John G. Neihardt’s collection of short stories, The End of Dreams and Other Stories, combines well-researched facts about the Omaha tribe with stories that reach all of humanity. Originally published around the turn of the twentieth century, the stories are an insight into both the everyday lives and the beliefs and customs of Native peoples. Neihardt fuses his love of Native history with his love of the Midwestern landscape, using nature as an integral part of each story, often anthropomorphizing the land in a manner similar to Native Americans in an attempt to relate their point of view.
In the first story, “When the Snows Drift,” a young Omaha warrior, Mun-chpe, is cheated out of his due praise for his battlefield prowess by a fellow tribe member who claims his kill and an unfavorable display from their deity Wakunda. Without this tribal affirmation of his bravery, Mun-chpe believes he will never win over his love Wa-te-na. His anger at his fellow warrior, felt abandonment by Wakunda, and his heartbrokenness leads him to murder the lying tribe member. He is then banished from the tribe, forced to wander the freezing wilderness. In an act of sorrow and desperation, Wa-te-na seeks him out in the night. In a tragic yet romantic ending, the two are found in a frozen embrace.
Next, Neihardt tells the story of a young Omaha, Wabisgaha, who loves his horse more than anything. The others in the tribe believe the horse is possessed by an evil spirit, and Wabisgaha is a sorcerer. When his horse is stolen in the night by the neighboring Pawnee tribe, Wabisgaha seeks to regain his friend. He is captured by a party of Pawnee and brought before the chief, whose daughter catches sight of the proud Wabisgaha and falls in love. He is sentenced to death for accusing the Pawnee of the theft of his horse, but is saved at the last minute by the chief’s daughter, with the command that the two will marry in the spring. Released and back home, he is given permission to raid the Pawnee to get his horse back. A bloody battle ensues wherein Wabisgaha and the chief kill each other. In a final act of love, the chief’s daughter takes Wabisgaha’s body on his horse into the wilderness, killing the horse and staying with the bodies until she dies herself.
In the remaining stories, Neihardt briefly displays the both the beliefs of the Omaha and the universal emotions that shape all human endeavor. In one, a young man believes he is destined to be a medicine man and seeks guidance from the current medicine man who responds with jealousy. Another tells of a selfless martyr who gives his life to save his fellow warriors on Crow Butte. On a fruitless bison hunt a young lame man is cast out, believed to be bad luck, only to return from his exile with knowledge of the herd they seek. A hopeful young warrior deemed too small to fight in war sets out to prove his mettle on his own. A young woman’s love goes into battle, only to return with a new bride who ends up betraying him. A youth with the gift of healing is led astray by a selfish chief while their tribe is camped for the winter during a bison hunt.
In the final titular story, a woman hopes her son Nu Zhinga will grow to be a great warrior like his deceased father. When the time comes for him to go on his vision quest, he returns to the village telling of the benevolence of the land. The villagers take this as a sign he has not had a vision and his mother is distraught thinking he will amount to nothing. When the warriors of the tribe set out for battle, Nu Zhinga joins them, but proves unworthy on the battlefield, crying over his slain horse rather than fighting. After this he is shunned by the tribe and relegated to doing women’s work. A sickness spreads among the tribe, and the medicine man calls for the hair of a white buffalo to help relieve them. Nu Zhinga finally has his dream and sets out in the dead of winter to find the buffalo. Unfortunately, he returns only after the village has been abandoned and his mother and lover have died.
Filled with accurate details about the Omaha tribe, from the names of months to the way the circle of teepees was arranged, Neihardt’s stories are quick flashes of the uniqueness of the tribe and the commonality of all humanity. Like the fate of the Native Americans, the protagonists suffer for their honorable intentions at the hands of those who take advantage of a giving nature. Most stories end in tragedy for the hero, but their stories live on among the tribe and their names are not forgotten for their noble deeds.
The End of the Dream and Other Stories is available at Bellevue University Library, located in the general collection. All books can be borrowed for 21 days with the option of renewal.