Tag Archives: Omaha Tribe

The Omaha Tribe and Horses

March 3, 2017 by
Photography by Nebraska State Historical Society (provided)

The city of Omaha is named after the Umonhon people. The state of Nebraska is also an Umonhon word, NiBlaSka, or “Land of the Flat Waters.”

Neither this city nor this state would be named as it is without horses. The Umonhon people originally lived in Ohio, migrating to Nebraska in the 1750s after horses were introduced to the tribe from trade networks. The Umonhon controlled extensive trade networks through their oversight of the Missouri River, or NiShude. The network extended as far north as Lake Winnipeg in Canada and as far south as St. Louis. The shonge or “horse” was acquired at this time from trade relationships, and by 1775, the main Umonhon village was located at TonwonTonga or “Big Village,” near current day Dakota County, Nebraska.

The Umonhon, or Omaha, are part of the Dhegiha linguistic group. Dhegiha means “people of this land.” Umonhon translates to “people who went upstream,” relating to the separation of the Umonhon and the other cognate tribes at the headwaters of the Mississippi River hundreds of years ago. Umonhon women were agriculturalists, breeding strains of maize, beans, squash, quinoa, and melons. They also gathered other foods and medicines that grew naturally in their environment and were herbalists. Men hunted large game, such as elk and buffalo. Buffalo was especially important as it was a staple food source and provided primary provisions for blankets, robes, moccasins, fuel, shelter, and utensils. The Umonhon had a complex kinship system based on the clanship, known as the Hu’thuga.

The Umonhon had a historical impact on the state of Nebraska that is evident in present day. The Umonhon were the first equestrian culture of the northern plains as the evolving economy of the horse and fur trade was occurring. The adoption of the horse into Umonhon society forever changed Umonhon culture.

Umonhon quickly developed a strong relationship with horses. Horses were highly prized and used as a form of currency. Men, women, and children could possess horses equally. Horses were seen as the highest form of a gift one could offer.  Some marriage ceremonies consisted of women being led around the village on horseback followed by her husband’s gifts to her family.

Umonhon people loved their horses. Men frequently painted their horses for spiritual reasons or to illustrate rank. Horses would also be decorated with ribbons, and their tails would be painted or braided. Women embroidered the cruppers of their horses for decoration and spiritual significance.

Horses were used to assist with labor, often in the form of a travois, a historical A frame structure that was used to drag loads over land. Prior to the introduction of the horse, travois were pulled by dogs. The horse travois were often used by women in times of long distance travel. Parflesche, or rawhide bags are utilized to store materials, were used as saddlebags on horses.

Horse culture became an integral part of Umonhon life. They changed the trade economy and horses and Umonhon people maintained a strong spiritual and social connection that continues to exist today. In January 2015, the Omaha Tribe hosted “Spiritual Ride: Prayers for Generations to Come.” This ceremony consisted of a 21-mile horse ride in freezing conditions. The purpose was to pray and bring attention to the state of Nebraska suing the Omaha Tribe over reservation boundaries. In the end, the Supreme Court sided unanimously with the Omaha Tribe in preservation of their boundary.

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 first of those articles.The other articles in this series are:

Into the Wild

Horses Pave the Way in Nebraska Territory

Horses Run Early Statehood

Horses in Nebraska Today

Umonhon Chief Prairie Chicken on Horseback, circa 1898.

Marisa Miakonda Cummings

August 26, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

I would like to begin by introducing myself. My English name is Marisa Cummings. My Omaha or Umoⁿhoⁿ name is Miakonda or Moon Power. I was given my Buffalo Tail Clan name by my great-grandmother, Edith Walker Springer. My father is the late Michael Cummings, or Stampeding Buffalo. My father’s mother is Eunice Walker Mohn, or Buffalo Tail Clan Woman. My grandmother’s parents are the late Charles Amos Walker, or White Chest, and the late Ida Springer Walker, or New Moon. I am an Omaha woman. I am a Buffalo Tail Clan woman of the Sky people. I am the oldest child of eight children. I am the mother of four children.

As I wrote the paragraph to introduce myself, I was mentally translating from Umoⁿhoⁿ to English. The Umoⁿhoⁿ language is a beautiful conduit of culture. Self introductions are very important in our community. One must know who they are to know where they are going in this life. Language allows us to express ourselves to one another as human beings, to talk to the Creator, and express ourselves through song and ceremony. As language is a conduit for expressing thoughts and feelings, and relaying cultural knowledge, it is essential that our Umoⁿhoⁿ language is revered and preserved for our future generations. We must preserve our language to talk to our Creator through our ceremonies as we were instructed to do in our language.

