Interview with LeAndra Nephin about the Omaha Tribe and Indigenous life
This interview has been nominated for Best Interview by the Student Publication Association in 2021.
‘It has come about the time when we left the Ohio Valley and migrated. We came as a large group and when we split off, some of us went downstream and some of us went upstream. We are known as the people who go against the current.’ Says LeAndra Nephin who is part of the Omaha Tribe. She is an advocate for Indigenous rights, as well as a Cognitive Behavioural Therapist in the UK. In many instances, people tend to forget that Indigenous life and identity is contemporary. I’ve noticed that the Western world forgets that Indigenous presence permeates the current world, and that it is often being taken advantage of. I have spoken to LeAndra about her experiences as an Indigenous person living in the UK, as well as about the culture of the Omaha (Umonhon) Tribe.
‘I am Inshtásonda -the Thunder Clan- from the Sky Moeity.’ LeAndra says to me. ‘This has to do with our mythology and connection to the cosmos. Flashing eyes is based on the thunderbird. When it flaps its wings it makes a noise of thunder and it flashes lightning from its eyes. That is how it communicates from the upper realm to the lower realm.’ LeAndra talks about the unique arrangement of the Omaha camp, which is based on the clanship system. ‘We’re split into the sky people and earth people, and there are a variety of clans within that. The Húthuga is the organization of our Omaha culture, and how we arranged our encampment. That to me is a really distinct feature that I am quite proud of.’
It is important to understand that Indigenous worldviews and traditions differ from one to the other. The culture that emerges from the multitude of these groups is mesmerising. The uniqueness of each group’s cultural identity is something important to understand and respect. Current traditions, worldviews and identities differ because of many factors, amongst which geographical location, history with European settlers, and many others have made an impact on Indigenous livelihood. ‘I grew up on the Omaha Indian Reservation and have lived there for the majority of my life. One of the things that I miss from my childhood is the memories of hunting, fishing, hiking throughout the woods, and camping on the banks of the Missouri River. Even as a child I knew how to identify rhubarb, mulberries and crab-apple. We used to go mushroom hunting.’ The Omaha tribe has mostly retained their ancestral homeland on the banks of the Missouri river. This is distinctive characteristic for the Omaha people, considering that most Indigenous groups have had their ancestral homeland taken and have been relocated to a reservation on a different land. ‘My identity, my culture and who I am is very much tied to the land that raised me.’ There is a significant importance that is placed on land and the connection with it. Many Indigenous worldviews highlight the attention given to the relationship between nature and individuals.
‘The memory that I think of most often is our annual harvest celebration. We don’t really use the term Pow wow but it’s our celebration that we have every summer. Those are the kind of things that I look for when I go home. I look for these ‘memory markers’, the things that bring the sense of nostalgia, of what home is; a re-visitation of you.’ LeAndra remembers about the time when she visits her home. ‘When I go home and I am with my family, I drop back into the person that I was before I left. The trip for me between the two spaces, it can be like a mini-trauma. It takes me a couple of weeks to process my life here in Britain. Those ways of living on the Reservation in comparison with the UK, are like oil and water.’ The shock of travel and inhabiting two separate worlds at the same time, is a subject which often people don’t perceive as a trauma. [It is] a difficulty in understanding yourself in an entirely different historical context. ‘Being so far away from your home community and your homelands, especially speaking in terms of Indigenous life here (in the UK) and the colonial empire, having this shared traumatic history with Britain, is something which stays with me. The intergenerational trauma and the things that I carry with me is present.’
Intergenerational trauma is a term which defines the interaction between the generation of Indigenous peoples who have attended boarding schools, and their children. Boarding schools were institutionalized by the European settlers in order to ‘educate’ Indigenous children into a Christianised, Eurocentric way of living. However, all that it did was destroyed the pre-existing societal relationships and introduced values of individuality and hatred for Indigenous culture and language. ‘Language is a very important aspect of Indigenous life. My grandparents spoke the language and so did my parents, so in that sense I was fortunate.’ Children who would speak their native language in boarding schools would be severely punished. This resulted in the loss of their language and understanding of their parents and culture. ‘The language for me is very important. Not only because you are speaking your native language which we were not allowed to in the past, but also the fact that it is in itself a form of resistance. Our language is really beautiful. It’s like poetry. It is very verb and action oriented. It holds a lot of the keys to our cultural ways.’
The damage that the boarding schools have done to Indigenous identity and culture, are difficult comprise in a short paragraph. These schools have a reputation of horrendous living conditions, which were allowing diseases and adverse health conditions to develop amongst the children. The countless crosses next to boarding schools stand as a reminder of all the lives that were lost in these appalling establishments. ‘I carry with me the stories of that trauma, that relationship, as well as how that impacted my community directly. My grandparents were part of that boarding school era. My grandfather from my father’s side carried the wounds of his experience at boarding school. I have traced back my ancestry and some of my relatives on my mother's side died within the walls of those boarding schools. I am now having to interface with a population whose ancestors completely oppressed and annihilated my people. That in itself presents a different dynamic.’ LeAndra says about her move to the UK and interaction with this space.
‘I am really proud to be Omaha. We did a lot of things in the service of our people. It’s that connection to the clan and the land, and the celebrations, the songs that you hear there stir this pride inside of me, and a lot of emotions. As Omaha we carry a certain energy, a strength and resilience. I take that very seriously. I carry an important responsibility towards my heritage and future generations.’ When talking about the differences between Indigenous tribes, LeAndra says: ‘We stand in solidarity with each other. As a collective we stand together against the marginalization and oppression, as Indigenous peoples of America there is that collective stance in fighting for each other. We also celebrate the differences as well.’
Here is some advice that LeAndra is giving in regards to how you can help:
- ‘Try to understand that colonial legacy and read Native authors.’
- ‘Buy artwork directly from Native People. There is a lot of misappropriation in this space, for example people who are not Native creating Native inspired art work. It’s about the support that people give towards Indigenous creations and lifestyle.’
- ‘There is a plethora of organizations out there looking for donations in regards to Covid-19, particularly with the Navajo Reservation who are really struggling at the minute. There are other organizations who deal with sex trafficking and Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW also known as MMIWG2ST).’
- ‘Another way of helping is also highlighting Indigenous voices, creating a space for those voices to be heard, so they can educate around stereotypes and biases that are harmful. A lot of people’s education on Natives is being done by a white dominant majority colonial mindset. It blurs the lines of who we are as people; it homogenizes us, tokenizes and fetishizes us. It creates stunted social interactions.’
Written by Tímea Koppándi. Photo courtesy of LeAndra Nephin.