Omaha Indians at UNO

Profiles By: Robyn Tait



In 1935, the University of Omaha adopted Omaha customs, partly from an ignorant romanticism of the “noble savage” and a desire to “play Indians,” and partly from a fear that they were vanishing.  By the 1930s, centuries of oppression, government policies of taking Native land and “slaughtering tribal people rather than abiding by the treaties that we had entered into with them” (Kendall 64), outlawing Native religion and forcing assimilation, appeared to have bought most Indian Nations to their knees. However, in 1971, university students and the Omaha people strongly voiced their disapproval for these practices.  Now Native Americans were reclaiming, re-owning, and re-identifying with their heritage and culture.  In the late sixties and early seventies, activist and militant Indians united against a common enemy and for common goals, both AIM and the student chapter of AIU at UNO were formed.

Into this climate came Elsie Harlan, Rosa Porter, and Carolyn Avery. No doubt, they were encouraged and enthused by the progress Indians were making both culturally and politically. This was a time of resurgence, of cultural revival, of ethnic reclamation. The “Red Power” movement instilled ethnic pride, particularly in “those Indians who lived away from the reservations —at universities and in urban centers” (Josephy qtd. in Nagel 130). No wonder Elsie Harlan, as President of AIU, stood up on campus and spoke in the Gateway, to “promote campus awareness of Indian problems” (Gateway April 1976 5) and to encourage public discussion on the “American Indian in Higher Education” (Gateway April 1975 1).

Centuries of white colonization have not succeeded in annihilating the Indians. Though our institutions of white privilege, in particular the universities, are instruments of maintaining and reinforcing the status quo, Native Americans are slowly and surely developing a foothold within them. Primarily in response to the requests and assistance of a Cherokee student, Denise Henning, Religious Studies professor Dr. Dale Stover, and a small committee of committed UNO faculty created a Native American Studies (NAS) program in 1992 (Stover interview). Though two “essential” Native advisors, Denise Henning and Cindy Dillenberg, were involved, initially the entire faculty was “white men” who had been teaching Native Studies-related classes in other departments (Stover interview; Tate interview).  UNO recruited their first Native faculty, Craig Womack, into the English Department in 1994 (Stover interview). In 2010, the NAS program has grown to twenty-five affiliated faculty, twelve of whom identify as Native (Ritter email).

I hope that as the awareness of the existence and the effects of white privilege increases across society, children in grade schools may begin to learn the truth about Columbus and the brutalities of our colonizing past.  As this history is addressed, we can hope to begin to undo some of the wrongs toward Native peoples and start to try to rectify some of the damages caused.  Sadly, even here in Nebraska, twenty-two predominantly white high schools still use Indian mascots (Zendejas 127); one of the worst being Loup City’s Red Raiders’ offensive caricature of an angry Indian on the war path (Zendejas 137). Though UNO banned Ouampi in 1971, high schools persist in their use of Indian mascots. Such persistence is a good indication of the entrenchment of white privilege and of how far we still have to go.