Elsie Harlan

Profile By: Robyn Tait

A Voice of Determination

It has been a great honor to have a legitimate reason to meet Native people, to try to comprehend their tortured history, and to hear Elsie Harlan’s story. I used her words as much as possible, so that you may hear her speak. This is a story of great determination; of a strong courageous woman, a visionary for change; of a woman who grew up on the reservation, attended college, battled with alcohol, spent 15 years in the trenches working in a non-profit with Native families who deal with domestic abuse on the reservation, and today is advocating her vision: practical ideas to address real problems Native women face on the reservation. Let us listen to her, let the people of this city of Omaha heed the call of these people. We live on their land, mostly stolen and tricked away from them. It is time that we become more aware of their plight.

Part One Combining Cultures

Three beautiful Native women, two Omaha and one Cherokee, gaze serenely out of UNO’s Gateway’s front page photo (Apr. 1975). Their clothes reflect the mixing of two cultures.  Native, handmade, traditionally decorated regalia and a twentieth century American striped t-shirt. It is an uneasy allegiance—Native people are today still trying to assess the wounds of four centuries of white domination and oppression. Some are succeeding in white society, attending universities and teaching in them; many others are not. The incidence of diabetes is so high on the Omaha Reservation that there is a dialysis unit in the small town of Macy, Nebraska, population 970 (Macy profile).

Though alcoholism and poverty are rife, the Omaha have survived numerous predictions of their demise, and their population is increasing. Their language and culture are slowly rebounding from years of forced annihilation, in the name of assimilation.

Part Two History of the Omaha

To begin to understand Elsie’s life experience and determination, it is helpful to have some brief idea of the history of the Omaha, or, in the Omaha language, Umoⁿhoⁿ. These “Up Stream” or “Against the Current” people are one of the few plains tribes to still live on some portion of their ancestral lands (Boughter 3). In 1780, the tribal population has been estimated at 2,800 members; by 1802, it was reduced, through the ravages of smallpox, starvation, and alcohol, to 300 (Indian Relief Council 1).  This decimation brought renewed predictions of their extinction, following earlier ones that the Sioux would wipe them out and predating later ones predicting that forced assimilation, alcoholism, and poverty would destroy their culture. Today Omaha tribal membership, urban and reservation combined, is about 7,000 (Clark, Nov. 2010).

See contextual essay “History of

Part Three Cultural Renewal

These articles present a confident, self-directed young woman pushing against the university administration and dominant white culture to create a place for Indians in the academic world of UNO. She had her own strength and determination to draw on, and the climate was right. The late ‘60s and early ‘70s were a time of cultural renewal for the Indians fueled by the civil rights action of the ‘60s, improved government programs, and a climate of cultural renewal and hope. The American Indian Movement (AIM) grew out of this time, and the first intertribal actions to support Indian heritage and claim their rights occurred, such as the occupation of Alcatraz Island and the march on the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington DC. See contextual essay “Omaha Indians at UNO” to learn about UNO’s “Indian” mascot, “Ouampi,” removed in 1971 at the

Part Four The Story of Elsie Harlan: Background

Elsie grew up on the Omaha Reservation on her dad’s allotment of 138 acres, eight miles southeast of Walt Hill. The challenges she overcame in her childhood prepared her to face the challenges of her life— the challenge of being a Native American Omaha woman in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

When I was a little girl, I lived nine tenths of a mile from the main road, and a bus wouldn’t go that far; so rain, sleet, or snow we walked to that bus . . .  We lived out there when we had to pump water, carry water, haul wood, and burn corncobs for heat . . . We had an outhouse . . . and we had to heat our water to take a bath.

People tell me, “I don’t know how you can be so determined when things get

Part Five Further Education

3Haskell[1]Elsie did not go straight to UNO. She worked the summer at an Iowa Beef Processors packing
plant, where it was “cold and slimy in there; it was rough” (Clark Nov. 2010). That fall, she made her way to Haskell Institute, an Indian vocational-technical institution/boarding school in Lawrence, Kansas. She was there for two years and was certified as a linotype operator. She said she made the honor roll a couple of times and enjoyed the social life, but expressed dissatisfaction: “I wished I was more determined. I wished I had a goal in my life at that point. I wished I had been able to be committed and determined under any odds to finish with good grades” (Clark).

During the summers, she came back to Omaha and lived with her sisters,

Part Six Life After UNO

After Elsie dropped out of UNO, she worked at the World Herald for a while, was a public relations person for the Indian Commission, and then got an internship at KFAB Radio. She worked in the newsroom before getting an early morning broadcast spot. 4:00 a.m. was very hard to get up for after a night of drinking.  She ruefully describes the outcome:

So, I ruined that too. I knew I was in trouble, so I didn’t go back. Maybe they would have worked it out. You know, I wish they would have. I think if somebody would have talked to me about my drinking  . . . I never received any help or didn’t even think about it being a problem. I didn’t even blame that as being the problem for missing class. It was normal for me. I guess

Part Seven Back to UNO, 2007

Elsie went back to UNO sometime in the ‘80s, and then again in 2007. In between, “I picked up courses here and there from the community college” (Clark Nov. 2010). After Elsie’s dad died in 2005 and she had no responsibilities keeping her home, her son encouraged her to go back to UNO. She drove the one and a half hours each way from the reservation three times a week.

