Tag Archives: Native Americans

Giving Shape to Standing Bear’s Enduring Voice

May 7, 2018 by
Photography by Sarah Lemke

In creating the larger-than-life likeness of Chief Standing Bear for the Nebraska state capitol’s Centennial Mall, sculptor Benjamin Victor felt communion with the late Native American icon. Victor was “captivated” by the principled ways of the Ponca leader, whose eloquent advocacy for his people led to a historic federal court ruling at Fort Omaha that declared the nation’s indigenous peoples to be legally “human” for the first time on May 12, 1879.

“He was a true servant-leader,” Victor says of his subject. “The things he wanted were very basic, inalienable human rights everyone should be afforded. He carried himself with dignity even through demeaning treatment. He had a higher moral code of ethics during a time when the laws were not moral. He had the courage to stand up for right through many injustices.”

Based in Idaho, the Boise State University professor and resident artist felt connected to Standing Bear through every stage of his artistic process—from preparatory research into the famous Nebraskan, through molding his clay form, to casting the Ponca leader in bronze.

“His story and spirit definitely were speaking to me,” Victor says. “As an artist, you try to get that voice through your artwork to speak to viewers who see it. I felt humbled to be working on it. In the sculpture itself, I tried to keep the spirit of Standing Bear alive as much as I tried for an accurate portrait. An accurate portrait is important, but to me a spiritual portrait is just as important. I hope it really inspires other people to study his life. If my work does that, then it’s a success.”

The Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs and Donald Miller Campbell Family Foundation commissioned the 11-foot-tall sculpture, unveiled Oct. 15, 2017. Then, over the winter, a pair of Nebraska state senators (including Sen. Burke Harr of Omaha) introduced a bill to replace the state’s two sculptures—of J. Sterling Morton and William Jennings Bryan—in the U.S. Capitol’s National Statuary Hall with those of Willa Cather and Standing Bear. A donor, Donald Miller Campbell, pledged funds for a copy to be made of Victor’s Standing Bear work.

“To have him as a towering icon in the U.S. Capitol would be important. His story should be on the national scale. He should be known in every school,” Victor says.

The artist already has two works in the Hall. One is of Northern Paiute activist Sarah Winnemucca on behalf of the state of Nevada. Anything Native holds profound meaning for Victor, as his late step-grandfather was a member of the Juaneño—a coastal California tribe engulfed by Spanish missions. “It’s always a big deal to me whenever I do a Native American piece that it’s done right and with purpose. I always think of my grandpa when I do them. He liked the images I created of Native Americans with a strong stance and with dignity. That really meant a lot to him. If he’s looking down, he’s really proud of this one.”

Victor’s second sculpture in the U.S. Capitol represents Iowa—Norman Borlaug, the father of modern agriculture’s “Green Revolution.”

Working from photos, Victor “modified” Standing Bear’s pose “to capture a hint of motion,” as if the chief were moving forward slightly. In an attempt to “capture every detail,” he created folds and the look of heaviness in the blanket draped about his subject. Ornamental details included intricate beadwork, a bear claw necklace, and peace medals. Victor symbolized the chief’s dual roles as warrior and ambassador by having him holding an ax-peace pipe.

The bronze is positioned in front of a wall carved with the eloquent words of Standing Bear on trial (as translated by Omaha Native Susette “Bright Eyes” LaFlesche): “That hand is not the color of yours, but if I pierce it, I shall feel pain. If you pierce your hand, you also feel pain. The blood that will flow from mine will be the same color as yours. I am a man. The same God made us both.”

The project selection committee for the state capitol’s Centennial Mall learned about Victor from George Neubert (director of the Flatwater Folk Art Museum in Brownville, Nebraska), who befriended the artist when he did a commission for Peru State College, where his bronze of a hulking football player adorns the Oak Bowl.

Although Victor originally hails from California, he developed deep roots in the Great Plains while attending Northern State University in Aberdeen, South Dakota, where he discovered his love of sculpture.

“When I picked up clay the first time in college, the medium just clicked for me,” he says. “I felt like the concepts I was trying to get across were very readily expressed in sculpture. I really like the physicality of sculpture, how you move the clay with your hands and manipulate it. I like everything about it. I also work in marble—so I do the subtractive process of carving, the additive process of clay work, and the replacement process of bronze.”

He was still in school when he landed his first big commission—for the Aberdeen airport.

“I had a family to support,” he says. “I worked at the YMCA part-time, took odd jobs, and went to school full time. I was on food stamps and rental assistance. We had nothing. To get the commission was really amazing because you can struggle your whole life as an artist and never get a commission like that.”

Soon thereafter came the Winnemucca project. Demand for his work has never ceased.

