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.

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