Venerable Man
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Basic Information

The Umonhonti ("True Omaha"), or the Venerable Man, is a sacred object of the Omaha tribe of American Indians. A large pole fashioned from a cottonwood tree, the Venerable Man is a symbol of unity for the Omaha and regarded as a person in his own right.

For centuries the Venerable Man stood as the center of the Omaha's culture; but in the late 1800s, encroachment of white settlers was forcing the Omaha to abandon the buffalo-hunting way of life practiced by their fathers, and they faced the real possibility that their culture might die out.

Joseph La Flesche, also known as Iron Eyes, chief of the Omaha, had opposed traditional ceremonies and favored assimilation into white society. He had sent his son, Francis, to a white school and the young La Flesche had become an anthropologist. In 1888, Francis and another ethnologist named Alice Fletcher persuaded the Sacred Pole's custodian, Yellow Smoke, that it would be better to send the Umonhonti to a museum, where it would be preserved. "Why don't you send the 'Venerable Man,' to some eastern city where he could dwell in a great brick house instead of a ragged tent?" La Flesche asked.

Yellow Smoke agreed, but he was reluctant to share the secret rituals and lore associate with the Sacred Pole until Iron Eyes agreed to take upon himself any curse the spirits might invoke for revealing these secrets. Shortly after Yellow Smoke did so, Iron Eyes fell sick and died about two weeks later. (You'd think he would have known better. Some time earlier he had developed an infection in his leg and had to have it amputated, which many Omaha regarded as the result of his refusing to participate in the annual ritual annointing the Sacred Pole).

For about a century, the Venerable Man remained in the basement of the Peabody Museum at Harvard University in Massachusets where it was studied and preserved, but not revered. But contrary to the expectations of the scientists, missionaries, government officials and the Omaha themselves, the Omaha tribe did not die out, and they preserved the memory of their cultural symbols. In 1989, after years of negotiation between the Omaha and the museum, the Umonhonti was returned to the Omaha at a pow-wow ceremony.

Currently, the Umonhonti resides at the University of Nebraska, where he is being kept until the tribe can build a permanent home for the Venerable Man

As far as I know, the Venerable Man is no relation to the Venerable Bede. Then again, you never can tell.


Game and Story Use

  • Another example of this can be found in Ellis Peter's Brother Cadfael novel "A morbid taste for bones" - intrigue over the theft of saintly relics was a common form of hilarity in medieval times and can thus play a significant part in any medieval fiction.
  • Stealing sacred objects from a conquered culture is a time honoured form of business - even if the theft is as subtle as it appears here. This, after all, is pretty much how the Romans brought Cybele to dwell in Rome. Sometimes, as when the Philistines stole the ark-of-the-covenant, these things end badly…
    • Perhaps the PCs must suborn the keepers of an idol or totem so that it can be brought back to their nation's capital without the need for a massacre - they may be racing against time before the people who don't mind a massacre get there ahead of them. An added complication can be if the 'massacre neutral' faction don't wait for a full expedition but send a token, sacrifical force ahead to be killed by the outraged natives and so provide a causus belli. How directly do the PCs dare confront their own government on behalf of strangers?
    • Alternatively the PCs are from the source culture - without the protection of their deity, their culture is dying. Can they retrieve the idol without provoking the aforementioned massacre? Alternatively, before the idol leaves, can they find a solution that pleases everyone - including the deity?
    • If the sacred object has been moved, the spirits or deity concerned may be … displeased. Like the Ark, it may start causing trouble for the receiving culture, who may need to call in experts to deal with it. These experts may be domestic, international or from the source culture. If they have exterminated the source culture, the solution may be a lot harder to find.
    • Alternatively, and particularly in an animistic system, removing the 'boss spirit' from a locality may cause a spiritual civil war at the source site … which could lead to all kinds of trouble.
    • The sacred object may have been where it was for a reason (particularly if it was a precursor artifact) - moving it may just unseal a can of evil.
  • This kind of artifact theft can be done with the best of intentions. In the case of the Venerable Man, it seems that Fletcher and la Flesche sincerely wished to preserve a piece of Omaha culture rather than simply take it away from them. And one could make the argument that by doing so, they saved it from perhaps being destroyed by accident, vandalism or neglect.
    • Don't think the spirits would buy that argument, though.
    • And you could make the counter-argument that the absense of that symbol of cultural unity outweighed the benefit of keeping it safe, but hidden.
    • The point being that a plot involving such a cultural relic could raise ethical questions for your players that might not readily be apparent
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