Born 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 the Umonhon language, was raised to follow traditional ways while living with his grandparents after the death of his mother when he was 5. White learned from his father and grandfather, who were spiritual leaders, and from his great-grandfather and uncle. He became a master of the Northern Plains style, which does not employ falsetto, as the Southern Plains style does.
White has played a major role in passing on his tribal songs and their meaning at powwows and intertribal gatherings at home, across the country and abroad. He sang in the first Chief Standing Bear Commemoration at the state capitol in Lincoln in 2005, honoring a chief of the Northern Ponca Tribe, close relatives of the Umonhon, who won a landmark court ruling in 1879. White visited Germany in 1979 as part of a cultural exchange. In 1984, he and a tribal delegation sang and danced at the Library of Congress. He has also been instrumental in recording songs for schools and for the Library. They are available on its website, in a collection that includes songs recorded on wax cylinders in 1893. “Grandfather Rufus” has taught songs to young singers through the Nebraska Arts Council's Traditional Arts Apprenticeship grants in addition to teaching in schools on the reservation. Among his students is his grandson Brian Sweet, who was raised by White and his wife, Maxine.
In recommending White for the NEA honor, tribal officials said that his name suits him well because “once Mr. White accepts the sacred tobacco, he takes care of everything from prayers to Creator, securing firewood for food preparation or church meeting, tying the small drum, raising a tipi, comforting the families who have lost a loved one, and so much more.”
Indian Country. “Masters of Drum, Quill and Basket Tapped for Major NEA Award. “July 10, 2014. http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2014/07/10/masters-drum-quill-and-basket-tapped-major-nea-award-155758
National Endowment for the Arts. “NEA National Heritage Fellowships: Rufus White.” http://arts.gov/honors/heritage/fellows/rufus-white
Reed, Josephine. “Interview with Rufus White for the NEA.” September 19, 2014. http://arts.gov/honors/heritage/fellows/rufus-white
Library of Congress. “Collection: Omaha Indian Music.” http://www.loc.gov/collections/omaha-indian-music/?q=Rufus+White
Rufus White is interviewed by Nicholas R. Spitzer and performs with Kevin Locke, 2014 National Heritage Fellowship Concert, Washington, D.C., courtesy National Endowment for the Arts
Rufus White answers the question 'What kind of singing do you do?' Interview by Alan Govenar, Washington, D.C., 2014
Rufus White answers the question 'How do you teach?' Interview by Alan Govenar, Washington, D.C., 2014
Rufus White sings a song that includes Omaha words, interview by Alan Govenar, Washington, D.C., 2014
Vida Stabler talks about how Rufus White works with Omaha Nation Public Schools, interview by Alan Govenar, Washington, D.C., 2014