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University of Oklahoma Press, 2000
Betraying the Omaha Nation, 1790-1916
By Judith A. Boughter
University of Oklahoma Press, 1998
Imperfect Victories: The Legal Tenacity of the Omaha Tribe, 1945-1995
By Mark R. Sherer
University of Nebraska Press, 1999
Reviews by Kirk Zebolsky
Benson Tongs book thoroughly documents complicated conflicts between cultures as it recounts the work of an intriguing cultural broker. Tong focuses on a woman, Susan La Flesche Picotte, with heroic virtuesthe first American Indian woman college-trained to be a physician.
Picotte was born on the Omaha reservation in 1865 or 1866, a time of armed conflict on the Great Plains, but she saw nothing of the Plains Indian Wars. As Tong writes, many Omahas, including Picottes father, Chief Joseph La Flesche, chose to journey toward acculturation and the selective adoption of Euro-American culture.
Descended from Native American grandmothers and from grandfathers with European roots, Picotte was educated by Presby- terians and Quakers on the Omaha reservation, at the Elizabeth Institute For Young Ladies in New Jersey, at Hampton Institute in Virginia, and at Womans Medical College in Philadelphia. Her extended family included those who recommended adaptation and education for Indians, such as her father, and others who refused to speak English unless they had to, including her mother. Picotte missed out on the important Omaha ritual of the naming ceremony in childhood, and in her own words she came from the tepee to civilization. Yet, as Tong writes in his final paragraph, she never lost her Indianness.
As a cultural mediator, Picotte advocated temperance, work, Christianity, and the land rights she claimed for her family and other Omahas. She often represented the Omahas in their efforts to protect and manage their properties. In this capacity, Susans brokerage attempts were less on behalf of Euro-American civilization and more in the interest of Indian rights, Tong writes. Ironically, her efforts would promote the dispossession of the Omahas.
Her dilemma was similar to that of her father, who endorsed education by whites and was at times spurned by fellow Omahas. She called for Indian autonomy but also for federal protection from land-hungry capitalists. After Omahas were allotted land in the 1880s, they lost control of much of it in the following decades by selling or leasing it.
Picotte lobbied against government delays in paying Omahas for their land, land grafters maneuvering Indians into fraudulent land transactions through the use of alcohol, and a syndicates land- grabbing tactics.
As physician to the government boarding school, she talked to students about physiology and hygiene and gave lessons in English and math; she also sang hymns, made scrapbooks, told Euro- American folktales, and practiced marching skills with the students.
Tong shows how she used her connections to raise funds for a reservation hospitalher life-long aspirationwhich was named for her.
Tong touches on Omaha history and cultural traditions before giving Picottes family history. He recounts interactions that occurred after the arrival of Europeans in Omaha territory, including cross- cultural relations that shaped the lives of her parents and grandparents. In addressing the policy of assimilation and the doctrine of manifest destiny, Tong explains how they helped cause excessive alcohol use, the decreased practicing of traditional culture, and poverty among the Omahas. Photographs depict Susan, her family, and some of her contemporaries.
Whatbesides a hospitaldid Picotte get for her activism? Surely she experienced frustration, seeing that much of her work had been in vain. But society gained a lot from her example, which shows that a life lived between cultures can be difficult and exacting, yet valuable and important.
Judith Boughter writes in Betraying the Omaha Nation, 1790-1916 about the depletion of Omahas lands, injustices committed by whites, and the tensions between traditional and progressive forces.
Boughter makes it clear who she thinks is to blame for the Omahas dispossession. White settlers and land speculators resented Indian ownership of fertile northeastern Nebraska lands and, beginning in the early 1850s, used every means at their disposal to separate the Indians from their real estate, she writes, Unfortunately, Nebraska senators and congressmen worked closely with land speculators to promote special legislation thatlittle by little, law by unfair lawencouraged Indians to lease, and eventually sell, most of their land.
Boughter, who was a graduate history student in Nebraska, calls this book basically my masters thesis. In it she assaults the dominant cultures shortcomings in dealing with the Omahas. Sadly, she writes, the governments granting land forever to the Indians meant nothing.