Marisa3My grandmother grew up hearing Umoⁿhoⁿ spoken as the primary language at home; it was her first language. She has told me about her parents waking well before sunrise and praying in Umoⁿhoⁿ in the kitchen. Her father, Charles Walker or Mongaska, was taken to Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Carlisle was a military-style school founded in 1879 by Capt. Richard Pratt under the authority of the U.S. government with the founding principle that Native Americans were a vanishing race and their only hope for survival was assimilation to white mainstream culture. The first thing done was to cut off the children’s sacred hair. The second step was to make them stop speaking their traditional language and converse in English. My great-grandfather came back to the reservation after his stay at Carlisle and remained fluent in both Umoⁿhoⁿ and English. He served on our tribal council for over 25 years. My grandmother’s mother, Ida or Metexi, was sent to Genoa Indian Industrial School in Genoa, Nebraska. She also returned to the reservation and spoke fluent Umoⁿhoⁿ. Both of my great-grandparents survived assimilation and Indian boarding schools and retained their Umoⁿhoⁿ language in daily practice in and outside of their home.

Tragedy struck when my grandmother was 10 years old. Her mother passed away and left eight orphaned children. Her father decided to send her, at age 14, to Haskell Indian School in Lawrence, Kansas. There was no more playing in the timber, no more collecting wild plums and gooseberries. She was alone. She said that she often wondered what she did wrong. Was her father angry with her? Why would he send her away? My grandmother graduated from Haskell and moved to Sioux City, Iowa, with the courage to start a life for herself.

My father was born in 1955. He was considered a “half-breed,” as his father was a white man. However, his grandfather, Charlie Walker, took pity on him and gave him the Umoⁿhoⁿ Buffalo Tail Clan name Te-Nuga-Na-Tide. My father was an incredible man. He received his master’s degree from Iowa State University and went to work for the corporate world. He always instilled in me the power of education and the importance of coming back to help the people with the education I received. I was raised to be of service and make a difference. My father also raised me like a first-born son. He made me tough, taught me to always speak up and use my voice, to be courageous and strategic. He told me that women have a strong place in leadership and that Native women will be at the front of the movement to bring back language and culture. He was very proud when I graduated with a degree from the University of Iowa.

Marisa1As a young woman, I was always interested in our language. I would ask my grandma and great-grandma to tell me stories. I would sit at their feet or at the kitchen table in my grandma’s trailer while I asked one question after another. I think she got tired of me at times. I still am always asking questions of my grandmother. How do I say this? Do you remember this? She is the matriarch of our family. I am blessed that my children can be close to her and experience her unconditional love and knowledge.

In 1978, the Indian Religious Freedoms Act was passed. Our ceremonies, songs, and dances were no longer illegal. We could legally pray in the manner the Creator intended for us to pray. Yet, so many of the songs, ceremonies, and teachings were no longer practiced. In my life journey, I have rediscovered my love of ceremony. I enjoy collecting and preparing medicine. I love that I have the ability to be a lifelong learner of culture and ceremony, but in order to make that true connection, I must relearn a language that is rooted in my DNA. I believe that we can relearn our sense of true self and heal both individually and collectively.

My children have been born in a generation where our ceremonies are being revived and practiced. My children have been exposed to ceremonies, songs, dance, and love of our way of life. As I embrace our ceremonies and language, I know that I am also healing those who went before me. As I heal, I give reverence to ancestors whose hearts broke when they saw English replace Umoⁿhoⁿ in their homes, those who watched alcohol replace ceremony, and those who witnessed government commodities replace our sacred foods. As we revive our sacred way of life, we renew and honor all of those who went before us.

Visit omaha-nsn.gov for more information. Omaha Magazine

Glenna Slater

August 25, 2016 by and
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

When a language dies, its culture suffers a tragic loss. The indigenous Omaha people—the Umoⁿhoⁿ—are thus in a precarious position. Although there are about 6,000 living members of the tribe, its language is in danger of passing into history.  According to Glenna Slater, member of the Omaha Tribe, fewer than 12 tribal members are considered fluent in the language—and many who know the language are unable to teach it.

Slater is one of those rare fluent speakers alive today.

“We’re right here at the edge,” she says. “We lost one teacher in January.”

The Umoⁿhoⁿ settled the Great Plains during the 17th century before losing much of their territory to the U.S. government in the early 1800s, including where the city of Omaha sits today. The Omaha Reservation was established in 1854 and is seated in Macy, Nebraska.

Slater, now in her 70s, grew up on the reservation speaking Omaha as her first language, though she was never taught formally. She did not speak English until she began attending school. Slater eventually attended the University of Nebraska and began a lifelong career in social work, but the compulsion to educate runs through her bloodline. Her mother taught on the reservation as well. “I could never walk in her footsteps,” says the ever-humble Slater.

GlennaSlaterThese days, she gives a weekly course at the UNO Community Engagement Center, teaching the Omaha language to learners young and old. She began teaching around 15 years ago, helping her older sister Winona (now in her 90s) give lessons on
the reservation.

Many of Slater’s students are older—in their 40s and 50s—but a new batch of younger people have also taken up the mantle. Some of her students are as young as 10 years old. They practice with primers on vocabulary and grammar. They read narratives and traditional stories. “The students want to learn everything. When young ones want to go home and ask their parents, their parents are unable to help, because they were never taught formally or they aren’t fluent.”

