Three beautiful Native women, two Omaha and one Cherokee, gaze serenely out of UNO’s Gateway’s front page photo (April 1975, 1). 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. The Omaha’s Sacred Pole, their “Venerable Man,” was returned in 1989 from the Harvard Peabody Museum, exactly 100 years after it was taken to “dwell in a great brick house instead of a ragged tent” (Joseph La Flesche qtd. in Riddington and Hastings xix).
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 (Interview).
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