"Our people made it:" Otoe-Missouria descendants welcomed back to Nebraska, 200 years after being forced out

Sept. 29, 2022, 5 a.m. ·

Otoe-Missouria tribe members Antoinette Hopper, Tara Littlecook, Little Bear Littlecook, and Jamison Conch stand on the Tim Knott Prairie land preserved by the Wachiska Audubon Society. Photo by Jackie Ourada.

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The last time Otoe-Missouria families walked together on Nebraska prairie, they were headed south to hot, dry reservation land in Oklahoma. They wouldn’t be officially welcomed back to their ancestral home for nearly 200 years.

This is where Christina Faw Faw’s relatives hunted elk and bison, where they kept their corn and wild plants, where they held celebrations and ceremonies, and eventually, where they had to leave. Though, Faw Faw says her ancestors’ presence remains.

“As soon as we got out of the car and started walking down this road, I could feel it,” she said.

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A polaroid photo, taken by Otoe-Missouria tribe member Christina Faw Faw, of the prairie land the tribe visited near Yutan, Nebraska.

Her tribe’s land stretched across southeastern Nebraska, from Yutan to the Salt Creek in Lincoln. They were forced out in 1833 to make way for white settlements, some of which became the concrete city blocks of Lincoln and the University of Nebraska. Both are now officially recognizing the damage done to Native people.

“I think just being here, knowing that [our ancestors] had tried to ensure so much for us… This is just an extension of that. And all of those teachings that they pass on to us, it really means something,” Faw Faw said.

The Otoe descendant made the trip to Lincoln, as the city’s mayor signed a proclamation designating September 21 as Otoe-Missouria Day. It’s the latest step in a growing movement, in Nebraska and across the world, to recognize the harm white settlers inflicted on Indigenous people and to reconcile relations.

For 189 years, the date marked the anniversary of the treaty that relinquished their lands to the U.S. government. Going forward, Faw Faw said the date will now be an annual celebration of her people and their persistence.

Members of the Otoe-Missouria tribe pose with the proclamation that designates September 21 as "Otoe-Missouria Day" in Nebraska.

A new journey: "We're the footsteps now"

Nebraska State Historical Society excavations show the Otoe-Missouria tribe built several round earth lodges across this southeastern land they called nyi brathge, or ‘flat water,’ which later gave Nebraska its name. They had separate storage areas for their corn and wild plants, dedicated areas for their fishing and hunting utensils, and large gathering spaces for tribal ceremonies.

As the day's cold September mist covered the prairie, Faw Faw said the weather brought proof this was the work of her ancestors.

“It's kind of like [the rain] is making everything new again for us – washing it away. So that we’re the footsteps now,” Faw Faw said.

Dozens of families from the 3,200-member tribe traveled from their reservation in northern Oklahoma for the ceremony.

While the trip back to their former tribal land sparked feelings of gratitude and healing, Vernon Harragarra said there’s still pain that may never fully mend.

Vernon Harragarra holds a photo of his Otoe-Missouria ancestors.

“Today is just one step forward in gaining what we lost,” Harragarra said.

His elders have long spoken of the culture white settlers erased when they pushed tribes to reservations.

“We used to share the pipe with the Omaha people and the Winnebagos – our neighbors,” Harragarra said. “When we left, a lot of our ceremonial and ancient ways were gone.”

The first arrival of white settlers and the diseases they carried nearly decimated the Missouria tribe. It’s what eventually brought the two groups together. At one point, the Missouria tribe dwindled to just one hundred relatives – forcing them to join the Otoes to survive.

And when they were forced south to Oklahoma, Harragarra said his bloodline almost didn't survive. His ancestors made the long trek as soldiers pushed other tribes along the Trail of Tears, the infamous and deadly 5,000-mile route that displaced Indigenous populations to reservations.

A close-up photo of Vernon Harragarra's Otoe-Missouria ancestors.

Harragarra thought about that history when he and his family drove up from Oklahoma. Getting away from the reservation with his children felt like he was restoring lost traditions – such as his tribe’s sacred buffalo hunts, where families would take their growing children to gather food for the first time.

