that round each other. Somebody praying, and maybe they have a relative that’s not feeling good, or is sick or something. They can pray for their relatives. We have a lot of people dying from cancer. And there’s no cure for that. A lot of young kids had that cancer and they’re dying from that. And a lot of our people are dying from diabetes. I just feel sorry for these younger ones that’s been left behind. A lot of them, they’re lost. Their mother babied them too much. And [then] they’re gone. “What are we gonna do? Who’s gonna take care of us?” That’s the saddest thing you can hear a little kid say, you know. [We] try and be with them and talk with them, sing for them, and pray for them. And we have the spiritual leaders back home. I’m one of them. I go out and sit down and sing for them and tell them, “Your mom’s not leaving us forever. Some day you’re gonna see her. God has a place for us. That’s where she’s going.”
NEA: When you do that, do you find that if you introduce them to the traditions that it soothes them and gives them some kind of balance?
White: Yeah. They know somebody cares enough to sit down and talk with them. Sometimes [it] brings tears to your eyes talking to someone that’s going through that.
NEA: As you say, you are a spiritual leader, and you also help with funerals and burials. What happens at a traditional funeral and burial?
White: We stay up with the family that last night and we sing for them, pray for them. And in morning time we put food out for them. At that time they say all the parents are here waiting for her. She takes that food I left and she’s leaving. Her spirit’s gone. She’s on her way home with her relatives. Yeah, I did a lot of that, and it’s kind of a sad thing. Especially if it’s somebody that you knew a long time, when you have to go through that. You just feel sorry for them. [When] I went through that I had a lot of people around me. I lost my wife just about a year and a half ago. Seemed like every place I went she was there with me. And that brings back memories.
NEA: When did you start teaching?
White: Maybe 15 years ago. Teaching the Omaha language. I was teaching in another town and I had some white girls in there. They wanted to learn, and boy, they picked it up quicker than the Indians. They picked up the language real good. And one day a couple of the mothers came and say they wanted to see the meaning of it. I said, “Sit down, maybe you enjoy it. Maybe you share this with your daughter.” And a couple of them did come back. They sit in the classroom and they begin speaking Omaha language. I try to show them how to talk and [say] hello and such. They stayed the whole session.
NEA: I was surprised to read that there’s a male voice and a female voice in the Omaha language. Explain that, and how are they used differently?
White: Men folks, we talk a certain way. We say, I’m here. Come to visit, come to see you. [We say,] "I’m talking to you." "I want to talk with you." Women folk, theirs are different. [They say,] "Look at me." "I’m here for you." They come to talk with you. Their related talk is a little different than the way men folk talk.
NEA: So when you were teaching in school, you were teaching both ways.
White: Yeah, I had my sister, Susie, teaching the girls and I’m teaching the boys.
NEA: And you have a singing club at school. With both girls and boys?
White: Just the boys. But if the girls want to sing, they can get behind the boys and sing if they want to. There’s a lot of young [people] singing at the powwows. I don’t say, “Don’t sing.” If you want to sing, it’s up to you, go ahead. All you have to do is just pay attention and learn. Maybe someday I ask you what’s that song means and you can tell me the meaning of it.
NEA: For some of the kids, is this really the first time they’re learning about their traditions?
White: Mm-hmm, but they’re picking it up little by little. I said, “You’re not going to learn the song right now. You ain’t going to learn that overnight. It takes time. Keep coming back—we sing the songs for you, you catch on then." There’s a lot of meaning to them [in the] different songs that they’re using. So that’s [the] other way to pick [them] up.
NEA: Why do you think maintaining and teaching these traditions is so important?
White: One of these days we’re not going to have that anymore, so we’re trying to keep it as long as the reservations [are] there.
NEA: How did you find out you got a National Heritage Fellowship? You got a phone call from Barry Bergey?
White: Yeah, yeah. And I couldn’t believe it. He said, “We’ll see you in Washington.” I said, “Washington?” They said, “You’re going to get an award, Rufus.” I couldn’t believe it.
NEA: You also traveled to Germany doing a cultural exchange. What was that like?
White: The people are so different over there. They were so nice. [I] had a family that took me in their place. And we performed. That’s a big area and we got to sing in there.
NEA: And it was full?
White: Yeah. That thing was packed. Even the stage and the balconies, everything was full. And them people were really surprised how we danced compared to their dancing. They put on a show for us and I was really interested to see somebody [perform in a] different country. They took me out just [to] tour the town, and that was really something. Them people are real friendly over there. We were there the whole week. And we did [lots of] performances. We put on different shows, especially [at] schools for kids. They were really interested. They took us out to the airport and [the] girls and boys, they shook hands with me and gave me a hug.