Slater tells her students to keep their handouts and everything they acquire, for they may be called upon in the future to pass on the language. Her older students are already teaching their own grandkids, she says.

In tandem with classes at UNO, Slater is also involved in Umoⁿhoⁿ language instruction at Nebraska Indian Community College (NICC) in Macy. Established in 1973, NICC is an accredited land-grant institution providing two-year degrees to residents of the Omaha and Isanti (Santee Sioux) reservations.  She has also taught in South Sioux City, and at Metropolitan Community College in Omaha.

Slater speaks of the language with great respect and deference. “There would be something missing if I didn’t know the language,” she says, regarding her relationship with the Omaha Tribe and her ancestors.

“The language is very sacred: if you question the rules and reasoning behind it, you’ll be told it comes from up there,” Slater says, pointing to the sky. “And you won’t get more of an answer than that.” Slater’s respect for the language and Omaha tradition is mirrored in the class, too: “You can only tell the legends during the winter months. If you don’t respect this, strange things will happen.”

Preserving the language has been a difficult process. In addition to the generational challenges, a dictionary was completed only in the last decade, owing much to the contributions of Professor Mark Awakuni Swetland of UNL, who passed in 2015 yet remains a controversial figure among tribal leaders (due to concerns that a non-Omaha person might be profiting from the Omaha language).

Written documentation of the language is limited, and much of the knowledge is still fragmented across the recollections of surviving fluent speakers. Slater herself must defer to the wisdom of her siblings and peers in some cases. “You might know the language,” she says, “but you don’t know it all.”

Her goal with the classes is to continue enthusiasm for the language, and to ensure its survival for generations to come. “I just hope it can go on after me,” Slater remarks, “and I would be happy if I can get even two or three students to become conversational in it.”

Despite the challenges ahead, Slater remains optimistic. Several language revitalization initiatives are underway with the collaborative involvement of elders residing throughout the state. That’s in addition to lessons taught in Head Start, primary and secondary schools, community colleges, and in homes across Macy.

Slater hopes her teaching will expose more people to Omaha culture. “This has been the most fulfilling thing for me,” she says. “When students leave, they want to be hugged. Life is so hard, they need this extra something. And I learn from them, too.”

Visit omahaponca.unl.edu for more information.

Cover story by James Vnuk

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Sidebars by Doug Meigs

BillLynnA LANGUAGE FAMILY: WILLIAM LYNN

The mission statement of the Dhegiha Preservation Society states: “the Osage, Omaha, Quapaw, Kaw, Ponca, and Northern Ponca peoples are bound to one another through a shared history, ancient social, political, and cultural relationships, and a common language, the latter of which is in jeopardy of extinction.”

Once a year, Dhegiha speakers and educators gather for a language conference. The sixth annual Dhegiha Language Conference took place in Omaha at UNO’s Community Engagement Center on July 21 and 22.

“Our main goal is to create fluent Dhegiha speakers,” says William Lynn, chairman of the Dhegiha Preservation Society and an enrolled member of the Osage Nation.

The Omaha language is an offshoot of the Dhegiha-speaking branch of the Proto-Siouan language family. In comparison to European languages, it’s a bit like Danish, an offshoot of Scandinavian (North Germanic), which is a branch of the Proto-Germanic language family. The Ponca-Omaha languages are mutually intelligible, and linguists generally group them together.

“It was great that the Ponca and Omaha hosted this year,” says Lynn (Osage). “We’ve had it in Oklahoma for five years. Last year, the Omaha sent a couple of vans down to Oklahoma with 12
fluent speakers.”

VidaStablerON THE HOMELAND: VIDA STABLER

Umoⁿhoⁿ language documentation dates to James Owen Dorsey, Alice Fletcher, and Francis La Flesche (the first Omaha-Ponca anthropologist). “But many others have documented our language since then,” says Vida Stabler, Title VII Indian Education Director of Umoⁿhoⁿ Nation Public Schools.

The Omaha Reservation schools currently employ two full-time and two part-time Umoⁿhoⁿ language instructors to teach across roughly 20 K-12 classrooms each week. “We do not have enough teachers to meet demand on the reservation,” says Stabler, who has taught at the schools for 18 years. She recently helped to organize a new teaching group, ToUL (Teachers of Umoⁿhoⁿ Language), and says developing immersion programs will be crucial to language revitalization.

Three years ago, the Omaha Public Schools and the Umoⁿhoⁿ Language Cultural Center produced a language app called “Omaha Basic.” Over the past decade, Umoⁿhoⁿ Nation Public Schools and UNL partnered to complete the first Omaha language textbook (to be released in 2018). The projects relied on crucial contributions by the late Marcella Woodhull Cayou, Donna Morris Parker, and Susan Fremont. In 2017, Umoⁿhoⁿ Nation Public Schools is partnering with the Language Conservancy to produce an Umoⁿhoⁿ textbook for instructors and students.

