Vernon Miller: NMAI’s Meet Native America Series

The National Museum of the American Indian interview series Meet Native America continues today with Vernon Miller.
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In the interview series Meet Native America, the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian invites tribal leaders, cultural figures, and other interesting and accomplished Native individuals to introduce themselves and say a little about their lives and work. Together, their responses illustrate the diversity of the indigenous communities of the Western Hemisphere, as well as their shared concerns, and offer insights beyond what’s in the news to the ideas and experiences of Native peoples today.

Please introduce yourself with your name and title.

Vernon Miller, chairman, Omaha Tribe.

Can you share with us your Native name?

My Omaha Thunder Clan name is Standing in the Rain.

Where is the Omaha Tribe located?

Our reservation is located in northeast Nebraska and northwest Iowa. The Missouri River runs through our reservation.

Where was your tribe originally from?

The Omaha people migrated to the upper Missouri area and the Plains by the late 17th century from earlier locations in the Ohio River Valley. The Omaha speak a Siouan language of the Dhegihan branch, very similar to that spoken by the Ponca. The Ponca were part of the Omaha before splitting off into a separate tribe in the mid-18th century. We are related to Osage, Quapaw, and Kansa peoples, who also migrated west under pressure from the Iroquois in the Ohio Valley.

What is a significant point in history from your tribe that you would like to share?

Chief Blackbird (Wash-ing-guhsah-ba) (ca. 1750–1800) was the leader of the Omaha Tribe who commanded the trade routes used by Spanish, French, British, and later American traders until the late 18th century. He was one of the first of the Plains Indian chiefs to trade with white explorers and is also believed to be the first of the Plains Indian chiefs to openly question white encroachment.

Blackbird used trade as a means to prosperity for his people and as a way to ensure white explorers were aware that they were the guests. The Omaha were not warlike people, yet they were the first on the Great Plains to have mastered equestrianism and developed an equestrian culture around 1770 and were at one point, while Chief Blackbird was alive, the most powerful Indian tribe in the Great Plains.

How is your tribal government set up?

We are an Indian Reorganization Act tribe, and our constitution was established in June 1934. The Omaha Tribe has a seven-member Tribal Council, which governs our lands.

Is there a functional, traditional entity of leadership in addition to your modern government system? 

No.

How often are elected leaders chosen? 

We have staggered terms. Thus every year we have at least two seats on our Tribal Council that are up for election. Members of our Tribal Council serve a three-year term.

How often does your council meet?

Our Tribal Council meets two or three days a week

How did your life experience prepare you to lead your tribe?

I am amongst those in Indian country who have willingly decided to go back to their reservations and give back to their communities. With great pride and determination, I graduated from the University of Nebraska. I was involved in numerous co-curricular development opportunities while in college—Pi Kappa Alpha Fraternity, student government, the Native American Student Association, new student enrollment orientation, and a plethora of other opportunities. One experience that helped me to realize my desire to pursue involvement in government was the Washington Internship for Native Students.

To read the full interview, visit the NMAI series here.