“When I took my daughter out of school, it reminded me of those stories,” Harragarra said. “I wanted my kids to be here to witness this historic day. I kept telling them that on the way up here.”

Harragerra said he expects his children to also keep traditions alive despite pressure to assimilate.

“They're not done yet. You know, in the future, I'm not gonna be here forever,” Harragarra told his three children. “You guys got to carry on what we're trying to get back.”

But for today, he let them be kids.

How a corn harvest planted the seed for healing

A young Otoe-Missouria tribe member celebrates the first Otoe-Missouria Day at the University of Nebraska's Center for Great Plains Studies on September 21, 2022.

Margaret Jacobs — who helped organize the trip and ceremony — helped the families pick goldenrod, Nebraska’s state flower, while they toured former Otoe-Missouria land. The University of Nebraska’s Center for Great Plains Studies director said hope for healing and reconciliation triggered the idea to welcome the Otoe-Missouria tribe back to Nebraska and honor their past.

But last year’s harvest might have played a bigger role.

Last autumn, she helped harvest corn with Debra Echo-Hawk, the Keeper of the Seeds for the Pawnee Nation in Oklahoma, who has her own story of returning to Nebraska land.

She partnered with Rhonda “Ronnie” O’Brien to bring Pawnee corn back to its native Nebraska soil almost twenty years ago. The effort began with a few unsuccessful harvests but eventually sprouted into 20 different gardens by 14 Nebraska farmers.

Otoe-Missouria tribe members celebrate Lincoln mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird's signing of the "Otoe-Missouria Day" proclamation on September 21, 2022.

Last year, her harvest grew a friendship between Jacobs with Echo-Hawk’s Otoe-Missouria relative Cory DeRoin, who happened to be in town.

“We got to talking as we were processing corn, shelling corn, roasting corn and joking around the fire,” Jacobs said. “We got to talking with Cory about whether it would be possible for the Otoe-Missouria to also re-establish ties with their homeland.”

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Otoe-Missouria tribe member Fritz Warrior poses near statues outside of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's Center for Great Plains Studies, where Lincoln mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird signed the proclamation to mark September 21 at "Otoe-Missouria Day." (Photo from Warrior's grandmother, Addie Jo Tohee)

Jacobs and local Lakota tribe member Kevin Abourezk took that idea to Lincoln mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird, who signed the proclamation a year later.

During the signing ceremony, Jacobs said it all came together – her hope, the ancestors’ prayers, and last year’s crop harvest – to bring ink to paper.

Jacobs acknowledged there will be more work ahead to restore relations, but for now she’s basking in the happiness that Otoe-Missouria tribe members made it home.

“You have so much to teach us about how to persist through hard times; how to face up to (and honor) our histories and our ancestors; how to rebuild and restore one's culture and society; how to be good stewards to our precious lands and waters; and how to be good relatives,” Jacobs said.

“I hope that this is only the beginning of a long and fruitful kinship.”

"You always come back"

While tribe members said the proclamation is a significant step in the right direction, they eventually want something more than words — they want property rights to some of the land they lost.

Otoe-Missouria tribe member Addie Jo Tohee stands on Nebraska land on the city of Lincoln's first "Otoe-Missouria Day." (Photo courtesy of Tohee)

Tribe elder Addie Jo Tohee hopes to return next year. She grinned as she watched her grandson buzzing through the tall grass.

“I can imagine little kids being here, running and playing, and their families cooking or just doing something, and they're just safe,” Tohee said. “And that makes me cry, but I just love it. And it's just amazing that we can be here on the same grounds that our people walked.”

Tohee hopes when the 200th anniversary of the treaty comes in 2033, her people will be able to honor it on a piece of land they can call their own – back in nyi bragthe, or Nebraska.

“If [our ancestors] are here watching us, they’re probably saying, ‘Wow, our people made it,” Tohee said. “And we came back. You always come back, don’t you.”

Otoe-Missouria tribe members walk through prairie grass on a homestead near Ashland, Nebraska. The Otoe-Missouria tribe lived across southeastern Nebraska land in the 1700s and the 1800s.