AubreyStreitKrugAN OUTSIDER’S VIEW: AUBREY STREIT KRUG

Aubrey Streit Krug began studying the Omaha language as part of her ongoing Ph.D. in English at UNL. Her adviser suggested that she learn a Native American language, so she started taking classes with the late Mark Awakuni-Swetland, Ph.D., an anthropology professor of Euro-American descent (who had been adopted by Omaha elders).

Streit Krug says she was a minority in the class as a non-Native person. After Awakuni-Swetland’s passing in 2015, she remained among the 10-15 people working on a collaborative textbook. The textbook’s copyright is owned by the Umoⁿhoⁿ Language Cultural Center and Umoⁿhoⁿ Nations Public Schools. The upcoming textbook and the Omaha-Ponca Digital Dictionary are the legacy of her mentor’s lifework.

“Studying Umoⁿhoⁿ is important because this is the land where we are situated. My ancestors were German immigrants in the late-19th century, and I grew up in rural Kansas,” she says, noting that the Omaha language helped her to understand the root meaning of the Waconda Lake near her hometown (a Siouan word for “holy” or “sacred”). “What I knew of the Great Plains was the history of Euro-American settlement. But there is this beautiful, ongoing tradition of Native communities.”

Nebraska’s Most Controversial Woman

June 6, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Article originally published in July/August 2015 Omaha Magazine.

The founder of Bold Nebraska— Jane Fleming Kleeb—travels to Omaha once a week. Although the Nebraska transplant lives in Hastings, she has grown accustomed to the five-hour round-trip drive on I-80. “I call it my windshield time. It’s quiet,” says the liberal firebrand who has gained national notoriety fighting construction of the Keystone XL, a 1,179-mile pipeline slated to transport daily 830,000 barrels of diluted crude bitumen from Canadian tar sands across central Nebraska to gulf coast processing facilities.

“The Lakota call the proposed Keystone XL the Black Snake Pipeline,” says Greg Grey Cloud, a pipeline opponent who describes himself as an indigenous defender. For the Lakota, the black snake represents nothing less than a reset button on the creation clock. “For over a thousand years, our spiritual leaders have prophesied that a great black snake will one day wind through the land, bringing doom by robbing us of our natural resources as Grandmother Earth remakes herself and introduces a new coming.”

For years, TransCanada has been planning to build the Keystone XL across Nebraska’s fragile Sandhills ecosystem and the deep-underground Ogallala Aquifer. Eminent domain lawsuits have plagued the pipeline’s route across much of the United States, and courts have ruled against taxpaying landowners in favor of the foreign corporation. Thanks to Kleeb’s activism with Bold Nebraska, the Keystone XL has stalled outside of the Cornhusker State.

Kleeb is a pipeline-fighting road warrior. She has visited the stripped boreal forests of Alberta where the tar sand oil originates. She has seen TransCanada seize lands in Texas and South Dakota. Her regular trips across rural Nebraska to meet with landowners and frequent cross-country speaking engagements make her Omaha commute time seem insignificant.

The Keystone XL has consumed Bold Nebraska’s attention since its inception five years ago. Kleeb says her agenda is all about progressive and populist politics. According to the Bold Nebraska website, the organization’s mission is to “mobilize new energy to restore political balance” in a state “dominated by one political voice” and “dominated by far-right ideas and policies.” Focus will shift once courts confirm the pipeline’s fate. Bold Nebraska is already preparing, surveying supporters on the next social and legislative battles to prioritize.

JaneKleeb3

Omaha’s liberal (by Nebraska standards) political atmosphere has fostered an important support base for Bold Nebraska. Out of approximately 25,500 Facebook fans and 40,000 email subscribers, 25 percent hail from the metro area, says Mark Hefflinger, Bold Nebraska’s communications director.

A local Omaha brewpub was the logical place for Kleeb to launch Bold’s latest initiative: a statewide network map of local businesses branded “In the Neb.” She arrives early in the afternoon. Bumper stickers on the back of her minivan—a beige Honda Odyssey—reveal her double-life. The 42-year-old activist is also a soccer mom with three daughters. A flaming soccer ball decal represents her eldest (age 14) daughter’s team alongside a slew of anti-pipeline and environmental slogans.

She steps onto Farnam Street in midtown wearing a white dress, suit jacket, and custom red leather cowboy boots (the boots are covered with grey leather crane silhouettes, a nod to the Sandhills where her husbands’ ancestors had homesteaded). Her hair is a short, no-fuss style symbolic of her life’s always-on-the-go pace. Hoops of turquoise beadwork, made by members of the Omaha Tribe, hang from her ears, matching the turquoise rings on her fingers, gifts from husband Scott Kleeb.

She walks into Archetype Coffee with a burst of friendly energy and an armful of promotional material. She has one hour before introducing her “In the Neb.” concept at Farnam House Brewing Company a few blocks away.