“I never thought I’d get the opportunity to make it on my own in my dream field and career,” he says. “It’s a true American success story. I still don’t take it for granted. Every day I get to do this, I feel very blessed. And then to do something inspiring like Standing Bear. What a dream commission to commemorate him and everything he stood for.”

Upon graduating, Victor was a Northern State teacher and resident artist before Boise State courted him.

“They gave me a beautiful studio space and gallery. It’s been a great home,” he says, adding that he maintains close ties with his former colleagues in South Dakota. “I’ve got so many friends there that are just like family.”

Back at his Boise studio, his studio life intersects with students, patrons, and his three children. Meanwhile, he continues to always keep his ears open to the spirits of his subjects.


Visit benjaminvictor.com for more information.

This article was printed in the May/June 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine.

Beer and Learning in Omaha

February 15, 2018 by

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PICK OF THE WEEKSaturday, Feb. 17: Moving on from the hearts, candy, flowers, and cupids, let’s flip to something really fun—Haunticon Omaha at the Historical Union Stockyards. Take a  class, listen to some speakers, and decide for yourself what’s real. Don’t forget to get a reading done and try your hand at an escape room designed by Entrap Games. Find out all the secrets here.

Thursday, Feb. 15: If you’ve ever wanted to share a personal story with a crowd of (slightly tipsy) strangers, the Show & Tell StorySLAM at The Sydney is where you need to be tonight. Think The Moth (NPR) but with booze. This round the theme is “firsts.” Whether it’s your first love, first job, or first time getting drunk, write it down and share it with strangers and friends alike. To learn more, click here.

Friday, Feb. 15 to Sunday, Feb. 25: Had your fill of wine, champagne, and flirty red cocktails? Get back to basics during Omaha Beer Week. (OK, so technically a little more than a week, but who’s complaining?) A homebrew competition kicked things off on Monday, and tonight you have two potential stops—Infusion Brewing Co. and Liquid Sunshine Taproom. But things don’t really start hopping until tomorrow (Friday), with over 20 local businesses rolling out the barrels. Find the right fit for your palate here.

Friday, Feb. 16: It’s a weekend packed with unique, informative opportunities. Friday gets it going in a big way with “Calming Your Mind to Follow Your Heart” a special lecture from Golden Globe-nominated Native American actor Adam Beach (though he may be best recognized as Slipknot from Suicide Squad). This lecture is part of the third annual John Trudell Distinguished Lecture in Native American Studies, honoring Trudell, who was an actor, poet, and activist. Beach will speak on his own life experiences, including his activism and hope for the future of Indigenous people. The learning starts at 7:30, doors open at 7 p.m. While this special event is free, be sure to reserve seating here, as it will no doubt fill up quickly.

Saturday, Feb. 17: Geek out this Saturday at the Nebraska Robotics Expo at the Strategic Air Command & Aerospace Museum. Opening ceremonies start at 8:30 a.m. and this dynamic display of ingenuity lasts until 3:30 p.m. Watch local students compete and show off their robotics knowledge and creativity. There will be a CEENBoT Showcase, a Creative Visual Arts Expo, and a First LEGO League, which includes a Hydro Dynamics Challenge and experimentation with LEGO Mindstorms technology. Find out more about the event here.

Sunday, Feb. 18: Continue getting your education on this weekend at The Civil Rights Movement in Omaha workshop at the Great Plains Black History Museum. This free 90-minute workshop will cover the civil rights movement in Omaha and the city’s own struggle toward progress. This is a good opportunity for the family (middle school age and up) to learn together. Be sure to head to the new location at 2221 N. 24th St. in the Jewell Building. To find out more, click here.

Into the Wild

March 4, 2017 by
Photography by Council Bluffs Public Library (provided)

William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody officially started Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show in May 1883 in Omaha. It was a natural place to start what would become an entertainment business generating hundreds of thousands of dollars. Cody spent much time in Nebraska, eventually purchasing a 4,000-acre ranch near North Platte in 1886. The ranch, named Scouts Rest, included an 18-room mansion and a large barn for winter storage of the show’s livestock.

Cody initiated a genre of wildly popular outdoor entertainment that endured for decades and introduced the fabled wild west culture to scores of Americans and Europeans.

Cody and his first-season partner, sharpshooter Dr. William Frank “Doc” Carver—who later introduced horse diving shows—pioneered the genre, but by the early 1900s, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show had more than a dozen competitors.   

“Buffalo Bill performed in the Midwest, of course, but he had lots of performances along the East coast and in Europe—places where western culture was seen as exotic and otherworldly,” says Carrie Wieners Meyer, director of Curatorial and Education Services at The Durham Museum.

In 2016, The Durham hosted its “From Nebraska to the World: Buffalo Bill’s Wild West” exhibit, which chronicled the show’s “highly dramatic, highly romanticized glimpse into the fading frontier of the American Old West” and its “depiction of cowboys, Indians, sharpshooters, and rough riders.”

