Executive Director of the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs Judi gaiashkibos speaks at the Dr. Susan La Flesche Picotte Sculpture Dedication at Centeniall Mall.

November is Native American Heritage Month. This year’s commemoration is particularly notable in Nebraska for following our state’s first official recognition of Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

The day of remembrance and resilience has been celebrated in Nebraska for decades, but this year’s official state recognition adds something new - a hopeful change in the direction of Native American rights across the country. 

We sat down with Judi gaiashkibos, Executive Director of the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs, to talk about history, Native rights and Native futures. 

This month, we’re celebrating Native American Heritage Month following the first official state recognition of Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Can you talk about the importance of this recognition and how we got here? 

Indigenous Peoples’ Day was such a wonderful day in Nebraska. The weather was perfect and I think it really reflected the spirit of a bill that took a long time for us to get to this point.  

I believe the end result of the legislation demonstrates that, in Nebraska, there is a desire to do better and be better. I felt such an energy within the audiences that attended both the Capitol flags ceremony and the unveiling of Dr. Susan La Flesche Picotte. We had 600 people there and so many commented that they have never been at a gathering in Nebraska that had such a healing feeling to it. 

I think it's time way overdue that we had this celebration and I think that going forward we have a lot of opportunities to take that energy and channel it into positive policy changes. That's what our agency, the Indian Commission, wants to do. 

We want to celebrate our First Peoples and we want our state to recognize their sacrifices and contributions. We also want the state to partner with the First Peoples and remove barriers to sovereign nations so that they can access opportunities in our state, but there are still a lot of barriers in place. 

Talk more about that. What are some challenges facing Native American rights in Nebraska and what are some things the commission is doing to help? 

The biggest challenge is that most Nebraskans know very, very little about Native Americans. They think most of us are in the past and everything's in the past tense. There are still some people who embrace the motto, “the only good Indian is a dead Indian.”  

Richard Kraft started the Indian boarding schools nationally, with the first school established in Pennsylvania and the fourth school established here in Nebraska. These schools were started in 1879, the same year of the Standing Bear trial. It was also the same year we were recognized as human beings. Our agency has been working for over 20 years to tell the story of Standing Bear. These are stories seldom told. But now we are learning these stories because for the first time in America’s history, we have a Native American woman who is the secretary of the interior. 

I myself am a survivor descendant of these schools. My mother attended and survived the Genoa School here in Nebraska and I know for a fact that the majority of Nebraskans don't know that there was a school here that was founded on the model of “kill the Indian, keep the man.” 

Simultaneously we had the Dawes Act that removed 90 million acres of land from us. So our children were being assimilated, our land stolen, and if these kids survived these schools, they had no homeland to return to. Owning land is not part of our culture’s psyche, the land belonged to the Creator, and we were stewards of the land. So these systems were set up to steal the land and kill our culture. I know many Americans do not know this story. 

Until you learn the policies and history that brought us to where we are now, you won't understand what happened to Native People and why they aren't having the same outcomes as others in our white-dominant society. 

I always say, I'm not an Indian of your imagination. I am proud to be a Ponca citizen and Santee Sioux and I'm not going to give that up. I would hope that in the spirit of Dr. Susan La Flesche Picotte that Nebraskans start to celebrate our First People and not ask us to give up our culture, our heritage, our religion so that you can feel better about the past. 

How can we – both Indigenous Nebraskans and those who aren’t – preserve Native American heritage and histories while also looking forward? 

We are so glad that on Centennial Mall, rising up are the forms of Dr. Susan La Flesche Picotte and Chief Standing Bear. But more than that, I think that we need to have it be a living legacy and an ongoing dialogue with actions that result from being inspired by those stories. I want students and families to go and learn and read and educate themselves about Indian people. Learn that they can advocate to their policymakers, to their ministers, through their churches, to their schools and say “We want the truth. We want the whole story. We want FIrst Peoples to be included in our history. We don't want to continue policies that are discriminatory and racist towards Indian people.” 

Don’t just teach about us in the past tense but recognize that we are sovereign nations in Nebraska that have lands and opportunity to exercise our rights and share our stories. 

We really need to elect people that will stand up for truth and honesty and not just for political agendas and for maintaining the status quo. It's time to challenge the status quo and say we're not going to just recognize your people for one month and get you off the bookshelf and dust you off with little ceremonies at school to recognize you. No. It needs to be integrated systemically and through all facets of daily life. 

We are very capable people, and given the same opportunities, we can succeed.  

We want to love our country. Our Native people serve at a higher rate to protect America because even though we faced atrocities at home, we love our homeland, and we have nowhere to go back to but here.