Just days before she died, Winona “Hawatay” Mitchell Caramony
told her daughter she had just one regret.
She said she wished she could have taught more Omaha people
their tribal language.
“The language and all the stuff that I know, I wish I could just put it in a box for you,” she told daughter Lani Blake. “That way, if you guys needed to look up something, it would be there for you. But I’m going to take it with me. I can’t do anything about it.”
Caramony, 94, died June 20
at her home in Macy, Nebraska, having spent a lifetime trying to preserve her Omaha language and culture for future generations. She was the oldest living Omaha tribal citizen and one of her tribe’s last fluent speakers.
She had spent nearly 15 years as a Head Start teacher and Omaha language professor for the Nebraska Indian Community College. She had served as an Omaha tribal judge and a member of the UmoNhoN Nation Public School Board of Education.
Her funeral was held last Monday in Macy.
Winona "Hawatay" Caramony, who passed away on June 20, 2019, at the age of 94, is seen at the shop on the Omaha Reservation in Walthill, Nebraska, that bears her UmoNhoN language name. Photo: Hawatay's Gift Shop & Supplies
For several years, Caramony had helped organize an annual Omaha language conference, and this year she was selected as Nebraska Indian Community College’s Faculty Member of the Year.
Caramony held an associate of arts in arts and sciences from Northeast Nebraska Technical Community College, a certificate in paralegal studies from Nebraska Indian Community College (NICC) and a diploma in Omaha language from NICC.
In recent years, Caramony had taken part in the production of a documentary about efforts to preserve the Omaha language, and on November 16, 2018, she got to speak during the Red Nation International Film Festival’s award ceremony in Beverly Hills. The documentary, “UmoNhoN Iye, The Omaha Speaking
,” won Best Documentary Film at the festival
“I had a very busy today trying to cope with the young people out on the beach,” she told the crowd, eliciting laughter and applause. “I’m not that young woman anymore. I realize that now.”
Winona “Hawatay” Mitchell Caramony, 1924-2019. Courtesy photo
She reassured those in attendance that the Omaha Tribe would succeed in reviving its language and culture.
“Educate yourself,” she said. “Educate your children so you’ll be able to cope with the outside world.”
Caramony grew up in Macy the oldest of eight children and was raised by a single mother.
Her younger brother, Rudi Mitchell, said his sister had traveled the world with her first husband, a U.S. Navy seaman. She had six children, three girls and three boys.
She eventually retired and came home to the Omaha Reservation, where she spent her later years teaching language and culture to young children and young adults.
Mitchell, a former chairman of the Omaha Tribe, said his people have barely a half dozen fluent speakers left.
“That’s a real tragedy when one of our elders like this dies, especially the fluent ones,” he said.
He said fluent speakers know Omaha words that have been lost or overlooked by those who have studied the language and attempted to document it.
Caramony’s granddaughter, Lorna Sheridan, said her grandmother’s focus on education inspired her children and grandchildren to pursue their own educations.
“A lot of her grandkids are all college-educated or her great-grandkids are in college now,” said Sheridan, 42.
But Caramony had other interests besides education.
Sheridan said her grandmother was an avid sports fan and would attend any basketball, football or baseball game in which a grandchild was competing.
Caramony rarely acted her age, Sheridan said.
“She always told me her mind was young, but her body was older,” Sheridan said. “She always lived everyday like it was going to be her last. She would always say, ‘I’ll rest when I’m gone.’”
Lani Blake, 50, said her mother was often recognized by children when she would travel to Macy. Children would walk up to her and call her grandma and give her hugs.
Caramony was always willing to hug the children she taught and would often tell Blake that it was because they might not get affection elsewhere.
“I always hug those little kids because sometimes I don’t think they get enough attention at home,” she would say.
A photo shared by The Omaha Speaking on social media shows Winona “Hawatay” Mitchell Caramony, seated at right, in San Francisco, California, where the film "The Omaha Speaking" was screened in 2018.
A great gathering with new friends and UmoNhoN San Francisco transplants.Posted by The Omaha Speaking on Friday, June 21, 2019
When she served as a tribal judge for the Omaha Tribe, Caramony would often tell her children not to expect favoritism if they found themselves before her as defendants.
“I’m going to be harder on you than the rest of the people because I can’t show favoritism, especially to my own children,” she would tell them.
Blake said her mother helped start one of the first alcohol programs on the Omaha Reservation, served on numerous nonprofit boards and committees and was briefly the tribal council’s secretary.
But her passion was always language and cultural preservation, and she encouraged her people to learn their Native names, their clanships and their relatives.
“God chose us to be Omaha, chose us to be Indian,” Caramony would say. “Don’t let that go. Don’t let it die.”
Trailer: The Omaha Speaking
Blake said her mother once traveled to Pipestone, Minnesota, to support her when Blake was sundancing there.
Having grown up during a time when men and women dressed formally nearly everywhere they went, Caramony showed up at the ceremony wearing a hat, scarf, gloves and high heels. To this day, those who saw Caramony remember her arrival.
“Everybody remembered her because she came up with red high heels,” Blake said. “Everybody was so worried about her falling.”
But Caramony retorted.
“I’ve been walking in high heels for 60 years,” she told those at the sundance. “I’ll be alright.”
Winona Caramony, 1924-2019
Love this! Winona Caramony oldest member of the Omaha Tribe and UmoNhoN language teacher at 94 made her journey to the Creator a week ago today. Found this clip from the 60 hours of film footage from UmoNhoN Iye taken a couple years ago at the Omaha Nation Pow Wow in a dance contest which she won of course. We miss you Winona!Posted by The Omaha Speaking on Thursday, June 27, 2019
Join the Conversation