“The idea of wild west culture is really based on mythic representations that Wild West shows exhibited through displays of sham battles, rodeos, and other arena tricks,” says Elaine Marie Nelson, assistant professor of history at the University of Nebraska-Omaha and incoming executive director for the Western History Association. “While Buffalo Bill claimed his show was educational, it was not. It was today’s equivalent of a wild west circus performance.”

“[Cody’s] Wild West show in effect created the modern image of the ‘cowboy’ that exists today—guys in white hats who can handle a horse and gun, and always save the day,” says Wieners Meyer. “Unfortunately, the cowboy had to have a villain against whom he won and that part was portrayed by Native Americans … this is one of its more unfortunate legacies.”

Nelson says the shows provided a distorted view of cowboy culture. While Americans who knew real cowboys viewed them as distrustful, immoral, and violent, Cody’s performers flipped such stereotypes.

“The creative imaginations of Cody and his audiences saw cowboys as romantic heroes who ushered civilization into the supposed wild frontier lands. They quickly became essential to Cody’s dramatization of the frontier and pioneer history,” she says. “Men, women, boys, and girls cheered as characters like Buck Taylor, Billy Bullock, and Bronco Bill Irving performed acts of bravery by riding at full speed across the arena stage. These cowboys stole people’s hearts. Buck Taylor set a standard for later cowboys who joined the show. Real working cowboys, plucked off ranches like those in western Nebraska, turned into performing showmen.”

“The Wild West shows were sensationalized,” says Wieners Meyer. “These were not the activities of everyday life in the West. Still, the shows served to educate [audiences] about the animals of the plains, they could see some aspects of Native American culture, and they could appreciate the talent and skill of the performers.”

Nelson says horses were incredibly significant to the lives of everyone in the American West, from the Spanish who introduced them, to Native American tribes who immediately saw horses’ utilitarian value and greatly revered the animals, to the farmers, ranchers, and even urban population who used horses for labor, travel, and entertainment.

She adds that horses were a major player in Wild West shows, and were used by all characters regardless of their “hero” or “villain” status. 

“The cavalry used horses to attack Native Americans on horses, and vice versa. Settlers in wagons used horses to travel to their new destinations. Mexican vaqueros and cowboys used horses to show skills that the arena audiences had never before witnessed,” says Nelson. “One rarely ever saw Cody in the arena unless he was atop a horse. Horses elevated the show and made each performance more realistic. In retrospect, one could argue that horses were the actual ‘heroes’ of Cody’s Wild West.”

Nebraska was granted statehood on March 1, 1867. In March 2017, Omaha Magazine published a collection of horse-related articles that appear in the Longines FEI World Cup Jumping and FEI World Cup Dressage Finals held in Omaha. This was the second of those articles. The other articles in this series are:

The Omaha Tribe and Horses

Horses Pave the Way in Nebraska Territory

Horses Run Early Statehood

Horses in Nebraska Today

Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show Parade in Council Bluffs on July 27, 1900.

A Linguistic Sea Change Across Indian Country

August 30, 2016 by
Photography by Doug Meigs

Although I am a member of the Oglala Sioux tribe, born and raised on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, my first language from my earliest years has been English. My father was a white man from Onawa, Iowa, and my mother was Lakota. Although to my knowledge my father spoke no Lakota, my mother was fluent in the language.

My father died when I was not yet two years old, and I was raised by my mother. Mom never pushed me to learn the language and never tried to teach me; however, much of the dialogue in our household after my father’s death was in Lakota, for most of her friends were Lakota and very traditionalist. So over time I acquired a pretty good vocabulary, but never learned the nuances to make much sense speaking the language. In fact, when I would try to speak Lakota, my full-blood friends would laugh at me. I didn’t know for the longest time why they laughed, and they didn’t offer to tell me—they were having too much fun. I had learned all that I knew of the language from my mother; when I would ask how to say something in Lakota, she would tell me. What I didn’t know, and what she didn’t tell me, was that there is a male way of speaking Lakota and a female way, and I was speaking like a girl.

ChuckTrimble2I attended Holy Rosary Mission on the Pine Ridge Reservation, an Indian boarding school run by Jesuit priests and Franciscan nuns. As with all Indian boarding schools at the time, rules were strict and discipline was often harsh. But I do not recall that there was any prohibition, written or otherwise, on speaking the Lakota language. And if there was, signals were certainly confusing, for there were prayers and songs in Lakota. Student dancers performed in full regalia before each basketball game, and there were cheers in Lakota during the games. But that was in the 1940s and 1950s, when most of the students were fluent in English.

