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Health and healing through culture and community 

November 17, 2017 Leave a comment

Donna Polk was raised African-American but she’s also part Native American, which is a common story. Still, she never imagined she would one day head a Native agency, but she has for decades now. The story of Natives being among us and yet unseen is also a common one. Csn Native Americans be any more invisible in this country? Were it not for the travesties of Whiteclay and Dakota Access Pipeline, where would Native voices be heard and Native faces seen? This marginalized people constituting many sovereign tribes and nations presents very real health challanges that only an organization like the Nebraska Urban Indian Health Coalition (NUIHC) can meet while still respecting Native cultural traditions. This long-standing nonproft has, until recently, been nearly invisible itself as far as the majority population is concerned because its clients are so far off the mainstream radar. But with the Coalition now in the news for plans to establish a new campus, director Donna Polk and programs director Nicole Tamayo are out front and center taking about Native needs and how the organization responds to them. Read my story about NUIHC in the November 2017 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com).

 

Health and healing through culture and community 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the November 2017 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

Donna Polk and Nicole Tamayo decry developer-led gentrification driving their Nebraska Urban Indian Health Coalition out of downtown Omaha.

Headquartered at 2240 Landon Court on 24th Street, between Farnam and Leavenworth, the nonprofit feels the squeeze enough from encroaching development  that it plans moving to South Omaha to be closer to its Native base and to have larger facilities.

“We intend to move because we’ve outgrown this facility and we no longer fit into the demographics of this area. Gentrification is chasing us out. Our target population is no longer here and we need more space,” said Polk, longtime CEO of the agency formed in 1986.

The 12,000-square foot building contains residential and outpatient treatment, youth and elders programs, communal-event rooms, all within close proximity,

“By moving into a larger building well be able to have one floor more for the community and a second floor for programming. We’re very excited about that.”

She plans a small culinary training program.

Meanwhile. she and Tamyao don’t like how rising property values and rents displace residents in a long dormant, mixed-use urban area being revitalized.

But Polk is also practical enough to work with one of those gentrifying developers, Arch Icon. For the new NUIHC site, they’ve fixed on the former South Omaha Eagles Club at 24th and N. It has more than double the square footage. Adjacent to it, she wants to build 44 low-income transitional housing units to “provide secure, sober housing for a displaced community.”

Tamayo, NUIHC Youth and Family program director, said the city’s Native community once lived near downtown but long since dispersed. Transportation’s an issue but will be less so with the move.

Both women are mixed heritage like most of their clients, “There aren’t that many pure bloods,” said Tamayo, who’s Mexican and Native. Polk is African-American and Native. The agency has an all-Native board of directors except for one member. Board and staff dislike any efforts, intentional or not, that further marginalize an already nearly invisible population. Though not widely seen – the census estimates 3,400 reside here  – Natives have real lives, families, issues and needs NUIHC responds to with culturally competent programs and services.

Tamayo oversees the Soaring Over Meth and Suicide (SOMS) program that gives young people preventive tools to avoid abusing substances or doing self-harm. The mother of four brings “a lot of life experience” to the job. People close to her have committed suicide, battled drug addiction and suffered mental illness.

She sees herself in the clients she serves.

“I grew up in the area. i did the gangs and the drugs and the running around. Anything positive that I can keep my kids in and the bigger support system that I can put around them is definitely a plus.”

NUIHC provides that safety net.

“There’s not a whole lot else here. There’s no Indian (community) center. There’s nothing for the kids. The family supports for most of them are not there.”

Omaha’s lacked a full-fledged Indian center since 1995.

“We try to fill that void,” Polk said, “but our focus is heath basically.”

NUIHC accepts some clients other Indian Health Service (IHS) centers don’t.

“You have to be an enrolled member of a federally recognized tribe to be able to receive services from an IHS,” said Tamayo. “A big part of our push, especially with the Adolescent Health Project we’re part of through the Women’s Fund of Omaha, is to build bridges and fill gaps between the different services so that other organizations work better with our community.

“That way clients will have better options.”

NUIHC operates a federally qualified community health clinic in Lincoln, Neb. serving Natives and non-Natives and a free transportation service in Sioux City, Iowa.

“At our Lincoln clinic we provide healthcare services to a large population of undeserved people in Lancaster County,” Polk said. “Incidence and prevalence of chronic disease in the Native community probably puts them at greatest risk than any racial or ethnic group with diabetes, heart disease, cancer, respiratory issues. It’s horrific. It mirrors the mortality and morbidity rate of the dominant culture but the effect is more devastating because diagnosis is often in late stages.”

In Omaha, NUIHC offers mental illness counseling and drug-alcohol addiction treatment. The brick building houses 10-in-patient beds. The campus includes five transitional living units across the street owned by the Winnebago tribe and leased back to NUIHC.

“When people graduate from this (treatment) program or any program in the country, they’re eligible to go to the transitional housing.”

NUIHC’s not seen an upsurge in treatment referrals since since Whiteclay, Neb. liquor stores closed, though alcohol remains a huge problem.

The agency’s broader health focus extends to teaching young people healthy choices and life skills and providing social-recreational activities for elders.

“The programming we do, even sex education, is working with the culture, bringing back traditional values in how to conduct yourself to have high self-esteem and self-worth for making healthy choices,” Tamayo said. “In the majority of our families, the youth do start to drink, use, smoke, whatever, by 10-11 years old.

“It’s looking at underlying issues rather than just educating them about using condoms and getting tested. We have to help them change their mindset. It’s getting them to understand what’s important and how to take care of themselves. We tell them you may not be able to control the environment you’re put in or what’s going on around you, but you still have control of the choices you make going forward  What you did yesterday doesn’t have to dictate what you do today. If you choose to go to school today, then that’s one step closer to doing what you need to be doing to better your life. We keep encouraging them.”

