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Native Americans urge action at Neihardt Conference

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BANCROFT, Neb. – Five hundred years after European colonization, Native Americans need to look to themselves for answers to cultural and community problems, as a speaker told the annual Neihardt Spring Conference April 25.

The Rev. George “Tink” Tinker, a member of the Osage tribe and an ordained Lutheran minister, spoke on the topic of “Spiritual Lives,” but not in laying out descriptions on the ceremonial either so attractive to “New Age” or repellent to Christian fundamentalism, but with historic background on the presence of European-based religious doctrines and their impact on the tribes. He said neither the U.S. government nor European religions will provide the answers for the “dysfunction” within Native American families, communities and culture.

“They (non-Native entities) have their own desires about how we live out our lives and what we should become,” said Tinker, who teaches at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver.

“The confusion we live with after 500 years isn’t going to be cleared up by the U.S. government or by churches,” because the cultures are so different. For instance, the number 4 is the most important in Indian culture, while 3 is the holiest number in Christian religions. Indian spirituality also emphasizes salvation of the entire community, while European religions focus on individual salvation and enlightenment.

Tinker told of how today, the return to traditional Native ceremonies, such as the Sun Dance, have helped many rediscover a more balanced path, keeping their own spiritual heritage while functioning more effectively in modern society.

Nearly 100 people attended the 28th annual conference “Neihardt and 21st Century Native Realities” focused on the current state of America’s first peoples – a frequent theme for John G. Neihardt, Nebraska’s Poet Laureate in Perpetuity, perhaps best known for the 1932 book “Black Elk Speaks” detailing the life and visions of an Oglala Lakota Holy Man.

Along with Tinker, four other Native American speakers tackled presenting both the history and current situation of a number of issues.

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Judi Morgan gaiashkibos, Ponca, executive director of the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs, spoke on “Tribes, the State, and Community – A Vital Partnership” about the intricate balance of the needs of both on-reservation and off-reservation urban Native communities within the “three-way citizenship” of Native peoples – as members of tribes, counties and states while still maintaining sovereignty under treaties with the federal government.

She shared stories of urban-Indian life, having grown up one of 10 children living in a small house in a junkyard in Norfolk because the owner was the only man who would rent to Indians, and went on to obtain a master’s degree in public administration and head the commission.

Walter Echo-Hawk, Pawnee, former senior staff attorney for Native American Rights Fund, gave a fascinating look at “The Evolution of Native American Rights” beginning with the sovereign nation-to-nation relationship of the 18th century to the conquest and paternalistic policies of the 19th and 20th centuries. Echo-Hawk said as more Native people take advantage of educational and business opportunities and see themselves more in line with their original status as sovereign nations, they are “lawyering up” so to speak and making their own cases heard on issues like religious freedom, artistic and intellectual property and land and resources.

Shirley Sneve, Sicangu Lakota, executive director of Native American Public Telecommunications in Lincoln gave a multimedia presentation on how the use of modern technology is helping Native peoples in “Telling Our Own Stories.”

An example is the current series “We Shall Remain” which examines four seminal stories through the lives of four remarkable leaders. Documentary films, plays, interviews, broadcasting and journalism internships, language renaissance programs, are all part of NAPT and AIROS mission to help Indian people tell their stories to the world. The Neihardt conference was taped and AIROS will podcast it so it reaches Native peoples and others across the state and beyond.

Dr. John Day, professor emeritus of art at the University of South Dakota, gave a Power Point presentation following the “Changes in North American Plains Art,” specifically through the work of Yanktonais artist and educator Oscar Howe. Beginning with 1870s ledger art, which took hide painting skills and themes onto paper, Day moved to the Dorothy Dunn school and the Kiowa Five with formulaic renditions of landscapes, people and animals for the non-Indian market, to Howe’s breakaway into abstract inspiring “Indian artists to express themselves as engaged Native people living in a changing contemporary world.”

An exhibit of 20 paintings from the Oscar Howe and Robert Penn collections are on loan from U.S.D. and will remain on display through May 30.

The 44th Annual Neihardt Day Celebration will be held Aug. 2. The Neihardt State Historic Site is located at 306 West Elm St., Bancroft, Neb. and is a branch museum of the Nebraska State Historical Society. Hours are Monday through Saturday 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. and Sundays 1:30 – 5 p.m. For information e-mail or call (888) 777-4667 or (402) 648-3388.