Three beautiful young women with long dark braids, one holding an eagle feather, look serenely out from a 1975 Gateway photograph. The accompanying article in the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO) student newspaper names them as Elsie Harlan (insert hyperlink to WCAP Interview Profile), Rosa Porter, and Carolyn Avey. This front page article, promoting the upcoming Indian Heritage Days, quotes the President of the campus chapter of American Indian United, Elsie Harlan: “[T]his city of Omaha is named after a tribe . . . but there’s really no recognition of Indians on campus during the regular school year” (1). Four years before, in 1971, another front page article describes the successful lobbying by Native American students to eliminate UNO’s Indian mascot, team name, and festival (Gateway May 1971 1). Rewind back to 1934. A front page Gateway article enthuses over the new plan, endorsed by students and faculty, of “adopting customs of the Omaha Indian tribe as traditions for the University of Omaha” (1). At this time, the University of Omaha (UO) football team, the “Cardinals,” became the “Indians,” and many Indian terms and symbols were adopted for celebrations and sports fans.
What contributing factors motivated this radical turnaround in the university’s attitude toward Indians and Indian culture? In 1934, the dominant white culture of the university adopted Omaha tribal customs; in 1971, a student consensus removed them; and in 1975, members of the Omaha tribe hosted a public debate to encourage more recognition for Indians on campus. What brought about this great change in student and faculty feelings toward the Indians, and what bolstered the Indians’ desire to protect and promote their own culture? I contend that these changes, as seen on UNO’s campus and chronicled by the Gateway, are an expression of wider socio-political changes that were occurring across the nation in the late 1960s and early 1970s. To discover and attempt to understand the socio-political context of the 1934, 1971, and 1975 articles, it is necessary to take first a brief, unbiased overview of native-white relations over the last 400 years of colonization. As Ed Zendejas, UNO’s current Native American Studies program director and member of the Omaha tribe, says in the introduction to his book against using stereotypical Indians as mascots, “[T]o understand the present, it is important to have a deep awareness and understanding of the past” (vii). Zendejas argues further that although most contemporary Americans are sympathetic to the historical wrongs done to the Indians, they lack much accurate knowledge of the Indians’ past or present (Zendejas 26).
For a clearer understanding of this turnaround in UNO’s policy toward the Indians, we need to “re-see” our shared history without a racist lens; we need to go beyond commonly held stereotypes and preconceptions about Native Americans and their culture. It is important to begin with exposing the three major assaults upon the Indians by the invading whites. First: genocide; second: land theft; and third: forced assimilation. I will then look at the ethnic resurgence that began to happen for Native Americans in the late sixties and seventies, in particular the rise of the American Indian Movement (AIM) and the accompanying “renaissance in American Indian culture” (Nagel 5). This “renaissance” was fueled in part by the atmosphere of activism of the civil rights era, by a burgeoning Native community, and by more support and money for Indian programs from Washington.
Part of becoming aware of this racist lens requires us to look at the effect of white privilege on access to society’s benefits, particularly societal power, wealth, and prestige. Frances Kendall, in her book Understanding White Privilege, defines “white privilege” as “an institutional, rather than personal, set of benefits granted to those of us who, by race, resemble the people who hold the power positions in our institutions” and explains that “one of the primary privileges is having greater access to power and resources than people of color do” (63). Along with greater access comes a belief system to rationalize this unequal distribution: racism. A racist perspective is bolstered by stereotypes and prejudices. Those of us who are white must attempt to emerge from the clouded vision of white privilege, to look through a “race neutral” lens, for it is