Two annual NUIHC events happen this month: Empowering Youth to Lead a Healthy Life: Native American Health Conference on November 10 and Hoops 4 Life 3-on-3 basketball tournament on November 11. Both are at NorthStar Foundation.

The organization works closely with local colleges and universities. Some Native post-secondary students mentor Native high schoolers.

“We want our kids to see that this is possible – that this is something they can get to,” Tamayo said.

NUIHC convenes an All Nations Youth Council that has a real voice in agency matters.

“For any big push we have we get input from this community, including our youth,” she said. “We don’t want to be telling them what they need to be learning and working on if they have other things going on that need to be addressed. They discusses where we’re going with programming – if we’re hitting it or missing it.”

Last summer, participants of an NUIHC-sponsored youth group made a chaperoned road trip to Chicago and Washington D.C., where they presented cultural performances featuring traditional singing and dancing.

“A lot of our kids haven’t even been past Sioux City,” she said. “It’s giving them an opportunity to understand there’s a whole world out there and it’s very possible for them to reach and go to. They enjoyed it.

“We took them around to all the museums in D.C.  The one they enjoyed the most was the Holocaust Museum. A lot of people wondered if that was going to be too traumatic for them. But when we talked to the kids afterward, they’re so used to seeing things on the reservation, they’re so knowledgable historically of the things that have happened to Native Americans, that this didn’t affect them as it might a lot of others.

“Trauma is just such a part of their daily life that it takes so much for them to be impacted by the experience.”

The Omaha office just got grant a to do domestic and sexual violence counseling.

In everything NUIHC does, great emphasis is placed on observing Native traditions. It even occasionally hosts funeral services, most recently for Zachary Bearheels, the mentally ill man tasered and punched multiple times by Omaha police last June before dying in custody.

“We use a spiritual base,” Polk said. “We don’t deal with religion or denomination – we deal with spirituality. Religion is for people afraid they’re going to hell, and spirituality is for people who’ve been there.”

Every effort’s made to respect client requests.

“If you want to go to the sweat lodge or have a ceremony with a medicine man or go to a pow-wow, you can do that.”

“Definitely. our focus is healthcare, but the connection between cultural activities and being able to identify who you are with how those things affect your health has come more about,” Tamayo said. “We’re able to do that to address the health issues we’re working with.

“We work with Omaha Public Schools and their NICE (Native Indian Centered Education) program on addressing truancy. We help school officials understand sometimes Native students will miss school to participate in traditional practices.”

NUIHC works with OPS and other stakeholders on cultural sensitivity to Native mobility and family dynamics that find youth moving from place to place.

“That’s very important because we look at that as a protective factor so kids can feel good about who they are,’ said Polk.

Tamayo appreciates the autonomy she’s given.

“Donna (Polk) has faith in me that I understand our families’ needs and what services to give them. I have full permission. It’s like open-door mentoring. We have to be really connected and visible in the community. It’s a lot of hours.

“I’ve been in the community my whole life on and off and I know most of these families on an individual level, so being able to reach out and do what I need to do to help them is a plus.”

That help may include informal counseling-coaching to navigate the complexities of life off the Rez.

“We partner with and reach out to reservations because so many of our families migrate back and forth between urban settings and reservations. We want them to feel like they’re getting help with things wherever they go,” Tamayo said.

“They feel like they’re so far away from home and they don’t have a connection here,” Polk said. “We help get them more involved in the community so they can keep that cultural connection they may be missing in an urban setting.”

Polk feels NUIHC is sometimes out-of-sight, out-of-mind. Its $2.3 million budget depends on the vagaries of federal and foundation funds and grants. The low-key, low-profile agency isn’t exactly a household name.

“I don’t lament the fact the general public may not know us or what we do here because the people who need our services know we’re here. That’s what’s important to me. Nationally, people know we’re here. We get clients from as far away as Alaska who come for treatment.”

She’s gearing up to raise millions to acquire and renovate the South Omaha Eagles building. Plans to build the Eagle Heights recovery community are contingent on TIF financing and other funding sources.

“Our mission is to create a small community for the original inhabitants of this land. Almost every group has a community people identify with. We believe we can blend in with South Omaha. It offers the land, the vibrancy and a welcoming spirit. We will be able to increase our ability to elevate the health status of urban Indians by offering additional services, including Intensive outpatient, parenting, caregiver training-assistance, community health and outreach.”

Visit http://www.nuihc.com.

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Frank LaMere: A good man’s work is never done


Frank LaMere
A good man’s work is never done
©by Leo Adam Biga

Frank LaMere, self-described as “one of the architects of the effort to shutdown Whiteclay,” does not gloat over recent rulings to deny beer sellers licenses in that forlorn Nebraska hamlet.

A handful of store owners, along with producers and suppliers, have profited millions at the expense of Oglala-Lakota from South Dakota’s nearby Pine Ridge Reservation, where alcohol is banned but alcoholism runs rampant. A disproportionate number of children suffer from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS). Public drunkenness, panhandling, brawls and accidents, along with illicit services in exchange for alcohol, have been documented in and around Whiteclay. Since first seeing for himself in 1997 “the devastation” there, LaMere’s led the epic fight to end alcohol sales in the unincorporated Sheridan County border town.

“This is a man who, more than anyone else, is the face of Whiteclay,” said Lincoln-based journalist-author-educator Joe Starita, who’s student-led reporting project — http://www.woundsofwhiteclay.com — recently won the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Journalism grand prize besting projects from New Yorker, National Geographic and HBO. “There is nobody who has fought longer and fought harder and appeared at more rallies and given more speeches and wept more tears in public over Whiteclay than Frank LaMere, period.”

LaMere, a native Winnebago, lifelong activist and veteran Nebraska Democratic Party official, knows the battle, decided for now pending appeal, continues. The case is expected to eventually land in the Nebraska Supreme Court. Being the political animal and spiritual man he is, he sees the Whiteclay morass from a long view perspective. As a frontline warrior, he also has the advantage of intimately knowing what adversaries and obstacles may appear.

