COLUMBUS — Steve Tamayo has spent a lifetime reclaiming what the U.S. government tried to take away from him and his people — their Lakota heritage.
“They hit us at different phases,” said Tamayo.
Starting with explorers, then the military, then sending Native children to boarding schools where their languages, clothes and hairstyles were forbidden, the U.S. government tried to divorce Native Americans from their cultures.
Tamayo, who will speak 2 p.m. Saturday at Columbus Public Library on the “Four Tribes of Nebraska," spent decades putting together the shards of language, history and culture that remain.
He grew up in Council Bluffs, Iowa, in an Omaha tribe community. After graduating from high school and serving in the military, he went back to Omaha and learned their language and tribal arts.
“My family has been so disconnected by distance that I didn’t have any Lakota upbringing,” he said. “I decided, I’m a Lakota and this isn’t really mine. So I decided to move to South Dakota and live amongst my own people.”
Tamayo spent the following 20 years on the Rosebud Reservation, studying the history, languages and arts of Plains Indians and teaching those fine arts at Sinte Gleska University.
When Tamayo arrived at Rosebud, he saw the impact U.S. policies had on tribal life.
“It really took a toll and I got to see that firsthand,” he said. “There was a lot of information that was lost and a lot of knowledge that was lost.”
Tamayo learned a lot about the arts in Omaha, but didn’t speak Lakota. He spent time with elders, learning the language and trying to glean what he could.
“I’ve been visiting with grandmas and grandpas that told me everything they could remember,” he said.
He taught classes and made curriculum for traditional art techniques. In one of his classes, students skinned a bison and learned different techniques to tan the hide. They learned how to make rawhide for containers and shields and soften hides for clothes and shoes.
Tamayo also looked at how those arts changed over time. For example, when tribes traded with the English for wool blankets, the women would convert those blankets into dresses. They also used shells from African and Chinese coins from Chinese railroad workers in their clothing in different eras. He had students make an outfit for a doll that represented the clothing from a specific time period.
And he saw the effect that learning and practicing these arts had on his students.
“You hear about art therapy; it’s the same concept,” he said. “It also has a cultural component to learn who you are culturally, linguistically.”
Tamayo is The Smithsonian Institute’s main consultant on American Indians. He curated an exhibit that’s still on display about Native American games.
“They have their own artifacts, but they don’t know what they are,” he said. “So they’re starting to hire Indians from specific regions to explain what they are.”
Tamayo spent a few months teaching children at the Standing Rock Reservation, where activists were protesting the Dakota Access oil pipeline. He’s since moved back to Omaha where he teaches at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and Metropolitan Community College.
For Saturday's presentation in Columbus, Tamayo said he’ll focus on the four tribes of Nebraska — the Omaha, Ponca, Winnebago and Santee Sioux — their languages, history and culture. He would like to visit again to talk more in-depth about some Native American art traditions.
And he likes to remind people that Native Americans are still living among them today.
“I just want to bring an awareness that we’re still here,” Tamayo said. “The curriculum in the classroom, they start learning about Native people in fourth grade and they stop with the Indian War. So the mindset of kids is, ‘Oh, we thought we killed you all.’”
“Go to the East Coast and they’re surprised there are still Indians alive."