Profiles By: Robyn Tait
Tait’s exploration of the lives of University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO) students belonging to the Omaha Indian tribe provides insights into the white-dominated institution of the 1970s, characterized by marginalizing and bigoted attitudes towards Omaha Indians. Tait unveils some of the history of Native/non-Native relations scarred by exploitation, power-struggles, and white dominance. Using the concept of white privilege, Tait demonstrates how stereotyped representations have shaped most non-Indians’ understanding of Indians in very problematic ways. She also traces the history of the “Red Power” Movement that inspired Native Americans to reclaim their heritage, which had often been compromised in order to assimilate into mainstream American society. The changes that have informed Native-white relations over the four century period of colonization are also reflected in the University’s evolving regard for American Indian students, including abolishing the use of the Oumpi Indian as UNO’s team name and mascot.
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
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
Native and non-Native writers are beginning to retell American history from the perspective of the oppressed peoples (usually minority ethnic groups), rather than the victors (usually whites). In these versions, Americans are reminded that “as this nation was born and expanded, the result was the decimation and genocide of a people [the Indians] and their way of life” (Zendejas vii). When Columbus arrived in the New World and mistakenly named the inhabitants “Indians,” he and his crew began the long process of “slaughtering” the Natives in the name of colonization (Kendall 64). Rather than the brave hero Columbus is presented as in American schools and on Columbus Day, Native Americans see him as “a savage despoiler who brought slavery, disease, and genocide” (Worsnop 1).
The genocide was literal. Howard Zinn confirms in A People’s History of the United States, a re-telling
Assimilation, the process whereby Native cultures would be swallowed up, dissolved, and absorbed into dominant white culture, was “encouraged” through education and the law. Educating the children into white man’s ways was seen as an expedient method to destroy their Native language, culture, religion, family structure, and in so doing, “civilize” them. This philosophy was particularly prevalent in the missionary and state-run boarding schools, which Matthew Fletcher, in his book American Indian Education, calls “some of the most horrific examples of the attempt to assimilate Indian people into the melting pot of American society” (3). For example, Sidney Keith, a Lakota speaking of his own boarding school experiences, said the teachers “wouldn’t let you speak your own language—they would soap your mouth” (qtd. in Matthiessen xxxiii). A UNO professor, speaking anonymously of her grandfather’s experiences, told me he had attended
As part of this new “Indian” direction, the UNO football team changed their name from the “Cardinals” to the “Indians,” the men’s pep team became the “Warriors,” the women’s became the “Feathers,” the yearbook changed from the Omahan to the Tomahawk, and the official team mascot became “Ouampi” (pronounced “Whompie”) ,complete with a tomahawk-wielding “Ouampi dance” (Gateway 1957 2). At this time, an Indian-themed spring Ma-ie festival was also instigated, named after “the Indian word for May” (Gateway 1951), complete with a crowned Indian Princess (usually from a sorority), a parade, and a dance. In 1947, a Gateway article predicted, “[A]n estimated twelve floats will lead the procession of tepees on wheels in full war paint and ceremony regalia” (1). Happily, the last Ma-ie Princess was crowned in 1950, but the “Indians” and “Ouampi” lasted another twenty-one years.
What brought about this massive change in student and faculty feelings toward the Indians and in the Indians’ desire to protect and promote their own culture? Why did UNO get rid of their Indian team name and mascot in 1971? During the Civil Rights Era of the 1960s, the United States saw a surge in activism by and for minority groups, “which encouraged ethnic identification, pride, and activism” (Nagel 12). At the same time the Vietnam War was protested, there were protests that called for more rights for Blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans. Coincidentally, the middle of last century saw, for the first time in 600 years, an increase in the Native American population. During this time several other factors interwove and fed off each other to create a climate of Native cultural resurgence: new, less destructive government policies including
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