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).
Please click Learn More to read “History of the Omaha,” including: mighty Chief Blackbird; Mormon Squatters; Land Loss; the friendly Omaha as “sociological guinea pigs”; and the devastation wrought by whiskey.
The previous Gateway photograph and accompanying article (see “Pow Wow” in Works Cited for reference), and several subsequent articles that followed, reveal a strong and determined woman, president of the student chapter of American Indians United (AIU) for two years, and an advocate for Native American recognition and rights upon camps. This woman is Elsie Harlan. In the article accompanying the photo, which discusses the upcoming Indian Heritage Days, Harlan is quoted as saying, “This city, Omaha, is named after a tribe, but there’s really no recognition of Indians on campus during the regular school year,” and further, “Harlan wishes UNO would place more emphasis on Indian studies. Hence a panel discussion on the ‘American Indian in Higher Education’ has been scheduled for Friday” (Gateway April 1975, 1). In a 1976 article announcing the third annual Indian Days celebration, Elsie calls for more Indian counselors at UNO and “the need for an ‘Indian affairs’ editor for the Gateway” (April 1976, 5). A position, as a journalism major, she would have liked to have filled herself. In 1977, she wrote an impassioned, eloquent letter to the editor, entitled “Minorities Not Asked for Solutions,” referencing the possible dissolution of the United Minority Students’ board, composed of AIU; the Chicano group, La Casa; and the Black Liberators for Action Committee (BLAC) (Gateway August 1977, 2).
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. Please click Learn More to read “Omaha Indians at UNO” to learn about UNO’s “Indian” mascot, “Ouampi,” removed