Big Elk

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Big Elk
Big Elk - George Catlin - 1832.jpg
Chief Big Elk by George Catlin, 1832.
Native name Ontopanga
Born 1770
Died 1846/1853
Nationality Omaha
Known for A chief of the Omaha Indians, warrior, orator
Successor Joseph LaFlesche
Children Standing Elk (son)

Big Elk, also known as Ontopanga (1770–1846/1853), was a principal chief of the Omaha tribe for many years on the upper Missouri River. He is notable for his oration delivered at the funeral of Black Buffalo in 1813.

Big Elk led his people during a time of increasing changes, with threats from Sioux warfare, disease and European-American encroachment. He created alliances to protect his people and prepare for a future which he thought depended on a closer relationship with the United States. He was willing to exchange land for the promise of protection for his people but was often disappointed by the failures of the US government.


Big Elk struggled to protect his people from encroachment by European Americans, but more importantly, from warfare by the Sioux. The Omaha suffered from smallpox epidemics in the early nineteenth century and were much reduced in number. Big Elk was among the Native American allies of the United States during the War of 1812, through his relations with the French-American trader Lucien Fontenelle. He also was seeking United States aid for protection against the Sioux.

Big Elk admired some aspects of European-American culture and made strategic alliances through the marriages of his daughters: two married prominent European-American fur traders. His mixed-race grandson Logan Fontenelle worked with the US Indian agent as interpreter for the Omaha from the age of 15. He was increasingly important after 1853, during negotiations for land sales. He may have been considered a chief for that process, but contemporary accounts were confusing. In 1855, he was killed by an enemy Sioux band. Fontenelle was one of the seven signatories to a treaty in 1854 by which the Omaha ceded most of their land to the United States, in exchange for annuities and goods.

In 1843 Chief Big Elk designated his adopted son Joseph LaFlesche as his successor; LaFlesche was a Métis fur trader of French-Canadian and Ponca descent, who lived many years with the Omaha. He was one of the chiefs who signed the 1854 treaty. Highly assimilated, LaFlesche served as principal chief from 1853/1855-1888, encouraging the Omaha to become educated and to adopt some European-American ways.

Marriage and family[edit]

Ledger drawing by an Omaha man named George Miller of chief Big Elk's tipi. On his tipi he painted two river steam boats to symbolize his friendship with the Euro-Americans and his importance as a chief.

Big Elk was married to an Omaha woman. They had a son Standing Elk and several daughters, including Mitain and Me-um-bane.

As with many other Native American tribes, the Omaha were used to absorbing captives, orphans and honored allies into their culture as adopted members. Similarly, Big Elk arranged or permitted two of his daughters to marry prominent European-American fur traders, with whom he wanted to make alliances to strengthen his family's connections. He admired some aspects of American culture and believed he could help his people by the alliances.

In 1814, during the War of 1812 between the United States and Great Britain, his daughter Mitain (also spelled Mitahne) married Manuel Lisa, recently appointed by the governor of the Missouri Territory as the US Indian agent on the Upper Missouri River.[1] He had been a prominent fur trader in the Omaha territory for years, setting up Fort Lisa in what is now North Omaha, Nebraska. Lisa returned to the fur trade after the war's conclusion. At the time, Lisa was legally married to a European-American woman in St. Louis, where she lived full-time; after her death in 1817, he married a second woman of European descent in St. Louis.[2]

Lisa and Mitain had a daughter Rosalie and son Christopher together.[3][4] In 1819 Lisa took Rosalie back to St. Louis with him for Catholic schooling, but Mitain refused to give him custody of Christopher, and was supported by Big Elk.[4]

About 1823–24, Big Elk's daughter Me-um-bane married the fur trader Lucien Fontenelle, from a wealthy French Creole family in New Orleans. He set up a trading post on the Missouri River near what is now Bellevue, Nebraska and lived full-time in the territory. They had five children together. Their first son Logan Fontenelle was born in 1825. He became an interpreter for the Omaha, beginning to work for the US Indian agent after his father's death in 1840. Some historians contend that he was elected a chief of the Omaha in 1853; others that he served as interpreter to the chiefs during the negotiations for land sales that were taking place. While 60 Omaha had held council to negotiate with the Agent Greenwood in January 1854, Fontenelle accompanied or was part of a delegation of chiefs who went to Washington, DC later that year to complete negotiations for a treaty with the United States. The Omaha ceded most of their land in exchange for annuities and goods, and resettlement on a reservation in what is now northeastern Nebraska.

Big Elk adopted the trader Joseph LaFlesche as his son and into the Omaha. (His mother Waoowinchtcha was a Ponca and reported as a relative of Big Elk.[5]) LaFlesche was the son of Joseph LaFlesche, a French-Canadian fur trader with the American Fur Company, who had worked for many years the Omaha and other tribes between the Platte and the Nebraska rivers. The younger LaFlesche had started accompanying his father on trading trips at age 10, and began working for the AFC at age 16.[5] In 1843 Big Elk designated him as his successor, and LaFlesche seriously studied the tribal ways and customs to prepare for chieftainship. LaFlesche appeared to join the tribal council about 1849, after he had settled with the Omaha at the Bellevue Agency.[5]

LaFlesche was highly assimilated and cultured, and married Mary Gale, daughter of an American surgeon and his Iowa wife. LaFlesche served as principal chief of the Omaha from 1855 to 1888. During this period of major transition after the tribe moved to a reservation, he encouraged the Omaha to become educated, to accept Christianity, and to adopt some European-American ways. He and Mary encouraged education for their children, and several went to school and college in the East. They became prominent reformers and leaders among the Omaha, with a physician, reformer, and financial manager for the tribe among them. After Mary's death about 1855, LaFlesche married Tainne, an Omaha woman. Their son Francis La Flesche (born 1857) also became educated; he worked as an ethnologist for the Smithsonian Institution in a close partnership with the anthropologist Alice Fletcher; he wrote books and research about the Omaha and the Osage, and helped preserve their traditions.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Chittenden, Hiram Martin (1902), The American Fur Trade of the Far West, New York: F.P. Harper Co., p. 133 
  2. ^ Chittenden, 134
  3. ^ Chittenden, 127
  4. ^ a b Kira Gale, "Escape from Death and a Sister’s Revenge: the Daughters of Omaha Chief Big Elk", Lewis and Clark Road Trips, 13 April 2007, accessed 21 August 2011
  5. ^ a b c "Joseph La Flesche: Sketch of the Life of the Head Chief of the Omaha", first published in the (Bancroft, Nebraska) Journal; reprinted in The Friend, 1889, accessed 23 August 2011

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