“In the Neb.” consists of an interactive online map and mobile app promoting small and local businesses: family farms, breweries, boutiques, clean energy vendors, farmers markets, etc. Omaha and Lincoln residents are the primary target users—“because in small towns, you know who sells eggs,” Kleeb says—but rural communities could also use the effort to source urban Nebraska-made products.

“In order to get on the map, you have to agree on some values, things like we want to see 25 percent of our energy coming from renewables by 2025, and that the Ogallala aquifer should be a protected water source,” Kleeb says. The network of businesses would also provide a pool of supporters for Bold Nebraska when pushing bills of interest to small farms or clean energy interests in the state legislature.

The local bar meet-up for debuting the project might also become a regular thing. Kleeb hopes it will be the first in a series of political talks called “Politics and Pints.”

The business map and barroom talks are indicative of Kleeb’s innovative approach to activism. “Creative actions are super important to us; we draw a lot of inspiration from the Omaha creative community,” says Kleeb, noting that Omaha native Justin Kemerling is Bold Nebraska’s main designer.

Kleeb’s lifestyle bridges Nebraska’s urban-rural disconnect. She and Scott are renovating a farm in Ayr and hope to move in by next year. The property is located en route to Red Cloud, Willa Cather’s hometown south of Hastings. They named their youngest “Willa,” (age 4) after the iconic Nebraska author.

To manage their chaotic schedules, the couple sit together once a month to block off their shared Google calendar. Her husband, once an aspiring Nebraska politician, is now the president and CEO of Omaha-based Pioneer Energy Solutions and its 50 employees. He makes the long Hastings-to-Omaha commute even more frequently than his wife. “I keep trying to twist his arm to get a loft apartment in Omaha or Lincoln,” she says.

“When we started Bold, one of the things we wanted to do was to connect our rural communities—often rooted in agriculture, small family farms, and ranches—to the creative class in Omaha,” she says.

“There is a lot that we can learn from each other, and, from my perspective, there isn’t this ridiculous divide that everyone tries to say there is when you start visiting with people (rural vs. urban Nebraskans).”

Bold Nebraska organized a Neil Young and Willie Nelson concert last September. “Harvest the Hope” was situated in a cornfield near Neligh on the pipeline route. The event drew roughly 1,700 Omahans out of 8,500 spectators. A winter season passed, and Kleeb just completed a new creative action on the same cornfield where concertgoers had parked their vehicles.

Bold created a 15-acre crop art message for the White House, a replica of the presidential seal that reads “Climate Legacy #NOKXL.” “My body is still sore,” she says, recalling the previous week’s work of placing flags for the image’s tractor and laying landscape mulch fabric. “It was our way to tell the White House that the president’s climate legacy, which we know he cares deeply about, is directly tied to the rejection of the Keystone XL.”

Whenever Kleeb talks about Bold Nebraska’s progressive and populist mission for the state, she uses the first-person plural possessive: “our state.” Though not originally from Nebraska, she made it her permanent home in early 2007.

She grew up in south Florida. Both parents were staunch Republicans. Her stay-at-home mother led Broward County Right to Life. As a child, Kleeb often made posters, sat in the back of community meetings, or simply watched mom lead rallies. That was the beginning of her political awareness. Her father owned several Burger King franchises. The whole family would help during the weekends to slice pickles (they didn’t used to come pre-cut) and other chores. “I thought all families did that,” she says with a laugh.

She went to school in northern Florida then headed to Philadelphia and D.C. for the next decade. Despite voting for Bill Clinton and running an AmeriCorps program, she claims to have remained a registered Republican up until taking a job with Young Democrats of America. She became executive director in 2003 and worked with “Rock the Vote.”

A chance encounter at the 2005 Democratic Convention in Phoenix would eventually tie her fate to Nebraska. That’s where she met Scott. The handsome Yale graduate, a bull-riding grandson of a Western Nebraska rancher, was considering a bid for the state’s third congressional district.

“I thought he couldn’t get out of the Republican primary so he ran as a Democrat,” she says with a laugh, recalling her first impression of the man who would become her husband. Her admitted “very stereotypical view of Nebraska” changed after she became involved with Scott’s campaign. Her life changed when she first visited the Sandhills.

“I had this really fundamental shift when I came to visit Scott on the ranch,” she says. “Just talking with young and old ranchers, they have this beautiful view of family and the land—they know every blade of grass on their property, and they know the weather cycles, and they can name every cow that’s on their property.”

She fell in love with the aspiring politician and his state. Four months after the campaign ended in narrow defeat, they married in March 2007. Her immersion in Nebraska politics was just beginning.

The newlywed Kleeb took a political correspondent job with MTV during the 2008 presidential election. She also helped run her husband’s 2008 Senate campaign, which ended in a general election loss to Mike Johanns. Then, after Obama took the White House, the Service Employees International Union sponsored “Change that Works” to petition support for health care reform; Kleeb was named the organization’s Nebraska director. She mobilized community support across small towns and cities. She aggressively lobbied then-Senator Ben Nelson, and she found success. Nelson would eventually provide a crucial swing vote for Obamacare in exchange for the notorious “Cornhusker Kickback.”

