Tag Archives: ancestors

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.

Marisa Miakonda Cummings, with daughter and motherMy 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.

Marisa Miakonda Cummings As 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.

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Past Lives

May 28, 2015 by

This article originally published in May/June 2015 edition of 60-Plus.

When we research our genealogical histories, we sometimes find we’re related to some pretty interesting people, says Max Sparber, Research Specialist for the Douglas County Historical Society.

Before Sparber, who is adopted, investigated his own history, he knew his biological parents’ ethnicities. But that was it. Then he did some digging.

“I found out that I have a great deal in common with my biological mother,” he says.

Sparber and his mother both attended the University of Minnesota where they studied theater and journalism. She became an expert in Irish studies. Sparber writes frequently about Irish-American studies. He also learned he had long owned a book written by his biological mother long before he knew who she was.

The thrill of discovering such an ancestor—or maybe learning that you’re related to someone famous—may pique many people’s interest in family history. Regardless of the reasons, though, genealogy has turned into a wildly popular pastime in the United States.

According to ABC News, as of 2012, genealogical research is the American people’s second favorite hobby behind gardening. It’s an industry worth about $1.6 billion.

“I think everyone has their own reasons,” Sparber says about why so many people are interested in genealogy now. “[They’re] just looking for their own story.”

Sparber says the interest is driven by popular media like the television show Who Do You Think You Are? There’s an attraction to discovering your ethnic identity, and many enjoy the elements of mystery and puzzle- piecing. Ease of use has played a big role, too, with things like birth records and newspaper articles going digital. DNA tests can help pinpoint who your ancestors are. Two or three years ago, such tests might have cost $1,000, but now popular websites like Ancestry.com and Family Tree DNA will perform them for less than $100.

For Omahans interested in learning their genealogical histories, resources like the Greater Omaha Genealogical Society, which is affiliated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, may help (the church has long been interested in genealogy and can accept members into its faith posthumously).

The Douglas County Historical Society, Sparber says, fields requests related to genealogy daily. Twenty to 30 percent of what the organization does involves genealogy, and it has access to many records that haven’t been uploaded digitally. The society’s archives hold Douglas County records that date back to the mid-1800s, including city directories that identify where people lived and what they did for a living.

Most people who investigate their genealogical histories hope to find that they’re related to royalty or movie stars, Sparber says.

In Omaha, people sometimes hope to be related to criminals.

Locals come with family stories about ancestors who were bootleggers or brothel owners, and they often hope the stories are true. One woman, Sparber says, wanted to find some information about an ancestor from early Omaha who was a doctor. Sparber found a newspaper article that identified a man who went by the same name as the woman’s ancestor and who was, indeed, a doctor. He was also the first man in Omaha to be arrested for murder, though he claimed self-defense and was never charged.

Sparber says the woman was “thrilled.