His actions have gotten much press. He’s a key figure in two documentaries about Whiteclay, But his social justice work extends far beyond this specific matter.

“I’ve been involved in many issues in my life,” he said.

Indeed, he’s stood with farmers, immigrants, persons with disabilities, police misconduct victims, child welfare recipients. He’s opposed the Keystone XL Pipeline.

“I must have marched a hundred times in my life and not always on Native interests. If somebody’s being mistreated and I have time and they come ask me, I don’t care who it is, I’m going to go there. That’s what it’s all about. That’s what drives me in my work.”

LaMere’s fought the good fight over Whiteclay, where he sees a clear and present danger of public health and humanitarian crisis. As a Native person, it’s personal because Whiteclay exists to exploit alcohol intolerance among the Pine Ridge populace. He’s cautiously optimistic things will get better for residents, assuming the courts ultimately uphold the denial of the liquor licenses.

“We’ll see where things go from there,” he said, “but rest assured, things will never be the same at Whiteclay. The only thing I know is that the devastation will never be like it was. I truly believe that.”

Just don’t expect him to do a victory lap.

“There are no wins and losses at Whiteclay. Nobody won, nobody lost, but all of us decided maybe we should begin to respect one another and find a better way. I think we will after the dust settles.”

The state Liquor Control Commission, a district judge and the Nebraska attorney general oppose beer sales happening there again but LaMere knows powerful opposing forces are at work.

“I think Nebraskans have good sense. We know what’s right. But there’s money involved. Whoever controls alcohol at Pine Ridge-Whiteclay controls money, controls county government and until very recently even controls state government. I am unequivocal on that. I understand what’s going on here. You’re talking about tens of millions of dollars and we’re threatening that, and when you threaten that, you know, you get a reaction.”

He said he’s received threats. He and fellow Whiteclay advocate, Craig Brewer, went there the day after the sellers lost their licenses.

“There was a foreboding I had all that day I’ve never had in my life,” LaMere said. “It was strange to me. I’ve been dealing with things my whole life and never been afraid. But this time I was looking at different scenarios having to do with the volatility there and if things didn’t work right what could happen to me. Maybe it’s aging. Maybe it was the newness of the situation. I don’t know.

“We got up there very apprehensive about what we were going to encounter, maybe from the beer sellers or from those who support the sellers or maybe from their hired associates. We didn’t know what to expect, but we went up there because that’s what we do – and everything worked out. The right thing happened.”

The sellers did not open for business.

“I told a reporter we went up to look the devil in the eye and the devil wasn’t there, and I don’t think the devil’s coming back.”

He said attorney David Domina, who represents the interests opposed to alcohol, appeared the same day there in the event something amiss happened.

“It was no coincidence,” LaMere said. “We were to be there that day. A lot of prayers went with us.”

LaMere will maintain a wary watch. “I will continue there to be careful, to be apprehensive, but I’m still not afraid.”

He knows some contentious situations he steps into pose certain dangers.

“I’m a realist, I know how things are.”

He and his wife Cynthia made an unwritten pact years ago not to be at rallies or protests together to ensure they won’t both be in harm’s way.

“I do a lot of things in a lot of places and Cynthia grounds me. She critiques whatever approach I’m taking, always asking, ‘Do you have to do it?’ I’ve learned she’s protective of me. But I also hear from her on many of these issues, ‘Well, why didn’t you say that?’ because she knows Frank, what he’s committed to, and she never questions that.

“I can do something I feel good about and I’ll come home and she’ll tell me the downside that maybe I don’t always want to hear. She’ll give me a perspective I need to hear that sometimes other people won’t give me. She’ll tell me the brutal honest truth. Cynthia’s tough, engaged, committed.”

His admirers marvel at his own doggedness.

“He’s an indefatigable worker and once he latches onto an issue that he sees as a moral challenge, he does not let go, and Whiteclay is a case in point. He’s the most principled man I know,” said Nebraskans for Peace coordinator Tim Rinne.

Joe Starita said LaMere is “hard working for his causes to the point of physical and mental exhaustion.”

“He’s a man who shows up for allies when nobody else is looking,” Nebraska Democratic Party chairman Jane Kleeb said.

Setbacks and losses he’s endured have not deterred him, including a serious stroke that required extensive speech therapy, and the death of his daughter, Lexie Wakan, who was a Creighton University student.

“He’s a man who’s had hardship, yet still continues to get up and stand up,” Kleeb said. “For me, that’s what Frank’s all about – he always shows up.”

For LaMere, it’s a way of life.

“Every day’s a fight, and if you keep fighting you win because others watch that. The impact of Whiteclay will manifest itself hopefully with a win in the Supreme Court and perhaps in some young leader who cares about these things. I’ve been in a hundred struggles in my life, lost almost all of ’em, but I was never afraid, and that’s what I want people to understand.

“If you’re not afraid, people see that as a victory because you cause others to take heart, to persevere, to take action.”

He’s glad his resilience to keep agitating, even in the face of intransigence and tragedy, inspires others.

“I’ll accept that because that’s what it is – you just keep working.”

He likes to say Whiteclay’s implications are “bigger than we can ever fathom.”

“Years from now, we will understand it is way bigger than us. I got to be a bit player. The creator of all things, said, Frank, I’m going to have you see what you can do, and along the way I’m going to cause you to struggle. I’m going to knock you down, and I’m even going to take something from you, and if you keep going, maybe I’ll let you change something.

“That’s the greatest work we can do.”

Reflecting on Whiteclay, he said, “This was an emotional roller coaster for all Nebraskans.” He chalks up the recent breakthrough to divine intervention.

“There’s things happening that are so strange,” he said.

He recalled a hearing in Lincoln on LB 407 introduced by Neb. State Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks to create the Whiteclay Public Health Emergency Task Force. LaMere testified. His son, Manape LaMear, sang a sun dance song. After finishing his sacred song, Manape asked if someone from Sheridan County was there to speak.