“I knew (Change that Works) would end as soon as the bill got passed in Congress,” she says. “I looked around, and I didn’t see a statewide organization that was using creativity, that was aggressive online, and wasn’t afraid of throwing a punch to politicians who weren’t being accountable on issues we cared about. So, I thought that’s something that we needed to start.”

The concept for Bold Nebraska was born. She met with Omaha philanthropist Dick Holland, a powerful contributor to progressive Democratic causes and candidates. Kleeb pitched her idea. Inspired, Holland offered start-up funds, and she transitioned from health care reform to her ultimate, bold ambition for Nebraska: “to change the political landscape of our state.” But she still had no idea her life was about to plunge into a pipeline-induced rabbit hole.

“About three months after we started, I got a phone call about the pipeline. It was from a friend who works at an environmental group, and he said, ‘Have you heard about this? It’s going to cut across the Sandhills,’” Kleeb says of her first introduction to the Keystone XL.

“I’d never worked on an environmental issue. I didn’t know anything about eminent domain or what the tar sands were. But I was intrigued because it was going to cross the Sandhills—and it still will—and that’s where my husband’s family all homesteaded, where I fell in love with Nebraska. So I was like, okay, I’ll go to the meeting.”

She traveled to York for a State Department meeting in May 2010. She listened to Nebraska farmers and ranchers voice concerns about threats to livestock, crops, and water supplies. She saw a clear example of “right and wrong,” and Bold Nebraska found its first big cause.

Pipeline advocates have alleged that Keystone XL opposition is linked to backing from Omaha’s Warren Buffet and Berkshire Hathaway. Some believe that oil transport by rail rather than pipeline would benefit Berkshire-owned BNSF Railway. Bold’s early key donor—Dick Holland—is a major Berkshire shareholder and made a fortune investing in Warren Buffet. But Kleeb says the critique is misleading; Buffet has expressed support for the Keystone XL.

“That’s a conspiracy theory,” she says. “I wish I had Warren Buffet money. I’ve asked. Life is not that filled with conspiracy. But the conspiracy theory about the FBI secretly taping us, that turned out to be true [and was reported by The Guardian and The New York Times].” The FBI and TransCanada had been advising law enforcement how anti-terrorism laws and tactics could be used against pipeline activists. After completing her latest crop art project, Kleeb filed a Freedom of Information Act request to find out what the FBI has on file for her.

Weighing the danger of rail versus pipeline, both are risky. “But they are different risks,” she says. “There are more accidents on rail, but they spill less oil. Pipelines have fewer accidents each year, but when they spill, they spill more oil into the ground and water. So it’s not either/or for me. Both need to be made safer.”

As Kleeb’s pipeline fight drags on, Omaha continues to play an important staging ground. The locally headquartered Domina Law Group is representing landowners and Bold Nebraska. In January, the Nebraska Supreme Court ruled that the proposed Keystone XL route could remain in place; however, attorneys with Domina are ready to file lawsuits contesting TransCanada’s eminent domain. Final say on the permit must be determined at the federal level. At the time of publication, the State Department’s analysis of the pipeline remained underway, and Kleeb anticipated that President Obama would reject the pipeline permit. “We think that we will prevail. Because it’s a very clear constitutional question,” she says.

Several Omaha musicians were featured on a Stopping the Pipeline Rocks album recorded last spring in a solar barn on the Keystone XL route. Over the summer, Kleeb and Bold Nebraska’s team organized a solidarity event at the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge as climate marchers passed into Iowa on their walk from California to Washington D.C.

During the fall election season, Kleeb and the Cowboy Indian Alliance canvased Omaha neighborhoods door-to-door on horseback. They pushed hard to prevent reelection of Republican Congressman Lee Terry, a vocal advocate of the Keystone XL. His replacement, Democrat Brad Ashford, is, much to Kleeb’s dismay, also a pipeline proponent of the Keystone XL.

“Brad Ashford says he is concerned about climate change. But you can’t be concerned about climate change and then want to expand the tar sands, which is one of the dirtiest forms of oil,” she says.

Keystone XL has fractured political alliances along fascinating lines. While labor unions and corporate interests generally endorse the pipeline, many libertarians oppose it on the grounds of government taking private land while environmentalists oppose it for ecological reasons. “It is definitely an unlikely alliance,” Kleeb says, noting that some of Bold’s regular donors are conservative Republicans.

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National polls by CBS News, the Pew Research Center, USA Today and the Princeton Survey Research Associates International found that between 56 and 60 percent of the American public supported the Keystone XL. Kleeb says that Bold Nebraska’s polls for Omaha specifically have found support/opposition split closer to 50-50.

