Date of Award
Master of Arts (MA)
Most Americans are familiar with the Indian wars that raged on the western frontier during the nineteenth century. Images of Little Big Horn are firmly etched in the nation's collective memory and its popular culture. Wounded Knee has become a symbol for all that was wrong with United States— Sioux relations, and the Apache wars of the Southwest have been fodder for countless books and Hollywood films. Less well-known is the tragic story of the Omahas, a small Indian nation of present-day northeastern Nebraska which fell victim to geography, disease, shifting trade patterns, and white land hunger. The Omahas never clashed with the United States Army; instead, they became entangled in government "red tape" and fought a losing battle with federal bureaucrats, reformers, land speculators, and Nebraska politicians. Because their ancestral lands lay in the path of westward expansion in 1854, the government forced the Omahas onto a small reservation along the Missouri River in Nebraska's northeast comer. And because the Omaha Reservation included some of the most accessible and fertile land in the state, local white settlers and land syndicates conducted a relentless campaign to alienate Indians from their property. Most Omahas reluctantly ended their buffalo hunts and resisted adopting agriculture as their sole means of subsistence. But their peaceful nature made them prime candidates to become homesteaders, and because of the actions and words of only a few "progressive" tribal leaders, both the government and reformers overestimated the tribe's degree of acculturation. Due to this misconception, and often without their concurrence, the unfortunate Omahas became the prototype for several disastrous government programs during the assimilationist era. Omaha allotment preceded the 1887 Dawes Act by five years; whites infiltrated the Omaha Reservation by leasing Indian lands long before the Indian Department formulated a broader leasing plan for tribes throughout the nation, and the Omahas were the first tribe to begin losing their lands as the result of competency commissions. All of these "firsts" had disastrous effects on the Omaha people. But most eastern reformers and many Indian Department officials, anxious to free Native Americans from wardship and to assimilate them into the national "melting pot," ignored the tragic results of the Omaha experiments. Although forewarned by a few concerned reformers and by Indian agents in the field, the government nevertheless allotted more tribal lands and allowed more white leasing and land purchases. Unlike the Nebraska "land sharks" who preyed upon the Omahas, and Nebraska lawmakers whose primary interest was reelection, most reformers and Indian Office officials had good intentions. The Indian "problem" was a huge one with no quick or simple solution, and for decades the Department of Indian Affairs felt its way, trying to determine what was best for Native Americans, while at the same time bowing to the pressures of Manifest Destiny. Unfortunately, paternalistic reformers mistook the Omahas' desire to retain their tribal lands as a request for individual farms. The reformers' major sin was condescension; in their zeal to "help" the Nebraska tribe, they ignored Omaha traditions and made no attempt to understand the Indian concept of land tenure. By 1916, bureaucratic bungling, "special" legislation, and the misguided efforts of reformers had left many Omahas landless and facing an uncertain future. The Omahas were just one of many Indian tribes who suffered at the hands of reformers and the government in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The ultimate tragedy is found in how much the Omahas suffered, and how little government officials learned from their own mistakes. This study traces those mistakes, introduces the persons most responsible for them, and provides a better understanding of the government's overall Indian policy during this period in American history.
Boughter, Judith A., "Betraying their trust: The dispossession of the Omaha Nation, 1790-1916" (1995). Student Work. 503.
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