“A big guy got up and testified,” said LaMere. “He was asked, ‘Do you have enough law enforcement to take care of Whiteclay?’ and he answered, ‘Absolutely not.’”

“This man said some things absolutely nobody expected him, maybe not himself. to say. If you’re with those (monied) interests of Whiteclay, you’re not supposed to say that, you’re going to be ostracized. But for whatever reason, he told the truth. I attribute that to the powerful prayers said that day.

“You’re watching at Whiteclay a very spiritual journey. There’s something much bigger than us that has brought us to this point – that we would make such a great change for the Oglala Lakota people. I think it’s God’s work. From that I hope things will be better.”

He’s convinced “the greatest impact will not be felt for generations,” but added, “I’ve seen immediate impact right now.”

“I believe there’s a child whose mother and father were together at home and did not drink. I believe children are feeling very good Whiteclay is not open. I believe there’s been prayers by children that their parents be sober. I believe their prayers are very powerful. I think what we’re seeing may have to do with these children and their suffering and their prayers.”

LaMere has disdain for arguments that banning alcohol at Whiteclay will only move the problem elsewhere, thus increasing the danger of drunk drivers.

“Worrying about someone driving down Highway 87 who might get hurt by a drunk driver can’t be our greatest concern. Our greatest concern has to be the health and well-being of hundreds of children crippled in the womb by fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS). I’ve called out many on this. Where are pro-life people? Where’s the church? Children are crippled in the womb tonight and nothing’s said about it because there’s money involved. That’s troubling to me.

“We’ve crippled hundreds of kids in the womb on Pine Ridge – all so somebody can get rich, wrap themselves in a flag, and talk about this model of free enterprise. We cherish that more than we cherish life. It’s ugly to hear that but that’s what we’ve done. But we’ve always been afraid to accept that.”

Attorney John Maisch, whose documentary Sober Indian, Dangerous Indian includes LaMere, said, “I would say Frank’s empathy is what drives him. Frank is in a perpetual state of mourning. Frank has lost many family members and friends to addiction. I think that is partially what drove him to tackle Whiteclay. Frank lost his daughter, Lexie, and I think that is why he’s particularly drawn to fighting for those children, whether Native children lost in our foster care system or suffering from FAS as a result of their mothers drinking on the streets of Whiteclay. He’s drawn to suffering of others because he has also suffered great loss.”

LaMere acknowledged he’s “redoubled” his efforts since losing his daughter.

“And it’s not in any way substitution,” he said. “I don’t see it that way. I look at it very simply that now I stand on the shoulders of my daughter. In all of the things I’m doing right now perhaps I’m as bold as ever, and there’s a reason for that, for that is what she would have me do. If I hedge, she’ll say, ‘Why are you doing that? That is not who you are.’ I even heard her say in her young life: ‘This is my father, this is who he is, and this is what he does, and he does this for the people.’

“All I do for the rest of my life will be done in remembrance of my daughter because she was so committed at a very young age to the things I’m still committed to.”

LaMere’s glad Nebraska may finally own up to its sins.

“At long last Nebraskans have said perhaps it’s time for us to look at this. For once I’m pleased Nebraskans are not going to merely beg the question, they’re going to look at the impact of Whiteclay and maybe we’re going to act and make some of it a little bit better.”

As LaMere sees it, the whole state’s culpable.

“We as Nebraskans are unwittingly, unknowingly responsible for it. We need to act and to mitigate some of those things we’ve helped to cause at Pine Ridge. Even after all this, I say Nebraskans are fair – fair to a fault. Sometimes it takes us so damn long to act.”

The real culprits, he said, are “those in Sheridan County” who’ve turned a blind eye.

“The beer sellers and the rest are going to have hell to pay, not from Frank LaMere, but from the Supreme Court, the Liquor Control Commission, the attorney general, all these other interests, because when they take a good, long hard look at what’s happened, there there’s no way you can reconcile that as being anything close to normal or acceptable.”

As watchdog and conscience, LaMere said he lives out a covenant he made with his creator to serve others.

“I’ve traveled a million miles, spent everything I have, taken time from my family, taken time from myself. At some point, there’s a moral authority you feel. Nobody can give it to you or bestow it on you. Once you acquire it, it means nothing unless there’s a moral imperative that goes with that. I’ve tried to achieve some moral authority and the moral imperative that goes with it.

“I hear every day in my work with different agencies the words ‘by the authority invested in me.’ Means absolutely nothing to me. Doesn’t impress me at all. I don’t care how much authority you have – if you do not use it and if there’s no moral imperative to make things better, it’s meaningless. I meet with those people all the time. They have the authority, but they don’t use it. I’m not being cynical. I have the truth on my side.”

Whiteclay offered duly elected and appointed officials decades of opportunities to act, but they didn’t. LaMere never left the issue or let authorities forget it.

“Sometimes I can go into a room with a hundred people and I have the least amount of authority-power-title, but they have to listen to Frank because he’s put time and energy into it and he’s acquired that moral authority and he uses it. He scares them. They wish he would go away. People have to listen to Frank because he never goes away and there’s nothing in it for him.

“That’s why we made some changes at Whiteclay and that’s how we’re going to make change in our society – gain that moral authority and act.”

LaMere said his greatest asset is the truth.

“Any issues of change, even Whiteclay, you stand with the truth. I’ve learned that over many years. Because once the press conferences, the conventions, the rallies are done, the arrests are made, the petition drives are over, the legislative efforts go by the wayside, the only thing that’s left is the truth. It’s very important you stand with the truth and be recognized having stood with it.

“That’s the only thing that keeps me going. I’m firm, forthright and respectful and always telling the truth. Of late, it has worked in some respects for me.”

