Published today in the Omaha World Herald by Michael Kelly:
Omaha over the weekend hosted a vast concentration of wealth at the annual Berkshire Hathaway shareholders meeting, including some visitors who flew in and out on private jets.
Things are different in the other Omaha — the historical Omaha tribal land, just over an hour’s drive to the north, that is the site of two American Indian reservations.
On a visit there Friday, I asked a question of Donald Blackbird Jr., a 34-year-old school principal and a member of the Omaha Tribe: Despite the vast differences between the wealth represented in the city of Omaha and the poverty on the reservations, could he see any similarities in the people in both places?
“We all want to better our lives, and we all want to give our children better opportunities,” the father of four said. “We want to take care of them so they don’t have to struggle in the way we struggled. But we also want our children to have the opportunity to learn from struggles.”
American Indians have certainly had the opportunity to learn from struggles, perhaps more so than most.
The mostly prosperous city of Omaha takes it name from the tribe. Omaha often is translated as “the upstream people” or “above all others on a stream.”
The two Omahas aren’t so far apart in physical distance. In other ways, the gap seems like a million miles.
The Omaha reservation is based in Macy, Neb., and the Winnebago reservation is several mile farther north in Winnebago, Neb. (The U.S. government in 1865 set up a reservation on former Omaha tribal land for the Winnebagos, who were relocated there from Wisconsin.)
Blackbird’s K-8 school of 116 students is at the St. Augustine Indian Mission in Winnebago. Most of the children are from the Winnebago tribe, but some are Omahas, like the principal.
Besides the normal academic offerings, the school teaches the languages of the Omahas and the Winnebagos. “We’re about instilling values and culture,” Blackbird said, “and making sure our languages are preserved.”
About 75 percent of the students, he said, come from low-income families and qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch.
He is proud of the students and the staff, including second-grade teacher Paula Keubler, who will receive an educator of the year award from the Catholic Omaha Archdiocese.
In teacher Brenda Murphy’s fourth-grade classroom, children spoke right up when I asked questions. Charli Earth talked about the school winning a competition about the Winnebagos’ traditional Ho-Chunk language.
Virginia Snake-Bumann spoke of her family singing tribal songs and praying in a sweat lodge. Caprice Snow told me about traditional foods such as fry bread and milkweed soup.
She said she has visited the city of Omaha many times.
“But it’s just so crowded,” Caprice said. “It’s like there’s not one place of peace. You can be sitting in a living room and hear a whole bunch of noise from cars and all the traffic.”
The children are not insulated. A handful will go to Rome in the fall with adults for the Catholic canonization of an Indian saint, Kateri Tekakwitha.
In the classroom Friday, students viewed photos from Madagascar shown by Dr. Anne Hubbard, an Omaha pediatric radiologist who visited there and who volunteers at the school.
The Rev. Dave Korth, director of St. Augustine and pastor of churches on the reservations, grew up in Randolph, Neb., playing sports. He is white but has embraced the Indian culture.
He plays a flute and starts Mass with a “cedar blessing,” using an eagle feather to waft smoke from burning cedar.
Yes, he sees the vast differences between the two Omahas, but he said people in the city of Omaha have been generous to the Indian mission.
Speaking of Berkshire Hathaway, he said, the family of its chairman, Warren Buffett, has been quietly supportive. Korth said the famed investor’s daughter, Susie Buffett, who believes strongly in early-childhood education, is helping to bring an Educare center for preschoolers to the reservations.
Said Korth: “I believe we are on the cusp of breaking generational poverty in Winnebago.”
One reason for hope is the tribal development organization, Ho-Chunk Inc., led by a charismatic, outspoken 43-year-old Winnebago with a degree from Harvard Law School.
He is Lance Morgan, who grew up in the city of Omaha and planned to attend the Saturday-morning session of the Berkshire Hathaway meeting. (He owns some B shares, he said, not the more expensive A shares.)
You have to meet him. You can do so, so to speak, in Tuesday’s column.
As for the assets of many Berkshire shareholders compared with the poverty in the tribes, Morgan said: “It doesn’t bother me that other people are doing well. We just want our chance at it. We want our piece of the pie.”