Omaha Indians at UNO

Profiles By: Robyn Tait

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Red Power and Cultural Resurgence

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 increased funding; the generational “grandfather effect”; a new supra-tribal sense of “Indianness”; and a Native American Renaissance in literature, led by the Indian writer N. Scott Momaday who won the Pulitzer prize in 1969 for his novel, House Made of Dawn (Robins interview).

Prior to 1960, it looked as if historic government policies for either assimilation or extinction of the Indians were working. In 1900, Native Americans numbered less than 250,000, but by 1990, their population had increased to nearly 2 million (Nagel 83). Joane Nagel links the surprising increase in the Native American population since the 1960s, after many centuries of decline, to “a renaissance in American Indian culture” (5).  With the upswing in population, from both an increased birth rate and increasing numbers self-identifying themselves as Indian, and the Civil Rights Era climate of activism came an “ethnic renewal” which Nagel describes as:

[A] steady and growing effort on the part of many, perhaps most, Native American communities to preserve, protect, recover and revitalize cultural traditions, religious and ceremonial practices, sacred or traditional roles, kinship structures, languages, and the normative bases of community cohesion. (6)

Indian tribes were reasserting their cultural and tribal identity. Instead of disappearing, they began to reclaim and rediscover their ethnic heritage.

This ethnic resurgence and increase in self-identification was fueled in part by increased government funding under Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Carter in the 1960s and 1970s. This funding increased educational, health, and social services, in which “the number of programs, benefits, and opportunities for Native Americans expanded” (Nagel 124). Nagel adds that this “demographic and cultural renaissance has been accompanied by a parallel proliferation of Indian organizations and political activism” (6), creating perfect conditions for the germination of the “Red Power movement of the 1970s, a period marked by the highest rates of Indian protest activism in the twentieth century” (12-13). Some of this increased funding filtered down to assist new organizations, one being the American Indian Movement (AIM).

Two authors have identified additional factors contributing to this ethnic revival.  Kathleen Fitzgerald, in her book on Native American identity reclamation, observes, “Currently there is resurgence among racial minorities who had previously ‘walked away from’ their cultural heritage in order to accommodate mainstream desires for Anglo conformity” (4). She talks about the “grandfather effect,” where grandchildren rediscover and embrace a cultural heritage that their grandparents had “consciously distanced themselves from” in order to succeed in mainstream society (11). This can be seen in Italian and Irish communities in the U.S. and may apply to Native Americans.  Assimilated grandparents in the 1930s, who very likely had been educated through the boarding schools, would be the right age to have activist grandchildren in the 1970s.

Stephen Cornell, in Return of the Native: American Indian Political Resurgence, identifies the importance of the evolution of a unifying sense of Indianness, of belonging to all tribes.  As he explains, “[I]t seems  evident that for most Indians, supratribalism represents not a replacement but an enlargement of their identity system, a circle beyond the tribe in which, also, they think, move and act” (144). This sense of connectedness enabled Indians from multiple tribes to unite to form the “Red Power” movement, standing together for the first time against centuries of white dominance and oppression. The occupation of Alcatraz Island in 1969, the march on the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, and the 1973 siege at Wounded Knee are all examples of Indians from many tribes standing up together. Their militancy alienated some, but this climate of political activism and hope permeated the Native American community, as it did the African American and the peace activists.  Around this time, an Indian student organization created to protect, support, and enhance Native American rights and cultural activities at UNO, the American Indians United (AIU), began.

 

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Conclusion

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