If Whiteclay confirmed anything, he said, it’s that “nothing changes unless someone’s made to feel uncomfortable and you have to make yourself uncomfortable.” In dealing with Whiteclay, he said, he expressed his “healthy disrespect for authority.”

“Maybe it’s a character flaw,” he said, “but you can put me in a room with a hundred people and if there’s a bully, before the night’s over I’ll probably butt heads with him.”

As a young man he was active “on the periphery” of the American Indian Movement. Later in life he got close to AIM legends Russell Means and Vernon Bellacourt. The men became allies in many fights.

“I saw Native people and non-Native people be bullied simply because somebody felt they had a position of power over them and whenever I see that I naturally react to that. I don’t care what the issue is, I’ll ask, ‘Who do you think you are? Why are you doing that? Why are you treating him or her that way?’ I’ve said that. I’ve always grown up with that feeling that if somebody is being mistreated, I will always speak up for them.”

Whiteclay offered a microcosm of predatory behavior.

“When I first went to Whiteclay 20 years ago, I took one look and you could see the Natives who went there did not have a voice and were not held in high regard. The owners and residents paid little attention to them. The other thing I saw there was the lawlessness and the mistreatment of vulnerable people being taken advantage of. I saw it and so could everybody else. Then I saw how nobody acted, so I thought perhaps I should give some voice to them.”

The still unsolved murders there of Little John Means, Ronald Hard Heart and Wilson Black Elk weighed on him. The alcohol-related illness and death of others haunted him.

“The alcohol coming out of Whiteclay has killed scores of Lakotas and we’re still waiting for that one white man or white woman, God forbid, who dies on the road between Rushville and Whiteclay.’

The documentary The Battle for Whiteclay shows LaMere at a hearing railing against “the double standard” that overlooks Native deaths.

“It means we feel there’s two classes of citizens here in this state. Would we allow the things in Whiteclay in western Omaha or southeast Lincoln? I don’t think so. Scores of our people … victimized, orphaned, many of our people murdered. God forbid that one young white woman, one white man, die at Whiteclay tonight. We’d shut the damn thing down in the morning, and the pathetic thing about that is we all know that’s the truth.”

LaMere feels that double-standard still exists.

“We want everything at Whiteclay to be just right, but we cannot even take care of the clear and simple. There’s one thing you know you can do under the law – you can shut them down, and they’ve done that, and they’re having problems keeping them shut.”

He refuses to be patronized because he’s learned from experience that playing the game doesn’t get results.

“You’ll pat me on the head and say, Frank, you’re a great guy, I appreciate what you’re bringing to us, but I know in the back of your mind you don’t want to change anything. You’ll even give me a permit to march or picket. But I bet you won’t do that for 20 years. You can handle a year and then say – this damn guy never goes away, perhaps we should sit and listen to him.”

LaMere regrets the one time he took things for granted.

“I made a mistake many years ago. I raised the issue of Whiteclay. We got a lot initiated with then-Gov. (Ben) Nelson. He put together groups of officials from Sheridan County, Pine Ridge, state agencies, and we talked about the lawlessness issues up there. So we got something in the works a long time ago and I appreciated that process. I made the mistake though of thinking it’s a no-brainer. I thought all I have to do is bring this back to Lincoln and Nebraskans will change it.

“I was too hopeful. Many Nebraskans would change it but those in power did not. Where there’s money involved, nothing is a no-brainer. People are going to weigh the money and the impact. Those with influence and monied interests are probably going to win out. That’s what I watched. Whiteclay is perhaps the poster child for greed, not in Neb. but maybe in the whole nation. It ranks up there with Flint (Mich.).”

For too long, he said, the attitude about Whiteclay was, “We know what we’re doing but it’s going to cost us money, it’s going to cost me to do my job in the public trust. Just leave it the way it is.” Because the problem was allowed to persist, he said, “Whiteclay will go down in our history as something we tolerated and that we will forever be ashamed of, and we’re only going to understand that when the Supreme Court makes that final decision to shut ’em down. Then we’re going to take a look at what we’ve truly done.”

Meanwhile, LaMere won’t rest easy. When well-meaning people offer condolences about Lexie and lament her unfulfilled promise, he said he accepts their sympathy but corrects them, saying, “There’s no unfulfilled promise – it’s more for you to do, it’s more for me to do.

“That’s how it is. That keeps me going. That’s the way I’ll be until I’m not here anymore.”

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

Wounded Knee Still a Battleground for Some Per New Book by Journalist-Author Stew Magnuson

April 20, 2013 Leave a comment

 

Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in S.D.  The name evokes many things to many people.  First of all, it depends on which of the two most notorious episodes associated with Wounded Knee you’re referring to:  the 1890 massacre of Native American men, women, and children by the U.S. 7th Calvary or the 1973 occupation of this small outpost and surrounding territory by American Indian Movement activists.  Even when you fix on one of these dark events, there’s a mix of feelings aroused, including among the very people who experienced the occupation on one side or the other.  Journalist-author Stew Magnuson’s new book Wounded Knee 1973: Still Bleeding takes the measure of the wildly different interpretations of who bears culpability for what was supposed to be a peaceful protest turning ugly and violent.  My story about Magnuson and his book is soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com).

 

 

 

 

 

Wounded Knee Still a Battleground for Some Per New Book by Journalist-Author Stew Magnuson

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Journalist and author Stew Magnuson’s new book Wounded Knee 1973: Still Bleeding finds virtually every survivor of that 71-day occupation on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in S.D. sullied in some way.

The book by this Omaha native, who did a Peace Corps stint before a freelance correspondent career, explains how what began as a symbolic stand protesting historic wrongs to native peoples ended up a deadly siege. Its American Indian Movement organizers became heroes to some and criminals to others.

As the site of an 1890 atrocity committed by U.S. 7th Calvary troops against the Lakota Sioux, Wounded Knee was a powerful stage to send a message. But when the peaceful occupation turned violent confrontation between activists and authorities the symbology got lost amid the resulting deaths, injuries, property damage, theft and bitter feelings. The ensuing trials uncovered misdeeds on both sides but fell short of satisfying truth or justice.

