LINCOLN — Descendants of Nebraska’s first people and descendants of later arrivals came together on a sun-soaked October Monday to make history.
Hundreds of people gathered, first at the State Capitol and later along Lincoln’s Centennial Mall, for events marking the state’s first Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
The day included the installation of tribal flags in the Capitol and the unveiling of a bronze statue of Susan La Flesche Picotte, a member of the Omaha Tribe who became the nation’s first credentialed Native American doctor. There was also music, prayer, dancing and overflowing emotions.
“I am so happy to see all of you I can hardly remember who I am,” said Judy gaiashkibos, executive director of the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs and a member of the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska. “This day has been a long time coming.”
Susan Picotte, a great-granddaughter of the groundbreaking doctor, had a catch in her voice when expressing how much the day meant to the family. She is among the many family members who have carried on Picotte’s legacy by going into health care.
She and other family members joined in unveiling the sculpture, which stands along the pedestrian mall running between the Capitol and the University of Nebraska. A statute of Ponca Chief Standing Bear, who gained fame as a civil rights champion, stands a few blocks north along the same mall.
Ponca Tribal Chairman Larry Wright Jr. talked of the rich history of the Indigenous people who lived in what is now Nebraska and of their contributions to the state’s past, present and future. He particularly noted the number of Native Americans who have served in the military.
“Our people are still here,” Wright said. “We are the results of our ancestors’ prayers. We are those seeds of resistance. Our people have survived reservations, forced relocation, forced assimilation, boarding schools and, for some of us, termination.
“Today we’re here to celebrate who we are as an Indigenous people,” he said.
Tribal veterans carried the flags into the Capitol’s Warner Chamber, where they were installed. An eagle staff led the procession, with the American flag, the Nebraska flag and flags of various military branches joining the flags of Nebraska’s four recognized tribes, the Omaha, Winnebago, Santee Sioux and Ponca.
Another veteran, State Sen. Tom Brewer of Gordon, played a key role in the day’s events. He is a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe and the first Native American in the State Legislature.
Brewer teamed up with Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks of Lincoln on the 2020 law designating the second Monday of October as Indigenous Peoples’ Day and Columbus Day and requiring the tribal flags to be displayed in the Warner Chamber. The chamber was built when Nebraska had a two-house Legislature. It features Native figures at the front, on the ceiling and on the doors.
Other speakers included University of Nebraska-Lincoln Chancellor Ronnie Green and Lincoln Mayor Leirion Gaylor-Baird. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry sent a letter.
Gov. Pete Ricketts did not attend, although he had been invited. Spokesman Taylor Gage said he had another commitment.