However, it is well documented that in all Indian boarding schools during the first three decades of the 20th century, tribal languages were forbidden, and punishment was severe for speaking them. The overriding principle of Indian education was articulated in 1879 by Richard Henry Pratt, founder and head of the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania: “Kill the Indian and Save the Man.”

The story of the state of Native tribal languages today has got to include the struggle of Indian people to save and preserve their cultures, including their languages, over a period of nearly three quarters of a century in which national policy demanded destruction of those cultures. 

At the turn of the 20th century, after the tribes were conquered and confined to ever-shrinking reservations—many of which were in alien lands far from the tribes’ primeval homelands—national Indian policy was one which is known today as Manifest Destiny. Although it was never articulated as national policy, Manifest Destiny philosophy held that conquest and development of the New World was preordained and that the aboriginal inhabitants would succumb and fade into non-existence in the public view and conscience.

Under this philosophy, the tribes would suffer physical attrition as a result of alien disease to which they had no immunity, warfare provoked by transgression onto their lands, and assimilation into the larger dominant society.

That philosophical strategy also provided for cultural attrition in the destruction of tribal structures and lifeways, and the Indians would be forced into the dominant society as second-class citizens, pressed in desperation to forfeit their lands. To facilitate the process of cultural attrition, native religions and ceremonials were prohibited, and tribal languages were forbidden in Indian schools. By the close of the 19th century it appeared that truly the end of the “Indian race” was at hand. The popular perception of the dying race found a perfect metaphor in James Earle Fraser’s 1915 sculpture End of the Trail, depicting an exhausted, dying warrior astride an equally pathetic mount.

But other forces were at work that would help save the tribal languages, although these were not intended to counter Manifest Destiny. Catholic priests and Protestant ministers had begun in the early 20th century to learn the languages and publish prayer books and hymnals for use in their proselytizing—conversion to Christianity, after all, was an important part of forced assimilation being imposed on Indians. Both the Presbyterian and Catholic churches produced excellent dictionaries which would prove to be invaluable in preserving and restoring tribal languages.

The Smithsonian also sent out ethnologists and anthropologists to collect Indian artifacts and record tribal languages and songs. Among those assigned to this multi-year undertaking was Frances Theresa Densmore, a young professional anthropologist who would become the Smithsonian’s first ethnomusicologist in 1907. Over the next 50 years she would collect thousands of recordings, many which are held in the Library of Congress’ American Folklife Center. Many of the original wax cylinder recordings have been reproduced using state-of-the-art media and many have been returned by the AFC to the tribes of their origin.

Today we are witnessing a resurgence of Indian tribes reclaiming and exercising their sovereignty and developing their resources accordingly. And restoration of the tribal languages is spearheading this renaissance. Indian schools and tribal colleges now are offering tribal language courses. My alma mater, Holy Rosary Mission—now known as Red Cloud Indian School—requires a Lakota language course in all twelve grades.

Tribal members are using new technological innovations in the restoration of their languages: Recently a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians received a patent for his new method for decoding the inherent patterns in the Cherokee language, making it simple and easy to learn. 

ChuckTrimbleAbout the writer:

Up to his retirement in 2001, Charles E. Trimble was president of Charles Trimble Co., a national consulting firm specializing in economic development on Indian reservations. He is president of Red Willow Institute, a non-profit corporation he founded to provide technical and management assistance to Native American non-profit organizations.

Born and raised on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, Trimble is an enrolled member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe.  He received his elementary and high school education at the Holy Rosary Mission Indian School in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, and received a B.F.A. degree from the University of South Dakota (1957). Following service in the U.S. Army, he did further studies in journalism at the University of Colorado.

In 1969 he was principal founder of the American Indian Press Association, and served as the organization’s executive director until 1972, when he was elected Executive Director of the National Congress of American Indians.

In 1975 he represented U.S. Indian tribes at the charter meeting of the World Council of Indigenous Peoples in Copenhagen, Denmark.  In 1983, he was a U.S. delegate at the U. N. Sub-commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities in Geneva, Switzerland. In 1985 he was a U.S. delegate to the Human Rights Experts meeting of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (Helsinki Accord) in Ottawa, Canada.

Trimble served from 1991-1997 on the Board of Trustees of the Nebraska State Historical Society, the last three of those years as President. In 1996, he was appointed by the U.S. Senate Majority Leader to the American Folklife Center Board of Trustees in the Library of Congress.

In 1998, Trimble received the Pioneer Award from the Nebraskaland Foundation at its Statehood Day Dinner in the Nebraska Capitol Rotunda. In December 2000 he received an honorary Doctor of Cultural Sciences degree from Creighton University, and in May 2002 he received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from Wayne State College. In 2008 Trimble received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from the University of South Dakota, and an honorary degree from Oglala Lakota College.

Trimble lives in Omaha, Nebraska, with his wife, Anne. 

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