Profile By: Robyn Tait


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 so bad” . . . but then you keep going, you keep chugging. But, that’s the way I live. Remember when I said when we used to get off that school bus . . . we had that long walk from the stop sign . . .can you imagine how that is in the winter and the mud? And, when I would get to the second hill, where you could see the house, and you can see the chimney, and I’d either get really mad if I didn’t see smoke coming out of the chimney and stomp my feet, or I’d cry . . .  My mom would usually have a hot meal or a hot snack or something for us when we came walking in, then we’d have to go out and do our chores. But, if that didn’t happen, that meant that we had to immediately go outside and do the fire and all that, and look for something to eat when we got done. (Clark Nov. 2010)

Winnebago High School  

When I was in high school, one thing about my family [was that] my Dad always worked and my mother was a stay-at-home mom. They had their bouts with alcohol, my mum and dad, but my dad, you know, always worked, and my mom became a closet drinker.  We had three square meals day, hot meals, and she made the best bread. But my parents couldn’t help me. I think my Dad went to the 8th but when I was in high school I stayed in school . . . I don’t know how I did that, but I guess because my mom and dad said, “You go to school.”

I wasn’t doing all that great. I will always remember this superintendant—I think I was a junior or senior—and he asked me, “What do you want to do, where do you want to go to school?” I    said I wanted to go to UNL, and he said I didn’t have “it” to go to school there. I probably graduated the lowest of my class, but I did what I had to do, and I graduated. My parents are really proud of me. (Clark)

Elsie’s three older sisters had left the reservation for the “enticing big city lights” of Omaha when they were 16 or 17 (Clark). She was very aware that they found it hard to get anywhere without an education or any kind of training. Elsie was determined to forge a different path.


Up Next

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, working