So much had changed by 2007—the use of computers, the buildings, the student center, and the amount of ethnic diversity in the student population. Elsie found the computer skills she needed challenging, but “those young kids were really helpful,” and her advisor found her a tutor:  “If it wasn’t for her, I would have had a hard time” (Clark). That December, gas prices became prohibitive—it cost $70 to fill her tank,

Part Eight To the Reservation

Elsie moved back to Macy in the early ‘80s and got married in 1985, becoming Elsie Clark. She had a son, who was 15 when she got married, and later had a daughter. Her son graduated from high school and then from UNL but is saddled with large student loans. She is encouraging her son to look at a new Obama initiative to make student loans more affordable. Her daughter, Jenette, did well in high school.  She attended a 98% non-Indian school in Dawes District and was accepted to Creighton University. As Elsie describes it, “She kind of went full circle. She went to Creighton, and then she went to Haskell, and then to Little Priest Junior College. I told her she should have started with the community college” (Clark Nov. 2010).  Both her children struggled with alcohol. Elsie’s son,

Part Nine Spirituality and Resiliance

Looking at those families, the strong point in their lives is their spirituality, and their stability as a family, and all their strengths: their commitment, respect, and discipline. They somehow were able to incorporate that into their family life, as they were going along. All their kids are following suit” (Clark Nov. 2010).  Her nephew’s family members are all Latter Day Saints (LDS), and her cousin and her uncle were strong members. Elsie grew up a reformed LDS but watched her uncle take his ten kids to church every Sunday, saw the strength of their family, and thought, “There must be something in that religion” (Clark). Click here to listen to Elsie describe her search before joining the LDS church.

I went through Sweat Lodge, and Native American Church, and Presbyterian Church, and now I’m with LDS church. I was baptized

Part Ten The American Indian Movement and Wounded Knee

7AIM[1]Click here to hear Elsie talk about AIM, Wounded Knee, and their importance to today’s Native activists.

The insidious and devastating effects of alcohol on Indian tribal culture, families, and individual lives have been with us for two centuries. Even the Native American identity reclamation and cultural renewal of the early ‘70s that gave rise to Native activism and AIM is tinged in Elsie’s mind by negativity. Although they had strong voices and believed in what they were doing, and it was a good strategy to draw attention to the Indian’s plight, “behind all of that they had drugs and alcohol” (Clark Nov. 2o10). However, she does appreciate the gains activists made, and the example they have set:

Yeah, we need strong advocates

Part Eleven In The Trenches – Domestic Violence Against Native Women

8TenClans[1]For the last three years, Elsie has coordinated the Ten Clans Domestic Violence Prevention Initiative, located on the reservation in Walt Hill. This program was funded through the tribe with a grant from the Violence Against Women Act’s (VAWA) Safety for Indian Women Title through the US Department of Justice (Majel and Henry). Although she is working now, she was recently laid off for six weeks because of funding trouble: “The tribe, their audits aren’t up to shape, so they are banned from submitting for anything now” (Clark Nov. 2010).

In her work with domestic violence and battered women, Elsie clearly sees how poorly treated the women in her community are. She described the shortage of transitional funding available for women trying to leave their abusers and the lack of training

Part Twelve Elsie's Vision

Click here to listen to Elsie describe an inspiring workshop she attended in Chicago to a residential rehab and training program.

Elsie’s determination and drive is stronger today than ever. “When I was at Macy, I did fifteen years in the trenches. Now I need to empower, to build myself up, and empower myself so I can go to a higher level of advocacy to help these people. To help these people the way I think they should be helped” (Clark Nov. 2010). She is very clear that “the thing that is important for them is survival” (Clark). Elsie has a vision of how life can be made better for Native women on the reservation.

There needs to be a place for these young mothers that are walking the streets with their babies during the daytime in buggies. They are pushing

Part Thirteen Author's Statement

10Language[1]As a white New Zealander, I am very aware of the white lens I look through. A deep love for the Indians of North America has been with me since early childhood. Although I have lived in this country for twenty-three years, I have a foreigner’s less shaded view of the centuries of  assault upon the Indians by the dominant whites; first, to take their land, and then to try to destroy their culture, their language, and their religion, clearing the way by starving, freezing, and drugging them to death. I see clearly the need for their story to be told, to be heard, especially here in Omaha. Will you listen?

Wibthahon!  (Thank you!)