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Drums, dance and ceremony celebrate Indigenous Peoples' Day in Nebraska

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A thunderous sound of drums and the whirl of Native dancing in the Capitol Rotunda on Monday heralded celebration of Indigenous Peoples' Day.

Native Nebraska tribal flags found a permanent home in the ornate East Chamber and a sculpture of Dr. Susan La Flesche Picotte was unveiled on Centennial Mall north of the Capitol.

"This day was a long time coming," said Sen. Tom Brewer of Gordon, a member of the Oglala Sioux and the first Native elected to the Legislature.

Brewer was the catalyst for the Legislature's decision to place the tribal flags of the Omaha Tribe of Nebraska, the Santee Sioux Nation, the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska and the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska in the colorful chamber that once housed the Senate when Nebraska had a two-house Legislature.

Those are the tribes that are federally recognized and headquartered in Nebraska; the flags of other Native tribes will be displayed inside the Capitol tower.

Indigenous Peoples' Day

Sen. Tom Brewer, the state's first Native lawmaker, speaks at the dedication ceremony for the flags of the four tribes recognized in Nebraska (left of the US flag) as part of Indigenous Peoples' Day on Monday in the Warner Chamber at the Capitol.

The outdoor event that followed the Capitol ceremony unfolded under bright sunshine along the mall and saluted the life of the first Native doctor, a member of the Omaha Tribe whose life is celebrated in a book written by Lincoln author Joe Starita called "A Warrior of the People."

"For Natives, this is a moment to freeze in time," Brewer told a large crowd gathered on the mall in front of the sculpture.

Judi gaiashkibos, executive director of the Nebraska Commission of Indian Affairs, praised President Joe Biden's proclamation declaring Monday as Indigenous Peoples' Day. The day formerly had been celebrated as Columbus Day.

Gov. Pete Ricketts was invited to participate in the day's activities, but "was not able to attend this morning's events due to another commitment," spokesman Taylor Gage said.

"The Indian Affairs Commission declined an offer to include the lieutenant governor," Gage said.

Indigenous Peoples' Day

Descendants unveil a sculpture of Dr. Susan La Flesche Picotte on Monday at Heritage Plaza on Centennial Mall.

Rep. Jeff Fortenberry of Lincoln was scheduled to speak at the event unveiling the statue, but sent a message stating that he needed to be in Washington to attend to congressional duties.

Lincoln Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird told the crowd that "the people of Lincoln are extremely proud" to be home to statues of Chief Standing Bear and Picotte and she noted that Lincoln soon would open a new high school named for Standing Bear.

"We have come a long way as a tribal community," Omaha Tribal Chairman Everett Baxter Jr. said. "Today is our day."

Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks of Lincoln had a featured role in the day's ceremonies, having acted as Brewer's strongest legislative ally in supporting the needs of Native people.

Brewer hailed her as "a constant warrior, my co-champion for Native causes in the Legislature."

Indigenous Peoples' Day

A tipi rests on Centennial Mall as part of Indigenous Peoples' Day events on Monday.

Pansing Brooks "has gone into the heat of the battle in Whiteclay and she never flinched," Brewer said. 

Several years ago, Brewer, Pansing Brooks and Native activists like the late Frank LaMere won a long battle to close four Whiteclay stores that sold millions of cans of beer a year to residents of the Pine Ridge Reservation who lived just across the border in South Dakota. 

"We must listen (to Native people) with a passionate, remorseful heart," Pansing Brooks said.

The East Chamber, now named the Warner Chamber, was a welcoming place for the Native flags. Its colorful doors are covered with artwork depicting Native life and culture and its ceiling mosaics depict the daily lives of the Native culture, including a war party, a tribal council and a buffalo hunt.

On the mall, Brewer saluted Native women "for holding families together."

And Ben Victor, who created the bronze sculpture of Picotte, said: "All these years later, she's still making a difference."

Indigenous People Day

Winnebago Drum Group plays at the dedication ceremony for the flags of the four tribes recognized in Nebraska as part of Indigenous People Day on Monday in the Rotunda of the Capitol.

"Here's a woman who had triumphed over extreme gender and racial prejudice to get into the only hospital in the world that accepted women doctors, a woman who graduated as valedictorian of her class, becoming the first Native American doctor" in the history of her country, Starita said following the ceremony.

"She not only delivered Native and white babies, treated tuberculosis, ended the communal drinking cup, taught Sunday school, presided at funerals and in 1913 achieved the crown jewel of her life: raising $9,000 to build the first Native hospital on reservation land without a single tax dollar.

"There are some people who would call that a life well-lived."

Reach the writer at 402-473-7248 or dwalton@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSdon

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