Magnuson describes how everyone involved has very different interpretations of events that spring in 1973.

“Everyone’s got a piece of the puzzle and a legitimate point of view, but there’s a lot of b.s.,” he says. “There’s the possibility some very nefarious things happened inside there.”

A key figure in the occupation was the late AIM leader Russell Means, whom Magnuson says was “an endlessly fascinating character. All the world was a stage to him. He kept that angry young man persona up to the very end.”

Magnuson discovered how far apart the factions can be at an Augustana College (S.D) .conference last April that gathered AIM leaders and opponents together. His 2008 book The Death of Raymond Yellow Thunder and its look at border town problems got him invited as a presenter. But he also went as a journalist.

“It was everything I thought it was going to be. Lots of fireworks, a lot of people yelling at each other and accusing each other of being liars. I’d never covered         anything like that.”

He’s covered a lot too. Racial strife, cultures clashing.

 

 

 

Stew Magnuson

 

 

He was visiting here between jobs in 1999 when he came upon a story that led him to Pine Ridge. He read about a recent riot in the border town of Whiteclay, Neb. and plans by AIM leaders to march there and by the state patrol to respond.

“This had all the elements of things I’d been covering,” says Magnuson. “I’d been told by some newspaper they didn’t think I could be a reporter in my own country, so I kind of took umbrage at that and called the Christian Science Monitor about covering this unfolding story.”

He got the assignment.

“A couple years later I decided to look more into Whiteclay and stumbled across the Yellow Thunder story.”

The Oglala Sioux was killed by a group of whites in a 1972 racially motivated attack in Gordon, Neb. That event and the trial that followed galvanized AIM and its Wounded Knee occupation the next year. Coming to the story three decades later, Magnuson saw the makings of a book.

“I just threw myself into the project. I went and worked in a salmon cannery in Alaska for the summer to raise money to go up to Sheridan County (Neb.) and live there as long as I could to do the research.”

His Yellow Thunder Book won high praise. When the Augustana conference came around he saw an opportunity for a piece of long form journalism or a short book timed with the 40th anniversary of the Wounded Knee occupation. He found a publisher in Now and Then Reader.

He says a comprehensive account of what happened still needs writing. In his book virtually every occupation figure has a self-serving ax to grind. An exception is Adrienne Fritze. As a 12-year old she was held captive with her family. She went to Augustana hoping for reconciliation and an apology. She got neither.

“There’s some people who want a kind of truth telling commission. Well, we really don’t have a mechanism for that in America. The main mystery that needs to be resolved is what happened to (civil rights activist) Ray Robinson. It’s very well established he was inside the occupied village and has not been seen since. He has a family asking about where he is. His widow was at the conference.”

He says “the bigger historical questions of what did the occupation mean and what were its implications” are matters “people will be debating for decades to come. Did it raise awareness to the very real grievances, like the abuse of border schools and terrible government policies that AIM wanted to bring attention to? I would argue yes it did. But it brought years of violence afterwards, It stopped the progression of the reservation. It was kind of devastating for Pine Ridge.”

He says if anyone’s to write the full story they need to hurry, “A lot of these participants are not going to be with us a whole lot longer.”

Meanwhile, Magnuson, whose day job is managing editor of National Defense Magazine based in Washington D.C., hopes to finish a book on Highway 83. His backroads adventures on it as a boy and young man sparked his wanderlust life.

He will sign copies of his Wounded Knee book starting at 12:30 p.m. on April 28 at The Bookworm.

He muses on Native American issues on his “View from a Washichu” (white guy) blog, http://www.stewmagnuson.blogspot.com.

 

During the occupation, ©framework.latimes.com

Indigenous Music Celebrated in Omaha Conservatory of Music Nebraska Roots Concert

March 25, 2012 Leave a comment

An arts organization with a great reputation for quality that deserves more recognition and support is the Omaha Conservatory of Music.  The following story previewed a recent concert by the conservatory celebrating music of the Omaha Nation that brought students from area high schools together with students from St. Augustine Mission School on the Winnebago Reservation and Omaha Indian elders.

 

 

Maria Newman

 

 

Indigenous Music Celebrated in Omaha Conservatory of Music Nebraska Roots Concert

©by Leo Adam Biga

Published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Indigenous themes take center stage for a March 24 Omaha Conservatory of Music concert that culminates the school’s Nebraska Roots: Native American Music of the Omaha Indian Tribe curriculum. The program is also the conservatory’s annual Winter Festival Orchestra showcase.

Various ensembles featuring conservatory students and youth players from  schools near and far will perform along with Omaha Indian tribal elders and students from St. Augustine Mission School on the Winnebago (Neb.) Reservation. Premiering are two pieces for orchestral strings written by OCM faculty member Danny Sarba that he adapted from Native tunes. One is the “Flag Song.” The other is “The Appreciation Song.”

A featured presentation is the Winter Festival Orchestra performing a movement from the OCM-commissioned and Pulitzer Prize and Grawemeyer Award nominated “La pert de la Terre” by noted violinist and composer Maria Newman. A member of a Hollywood dynasty of film composers, she drew on Native peace pipe melodies for her new work.

“She’s a stunning composer and she’s credited a pretty stunning work,” says OCM executive director Ruth Meints.

 

 

David Barg

 

 

Guest conductor is David Barg, whom Meints describes as “an internationally known conductor” with “unorthodox methods” for getting the best out of young players.

The 7 p.m. program at Joslyn Art Museum’s Witherspoon Concert Hall is free and open to the public.

Meints says the diverse concert expresses the nonprofit’s mission to build artistic communities through education and performance. “We’re always trying to do collaborative things that build community,” she says. “It should be a pretty full program. It’s kind of like all worlds are colliding.”