In spite of her affiliation with the Democratic Party, Kleeb would like to see Bold Nebraska straddle bipartisan politics. Growing numbers of registered independent Nebraskan voters gives her hope. “My mom and dad raised me as a Republican,” says Kleeb. “That’s why when I see the majority of Republicans in our state, including Omaha, it never deters me that someone in our state with populist and progressive ideas cannot get elected.”

During the course of the one-hour interview with Omaha Magazine, Kleeb never once checks the time. She has been speaking confidently and eloquently about her life, her politics, and the Keystone XL until minutes before the start of “Politics and Pints” and the launching of “In the Neb.” The interview concludes, and Kleeb has to leave. She heads to her minivan. She picks up another pile of signs and flyers. She walks down to the Farnam House Brewing Company.

The bar is packed. Petitions, surveys, and tickets for complimentary beers float freely. Kleeb stands amid the chattering crowd and calls for attention. Silence. Her stage presence exudes the same sense of friendly, genuine sincerity that she has practiced as a pundit on Fox News and in one-on-one conversations across Nebraska.

Kleeb introduces the current status of the pipeline. Other speakers from labor unions and environmental groups take the floor: opposing the Trans Pacific Partnership, lamenting out-of-state fracking waste disposal proposals in western Nebraska, introducing Bold Nebraska’s “In the Neb.” project.

Enthusiastic clapping follows each call for change. Especially boisterous applause comes from 64-year-old Deirdre Evans of the Joslyn Castle neighborhood. A regular at Bold Nebraska events, Evans even went to Washington D.C. in 2011 to be arrested for the first time while protesting the Keystone XL outside the White House. “Jane is my hero,” says Evans after the speakers conclude.

As Kleeb chats with glowing admirers, her ascendance in regional progressive politics becomes apparent. But her compatibility with the general electorate has yet to be tested.

In 2010, she was elected as a school board member in Hastings on a platform of healthy lunches, “which prompted the GOP in Nebraska to run robocalls telling voters I wanted to make their kids vegetarians,” she says, noting that she loved serving on the school board.

An important question remains. What are Kleeb’s future political ambitions? Does she see herself elected someday to represent Nebraskan constituents in the state or national capitol? She responded to the follow-up question by e-mail without delay:

“If I run for office, it will be focused on a platform of ending eminent domain for private gain and working towards energy projects that protect our land and water. I still also deeply care and worry about the lack of residential treatment facilities in our state for eating disorders and other mental illnesses that need that type of care for folks to recover.

“So, yes, I am considering running. When, where, and for what office—that I am not sure about. Right now, I keep listening to folks to see where we can make the most impact to keep showing the rest of the country what Nebraskans are made of—grit, creativity, and the resolve to get things done.”

JaneKleeb1

 

Saving the Sacred

August 29, 2014 by and
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Holy and charged with emotion—dances for the departed, drum beats to ancient rhythms, regalia adorned with symbols of legends and deeds and faith—the pow-wow circle is tuned to solemnity, meaning, and reverence.

Then again, some of the time, not so much. Take this recent scene from the pow-wow put on each year by the Winnebago Tribe. In the circle, the emcee hands out event T-shirts to winners of the pow-wow 5K as he ribs a group of men setting up equipment for an upcoming drumming competition. He then offers sagely advice: “Let those drum heads sit out in the sun for a bit. Loosen up the leather.” Outside the ring, kids and parents gobble up “Rez Dogs” with buns made of fry bread. South of the ring beneath a stand of mammoth cottonwoods artisans from around the country sell their wares. A group of softball players return to the park from a pow-wow tournament game.

Along with the sacred comes this vibe of the county fair. Fun, loose, festive. Increasingly, a real crowd-pleaser atmosphere for America’s native peoples and non-natives alike.

In the last few decades, Rich Barea of Omaha, a member of the Omaha Tribe, has watched the evolution of the pow-wow from mostly small, close-knit, amateur events into major festivals with big-name music groups and comedians, high-dollar dance competitions, and sometimes massive invasions by anyone with anything vaguely Native American to sell.

 “For the most part, this incredible growth has been wonderful and exciting,” says Barea, who, now retired from his job with the City of Omaha, has time to travel the country dancing pow-wows from Oklahoma to Canada. “But, sure, some of the original meaning can get lost in all the hoopla and commercialism. The organizers of the best events know how to maintain that all-important balance.”

Barea, 66, hit several of the major competitive pow-wows this summer. He made a little money with his traditional dancing in the seniors division. Prize money might cover expenses. Money isn’t the point.


The long road of the summer pow-wow season comes to an end September 13 at the Fort Omaha Intertribal Powwow, which Barea has helped organize since its inception 23 years ago. Besides more than 200 dancers, the pow-wow at the Fort Omaha Campus of Metro Community College will feature a series of discussions and classes on pow-wow and Native American history topics.

The Fort Omaha event is, according to Barea and its lead organizer, Barbara Velazquez, more of a low-key, traditional event focused more on fellowship than competition. “It’s more like family reunion than some giant fair,” Velazquez says. “It’s a comfortable get-together of many tribes and anyone who would like to take in the pow-wow experience.” “It’s a wind-down to the season,” Barea says. “It’s a chance to see a lot of old friends in the region.”