Boughter addresses politics, trading, treaties, land sales, annuities, and land allotment, followed by the leasing and selling of allotments. According to her accounts, the Omahas received pitifully little in return for lands they considered theirs. Tax breaks were one benefit, but white Nebraskans sometimes objected to Indians being off tax rolls. Such concerns of whites were sometimes placated.
She writes that the 1825 Fort Atkinson Treaty marked a surrender of Indian rights and sovereignty and set a precedent by which the U.S. government took from the Indians and gave little in return. The Omahas had already lost so much. The buffalo were disappearing, many lives had been lost to enemy raids and disease, and thanks to the fur trade, Omaha values had changed and their culture was in disarray.
In 1854, Omahas agreed to a treaty that ceded much of their ancestral land; they also agreed to move to a reservation. Fears of the Sioux kept them from the reservation: Once again, they became a wandering nation in search of a safe, permanent home. Their suffering at the hands of the government had only just begun.
By about 1880, the Omahas no longer feared the Sioux, but they did fear the future, according to Boughter. For nearly 30 years they had been cheated, lied to, and forced to surrender many of their old ways. Promises had been made and broken, and their tribal government had been dismantled ...they had been asked to farm without money or machinery. After allotment in severalty in the 1880s, The door was open to white greed, according to Boughter. The Omahas, who were now citizens without recourse to law and were owners of valuable agricultural lands, would be victimized in the 1890s by unscrupulous whites hovering about the reservation fringes. Yet the commissioner of Indian Affairs was sure the Omahas allotment would be a model for other tribes to emulate.
The 1854 treaty made with the Omahas was invoked in court through the Indian Claims Commission and an award ensued. The Omahas ICC claims were considered over 14 yearsa legal process examined by Mark R. Scherer in Imperfect Victories. Sherer also describes the Omahas legal battles to recover land now on the east side of the Missouri River and to survive Public Law 280, which temporarily gave the state of Nebraska civil and criminal jurisdiction on the Omaha reservation.
Scherer accuses the federal government of using the Omahas as guinea pigs for new policies. He gives a great deal of detail in depicting the trials that resulted in some compensation for the ill effects of such policies. Without much focus on personalities, these accounts can be dry reading. But Scherer does give good introductions to them, as well as strategies, arguments, and the outcomes.
According to Scherer, the government was headed in the right direction early in the 20th century when it issued the Merriam Report, which named allotment and strict acculturation as the major causes of deplorable conditions on reservations. The Indian New Deal called for the cessation of the allotment process and implementation of a new system of Indian sovereignty and self-government. That led to the ICC, through which Indians could collect money for lost land. But the ICC was undermined...by the burgeoning terminationist ideology, as tribal claims became enmeshed with and co-opted by the assimilationist aims of the Truman and Eisenhower administrations, Sherer writes.
The ICC became an instrument of termination policy under which Indian nations lost federal support. Through PL 280 the federal government abandoned law enforcement in Thurston County, leading to deteriorating law-and-order conditions on the Omaha reservation.
Scherer reports that the Omahas gained several million dollars through the ICC and, as one of the first nations to test the ICC, prompted the Omaha Rule, used as a guideline for subsequent claims. The Omaha Rule required an open hearing, among other provisions.
Money from ICC claims was distributed to individual Omahas and for various projects. The Omahas also won land on the Iowa side of the Missouri River, on which they operate a casino.
Scherer, who calls the Omahas legal warriors, writes in the introduction that they have achieved a prominence in the annals of federal Indian relations. ...it was the Omahas perceived success on the reservation during the 1860s and 1870s that would lead to further government attempts to undermine their tribal identity through assimilationist reforms.
Beginning in the 1870s, and continuing virtually to this day, the Omahas have borne more than their fair share of the burden of shifting government policies. Indeed, since the establishment of the reservation in northeast Nebraska in 1854, the Omahas have served involuntarily as sociological guinea pigs in the laboratory of federal Indian policy, with each new program contributing, until recently, to a cumulatively disastrous effect on the tribes culture and economy...government bureaucrats and assimilationist advocates touted the Omaha experiment as a success, paving the way for the landmark 1887 Dawes Sever- alty Act, which extended the allotment program nationwide.
Scherer includes an account of the Omahas history as background for their 20th century legal struggles. He also gives helpful historical context when discussing the origins and widespread effects of federal policies. Z
Kirk Zeblosky has a bachelor of journalism degree and a master of arts in English.