The concert caps a year’s exploration of “the first music of Nebraska.” Tribal elders Calvin Harlan and Pierre Merrick came to the conservatory, located in new digs at the Westside Community Center, to demonstrate the traditional way Omaha Indian music is performed. It’s all part of OCM’s effort to archive the music. A drum circle led by Harlan and Merrick was recorded at the OCM studio. The March concert will also be professionally recorded. CDs containing the recordings will eventually be produced with a book of the transcribed music.

The idea to study, perform and record indigenous music has its roots in a 1893 book that Meints, a music educator, stumbled upon years ago. A Study of Omaha Indian Music by ethno-musicologist Alice Fletcher is a compilation of Omaha Indian chants and ceremonial music she recorded and transcribed. With Omaha Indian music a largely oral tradition and few Native speakers left, Meints thought the time right to celebrate and perpetuate traditional Native material and make it the focus of cross-cultural exchange.

She says elders have shared with students stories about the meanings behind the songs and students have performed for them selections from the new compositions by Sarba. Sarba spent time on the res and in Omaha recording-transcribing the elders’ music much as Fletcher did more than a century ago.

 

 

 

 

Ruth Meints
Ruth Meints

 

 

Conservatory teacher Cody Jorgensen is doing an outreach program with St. Augustine Mission students, including 2nd and 4th graders coming to sing for the concert.

Newman, a guest artist at the OCM summer institute, responded strongly when Meints asked her to conceive a piece echoing Native sounds. Her “La perte de la Terra” premiered at last year’s institute and has since been performed widely across the U.S.. Fletcher’s book became Newman’s inspiration. “I found that absolutely fascinating,” she says. “Just as Bela Bartok did with Romanian and Hungarian folk music and all the vernacular music of those peoples, Alice Fletcher did with Omaha Indian Nation music. Our country has for so many years been obsessed with European music, so I think what she did was really significant.”

Until working on the commission Newman says her exposure to Indian music was “in a cliche manner” informed by her own family’s Hollywood pedigree.

“We here in Hollywood have often been bombarded with real cliches of cowboys and Indians and that sort of thing, and so I was petrified to tell you the truth when I received this commission that I was going to offend somehow with my composition. I had not studied Indian music to the extent that I could understand what was going on with the small variations in tonality, intonation, musical contour. All of those things became so much more apparent when I began to study the Alice Fletcher book.

“I really worked hard to try to figure out how to use the pentatonic or five-note scale used by the Indian nations. I didn’t want to take one of those chants Alice Fletcher had on paper and arrange it. What I wanted to do was write something completely original. I was desperately trying to run away from cliche. I sought to create something that was somehow infused rhythmically and harmonically with the essence of those materials.”

Newman says “La perte de la Terra” translates literally as “A Part of the Earth” but that to French Indians it means “Lost Pieces of the Earth,” which expresses more closely what she means to evoke.

“I have a really great respect for our Native American cultures. A lot of blood was given by the Native American people in the white man taking over this continent. The blood they shed went into what made our country. Things like the Lewis and Clark Expedition and Louisiana Purchase also formed the country. These lost pieces of the earth came together as a puzzle and connected so that we could now hopefully join our nations and become one great nation.”

For more on the conservatory, visit http://www.omahacm.org.

Entrepreneur, Strategist and Nation Builder Taylor Keen

March 13, 2012 7 comments

Fascinating profile subjects abound everywhere I turn.  Often times though I feel constrained to impart just how compelling a person’s story is by the limited space editors grant me.  The subject of this of this profile, Taylor Keen, is a case in point.  The 500 to 600 words allotted me to tell his story can only provide a hint of the complexity and nuance that attend his life and career journey. It’s a delightful writing challenge to be sure.  All I can hope is that I leave you the reader with an engaging glimpse of the man and a thirst to know more.

 
Taylor Keen

 

 

Entrepreneur, Strategist and Nation Builder Taylor Keen 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to appear in Omaha Magazine

As the son of prominent, college-educated Native American parents who found success in and out of traditional circles, Creighton University‘s Taylor Keen says he grew up with the expectation “you had to walk in both worlds.”

He hails from northeast Oklahoma, where his late attorney father, Ralph F. Keen, was a conservative big wheel in Cherokee nation politics. His liberal Omaha Indian mother, Octa Keen, is a veteran nursing professional. He credits her for his being well-versed in traditional dances, songs and prayer ceremonies.

He successfully navigates “dual worlds” at Creighton as director of the Native American Center and as executive director of the Halo Institute, a business incubator. He’s also managing partner of his own consulting firm. Talon Strategy, which provides clients competitive intelligence and strategic facilitation solutions.

Off-campus, he maintains ceremonial duties as a member of the Omaha Hethuska Warriors. He previously did economic development consulting for the Omaha and Cherokee nations and served a stint on the Cherokee National Council.

He joined Creighton in 2008 in the wake of a tribal political controversy that pitted him against fellow Cherokee nation elected leaders. The issue involved the descendants of slaves held by the Cherokee in earlier times. Keen, who had eyes on becoming chief, says he “committed political suicide” when he took an unpopular stance and advocated these descendants enjoy the same rights as all native Cherokees.

 

 

   

It wasn’t the first time Keen survived personal upset. When his parents divorced he and his siblings bounced back and forth between Oklahoma and Omaha. With deep roots in each place, Keen calls both home.

Even from his earliest dealings with the outside world he says he was always aware “I was very different from other people,” adding, “That was a crucial life lesson. Identity for all of us as human beings is where it begins and ends.” He says his own “strong sense of identity” has helped him thrive.

He graduated from Millard North and ventured east to attend a private boarding school in Massachusetts to improve his chances of getting into an Ivy League institution. His plan worked when Dartmouth accepted him. He also studied at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and Harvard Business School. A paper he wrote attracted the attention of Metropolitan Fiber Systems, a spin-off of Peter Kiewit and Sons. “I was hired as a graduate intern at a very exciting time, working for all these powerful executives at a fresh young startup. I was hooked,” he says. “I returned the next summer and they sent me overseas.”

