Archive for the ‘Omaha World-Herald’ Category

415. Ten millennia of Native history (appeared in Omaha World-Herald 5-9-2021)

On May 2nd, OWH Community Columnist Lance Morgan, a member the Winnebago Tribe, wrote about the prevailing racism that prevented the burial of his great uncle, John Price, an Army sergeant who had won high honors in WWII and died heroically in Korea, in a white cemetery.  Sgt. Price’s burial service was actually halted and his body removed from his grave once whites realized he was Native American.

That Mr. Morgan’s uncle fought heroically in two wars is no surprise – Native Americans have a long and proud tradition as warriors, a tradition dating back into the mists of antiquity and still alive today.

I was recently reminded of how long Native Americans lived in southern Boone and northern Nance counties when I was given a tour of the area by long-time amateur archaeologist Ron Cruise.  Ron, now approaching 80, has been fascinated with the people who lived here before us since finding an arrowhead as a child.  Ron’s tour illustrated how at one time or another over many millennia people lived just about everywhere along the numerous small creeks in this area.  And there’s no reason to assume that the principles exemplified by Sgt. Price don’t extend back to the most ancient of these Nebraskans.

Mr. Morgan also mentions perhaps the most famous Native Nebraskan, Ponca Chief Standing Bear, who after being forced with his people to leave their ancestral home near the mouth of the Niobrara River and walk to Oklahoma, returned with the body of his son to bury him among his ancestors.

Apprehended near Omaha, Standing Bear’s small party would have been returned to Oklahoma had it not been for a landmark legal decision which finally recognized that the original inhabitants of this land were human beings in the eyes of the law.

The power of Standing Bear’s connection to this land was brought home to me a few summers back when my family and I visited the Northern Ponca’s Educational Trail near Niobrara. A young Ponca man gave us an extensive tour.  As we stood under a stature of Standing Bear, looking out at the lush Niobrara Valley, he explained that so many of his ancestors lie buried in that soil that the land itself is Ponca.

In the traditional view of many tribes everything was a part of their extended family.  By including all of Nature in their family, they were literally brothers and sisters to the land and sky.

Lakota visionary Black Elk termed this great pan-human family the “hoop of the nation”.  Black Elk was a deeply spiritual man, and his visions were immortalized by Nebraska poet laureate John G. Neihardt in the book Black Elk Speaks.  Black Elk’s vision transcends the boundaries of culture, speaking to all mankind, and Black Elk, who later converted to Catholicism, is currently being considered for sainthood.  But Black Elk’s visions were just a few of many – most tribes encouraged both men and women to undertake vision quests, and Native culture was richly infused with spirituality as a result.

Though much Native American culture is now forever lost, a few writers with tribal connections recorded as much as they could.  Among these authors was George Bird Grinnell who recorded stories of Nebraska’s Pawnee tribe in his book Pawnee Hero Stories and Folk-Tales.  Among these is the story of Pa-hu-ka’-tawa, who was believed to have been transformed after death into a powerful spirit who stayed with his people to heal, guide and protect them.

A beautiful insight into Nebraska’s Native spirituality is captured in Pa-hu-ka’-tawa’s ghost’s description of what he had become:

‘I am living but I am a spirit.  I am in everything; the grass, the water, the trees.  I am a part of all these things. I am the wind and I go over the whole world.  I know everything, and about everything, even about the ocean, which is so far off, and where the water is salt.’

Unless one has explored the terraces surrounding Nebraska’s many small streams, as my friend Ron has spent a lifetime doing, it’s easy to overlook that they provided homes to people for at least 10,000 years.  Ten millennia of bones rest somewhere beneath our feet.  And the fact that not that long ago a Native American military hero was not allowed to rest in this same earth is a damning reminder of what happens when we forget that we are brothers and sisters with everyone and everything that shares this earth with us.

191. Humanities Key to Rural Development

Nebraska’s rural communities were never more vital than in their early years when they were culturally much more diverse.  Though many factors contributed to this vitality, much of it stemmed from the interactions of immigrants from different backgrounds.  Germans, Irish, Czechs, Scandinavians, rich and poor, men and women.  All came to build a new life based on their personal definitions of success.

Even as late as the mid-1970s, when I first began working in a local retail store, there were people who still spoke broken English.  I imagine they had been born, raised and were living on the farms their ancestors had homesteaded.  At home they probably still spoke Norwegian.  And my wife, the great granddaughter of German immigrants, went to Kirche every Sunday instead of Church.

One can only imagine how Babel-like the language of the frontier must have been.  It’s amazing that neighbor could talk to neighbor.  And while self-reliance was the hallmark of the pioneer, at a time when the nearest store – or nearest doctor – was often several days away, people depended on neighbors far more than they do today.

Somehow it all worked.  Somehow the things the pioneers had in common outweighed their differences, enabling them to develop this land.  Yet the differences were very real; my family still has a little bag filled with coins from many countries, coins my great-great grandfather collected in his dealings with European immigrants.

It seems counterintuitive that people so diverse could create thriving rural communities.  One is forced to wonder if, as is the case with cities today, this diversity actually contributed to stronger, more vital communities.  Could the range of perspectives and experiences people from many different cultures possessed have contributed to overcoming the obstacles pioneers faced?  How could it not have?

The richer a culture, the stronger it is.  Cultural breadth and diversity, by exposing people to new ideas, stimulate creativity.  And creativity is humankind’s most valuable resource when dealing with growth and change.

For a long time many rural communities have struggled with growth and change.  Too-often this has led to no growth or change at all.  And though change can be frightening, life is change.  Communities that don’t change, whether located on the Plains or in the “Rust Belt,” die.

Since cultural richness and diversity equip people to better manage change, rural renewal is, at its heart, a matter of cultural revitalization.  Traditional agriculture, the “culture of the soil,” wove the many diverse aspect of life together.  Work, family, community were closely interrelated.  People moved smoothly from the field to the church to community activities.  No one facet of life dominated to the exclusion of all others; families, farms and rural communities all benefited from the talents and dedication of the men and women of the Plains.

But agriculture has changed.  The social and consumer diversity arising from four farm families per square mile has been lost.  More and more land is in the hands of fewer and fewer (often older) farmers, and no matter how well-intentioned, those who remain cannot sustain either the degree of commerce or the strong community organizations that the older system could.

There’s no turning back the clock, though.  What’s needed is a new approach to rural culture, one that again balances the diverse elements of life while embracing modern advances.

The World-Herald recently published excerpts from a speech by the chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Jim Leach.  Mr. Leach explained that the humanities are the mirror of culture, and as such reflect the richness and diversity of human experience.  As Leach observed in a part of his speech that wasn’t included in the World-Herald, the humanities are “central to advancing human understanding and creativity” leading to “the democratization of ideas, providing broad and equal access to advances in knowledge and to the nation’s rich cultural heritage.”

Today we face the same challenge our ancestors did in the nineteenth century – to build a vital and sustainable rural culture.  To thrive, this new culture must be as multi-faceted as it was in the late 1800s.  Some communities, of course, still benefit from the contributions of immigrants, but many rural communities lack a diverse cultural milieu to help fuel their growth.  This is where the humanities can play a vital role.

It will take nothing less than a second wave of pioneering innovation to renew rural areas.  And because at its heart this is a cultural transformation, the “democratization of ideas” provided by the humanities is vital to “repioneering” the rural landscape.