The Omaha pow-wow also is, increasingly, an anomaly. It is a relative unknown on the national pow-wow circuit, on which the country’s top dancers, announcers, and performers tour followed by an entourage of vendors. Top emcees easily command $15,000 for a weekend job. The Winnebago event offered $60,000 in prize money.

In this environment, traveling food vendors and artisans can make a respectable living from a three-or-four month tour of America’s Indian Country. More and more families, particularly from tribes with deep artistic traditions, make a living on the road selling their work.

Between 11 a.m. and noon on Saturday of the Winnebago event, Craig Charles, a traditional Navaho metal artist, sold $300 in rings, bracelets, earrings, and other small goods from a booth beneath the cottonwoods. Most of the most intricate copper, bronze, and silver items—many inlayed with turquoise—were actually made by his uncle, Archie Teller, he admits. “He’s the master,” Charles says. “Well known throughout Navaho country. I’m not to his level yet. Mainly, I’m the guy who goes on the road and sells, sells, sells for the family.”

Charles lives east of Flagstaff, Ariz., on the western edge of the vast Navaho Reservation. The life of a Navaho artist can be hard for even the most skilled. “The scene of the guy sitting out in a tiny shack along some desolate road in the middle of the desert still exists,” Charles says. “My uncle lived that life. This is different. The big pow-wows basically bring a better life for us.

“Look around here,” he says, pointing to the bustle of the pow-wow. “Compare this to being in a shack in 110-degree heat with two cars coming by in a day. You meet people all day, see beautiful things all day. It can be a real joy.”

Charles, 47, says that most of the Navaho artists he knows weren’t traveling 20 years ago. Slowly, more and more have hit the road, particularly as the summer pow-wow circuit in the north and the winter pow-wow circuit across the southern United States have grown. Charles, his son, and various other extended family members now typically hit 16 or so events a year. Not only does the tour pay the bills, he says, it has helped lure younger tribe members to take up traditional arts.

And, increasingly, he says, Navaho, including his son, are now dancing in many of the events. “He has made his regalia, he practices, he’s pretty darn good now,” Charles says. “The funny thing: He even trains some for his dancing. He runs. Some of these dances are like a basketball game’s worth of exercise. It’s serious stuff if you take it seriously.”

Barea, well-known to Omaha theatergoers as, he says, “the guy that gets asked to play the Native American character,” makes his own regalia. He does his own bead work. He makes his own moccasins. He particularly enjoys making his own war clubs. He makes small ones for his grandkids. He makes a few “very whimsical ones,” too, including one of his favorites, “the mad chicken club.”

Do the math here: Rich Barea’s heavily beaded moose-hide vest alone weighs 13 pounds. He often carries one of his handmade war clubs or war shields into the circle. Combined with the beads, bones, and leather of his other regalia, Barea often hauls 40 extra pounds when he’s dancing. (He notes that some of the top dancers use plastic bone and other light-weight options to keep the weight down on their regalia).

He might participate in 60 dances in a long weekend. Some of those dances can last more than a half hour, such as a recent one that ran to 40 minutes “because the emcee just kept on talking and talking during the dance,” he says. “They can be quite long-winded,” he jokes. In the summer, temperatures can approach 100 degrees. The humidity can drive heat indexes up to 110 degrees. Add all this up: “I’ve lost 22 pounds,” he says. “It’s a sport. Depending on the style of the dance, it can be a serious sport.”

Indeed, dancing and drumming can play a very similar role in a young person’s life as organized sports, says Barea, who has coached Omaha youth teams for decades, including an all-Native American baseball team for 16 years. You learn to work with others. You learn to work toward a goal. You learn a skill, and more important, you learn how to learn a skill. The list goes on, he says.

Of course, learning the tribal dances and rhythms can mean much more than some recreational sport for young Native Americans. “This connects us to who we are and where we’ve been as a people.”

Barea says he hopes to have 13 of his 60 grandchildren participating in the Fort Omaha event (he and his wife, now deceased, took in many other children over the years in addition to their five birth children). With so much family there, with so many friends from the Omaha area, with so many tribal members coming from Midwestern tribes, many of which are close cousins to the Omaha Tribe, Barea says the event will be “a real homecoming and reunion for so many of us. I’m always excited as the pow-wow gets closer.”

And like always, he says, the pow wow will be laid back and fun, but also, at its core, filled with meaning. Barea has dance steps that are homages to friends and fellow dancers who have died. He also dances in tribute to his wife, his son, and other family members who have passed away. “You dance for the people who aren’t there. You dance for those who can’t dance.

“I don’t see any time when the tradition and meaning and the passing on of tradition will get overrun by all the growth and commercialism,” he says. “It’s too important to too many tribes and their people. I think people will always find a way to maintain a balance between the festive and the sacred.”