He remained with the firm after it was bought by World Com and then landed at Level 3 Communications, though it proved a short stay.

Swept up in the dot com-technology-telecom boom, he tried his hand at his own online business and though he says “it failed miserably,” he adds, “I learned a ton.  I think all entrepreneurs learn more from their mistakes than from their successes.

My class at Harvard Business School, whether we like it or not, will be forever remembered as the dot com class. I believe 80 percent of us at least had some association with dot coms.”

Encouraged in the belief that his true calling lay in teaching, he’s found the right fit at Creighton. There he combines two of his favorite things by easing the path of Natives in higher education and by helping emerging businesses prepare themselves for angel investors .

“Creighton’s been very good to me,” he says. “It has very much let me play towards my passions and my strengths.”

 
 
 
 

Native American Survival Strategies Shared Through Theater and Testimony

July 18, 2011 7 comments

As a storyteller I have sought out the stories of African-Americans and, more recently, Latinos, and now I am feeling drawn to Native Americans, a population that all too often is unseen and unheard in the mainstream.  I intend for the following story I did for El Perico to serve as my entree into the Native American scene in Omaha. The story covered a program that featured a work of theater and a series of testimonies by elders, all providing a primer on Native American survivance strategies. I look forward to learning more about the struggles and triumphs of these indigenous people.

 

 

 

 

Native American Survival Strategies Shared Through Theater and Testimony

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in El Perico

 

On Sunday, July 10 a two-part program offered glimpses inside Native American life, ranging from absurd to profound, joyful to despairing.

A mixed audience of about 150 at the Rose Theater‘s black box Hitchcock space witnessed the The Indigenous Collective of Theater & Art (TICOTA) and Red Ink magazine production. TICOTA founder Sheila Rocha directed. The spare stage adorned only with original artwork by Dakota artist Donel Keeler.

Leading things off was a Reader’s Theater presentation of the in-progress one-act play, Obscenities from a Toaster, by Valery Killscrow Copeland. It was followed by Speaking of the Elders — Intertribal Stories of Survivance, with four local elders testifying about being poor in possessions but rich in life.

Setting the mood was the hand drum rhythms, chant and song of Mike Valerio and the Lakota prayer offered by Steve Tobacco. Introductory remarks by Rocha promised a program impartiing lessons for “how to manage ourselves and to find our way into the future.”

In her intro, Copeland described Obscenities “as a mental health awareness play” that combines truth and fiction in its depiction of growing up with a schizophrenic mother. Copeland read the part of the touched mother, Betsy, whose magical talking toaster is the bedeviling Native American trickster figure.

Amid the farce are sober reminders of hard times. Betsy, like many Native women, is a single mother struggling to get by and always being let down by men. Family is her last bastion of security. The toaster, read by Richard Barea, tells her, “We’re good together, can’t you see that?” and in a flash of insight Betsy replies, “You’re not good for me.”

In a piece Rocha aptly calls “tender, gentle, witty and a lot of fun,” rationality and insanity are in the eye of the beholder and hard to distinguish. “Valery loves to work with the brutal realities and brutal truths,” says Rocha, “but she can very skillfully turn it into the funniest events.”

After the warmly received reading the elders appeared, the audience standing on cue, while Valerio performed an honor drum song in homage to the old ones’ resolute survival and simple wisdom. One by one, these proud “living libraries,” as Rocha terms them, recounted anecdotes of endurance.

Lester Killscrow, Oglala Sioux, Lakota Nation

Despite growing up poor on the Pine Ridge Reservation, Killscrow enjoyed a carefree childhood, though racist border towns and doctrinaire Catholic schools left their mark. Grateful for keeping his Indian ways, he’s fluent in the Lakota language and expert in beading, both of which he teaches. He also dances at powwows.

When the Vietnam War Army veteran was given less than a year to live, he embarked on a healing journey that got his mind-body-spirit “in good shape.” He maintains himself today through rigorous physical and spiritual exercise. He desires giving young Natives hope they can attain anything they want if they apply themselves. He closed with a Lakota saying: “In the spirit of Crazy Horse, today walk with a gentle spirit.”

Violet Gladfelter, Deer Clan, Omaha Nation

For Gladfelter, “my family, my friends, my tribe, my religion,” are foundational. She remains rooted to her culture as a traditional powwow dancer. She shares her culture in presentations at schools and community groups. Growing up, she joined her family in crop fields across Nebraska and Colorado to labor as a migrant worker. “That was how we survived,” she says.

She considers her fluency in her Native tongue “a gift that was given me.” She passes on her language and religion as tradition and legacy to her children and grandchildren. She regards all indigenous peoples as related. “We’re all one Indian,” she says.

 

 

 

 

Myrna Red Owl, Santee Sioux

As a urban Indian growing up in the North Omaha projects and then in South Omaha, Red Owl responded to taunts with fists. Her fighting didn’t end then, as she became a Native American activist and supporter of the American Indian Movement during and after the Wounded Knee siege. Her work to free imprisoned AIM leader Leonard Peltier continues. Another ongoing battle is with diabetes.

“I also fight with living,” says Red Owl, who’s worked for Native community organizations.

Cassie Rhodes, Cheyenne-Arapaho

A victim of “the split feather syndrome,” Rhodes was placed in an orphanage and adopted by a non-Indian family. Deprived of her culture, she was made to feel ashamed of being an Indian. As an adult she reconnected with her home and family and served Native community agencies. She often performs in Native productions and powwows.

“It’s so important to know who you are and where you come from, otherwise you’re lost.  Many of us were lost — we had an identity crisis,” she says, adding, “It’s never too late to find out who your real family is.”

Rocha says its vital sharing these stories and experiences before the elders pass.

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