Meet Native America: Judi M. Gaiashkibos, Executive Director of the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs
In the interview series Meet Native America, the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian invites tribal leaders, cultural figures, and other interesting and accomplished Native individuals to introduce themselves and say a little about their lives and work. Together, their responses illustrate the diversity of the indigenous communities of the Western Hemisphere, as well as their shared concerns, and offer insights beyond what’s in the news to the ideas and experiences of Native people today. —Dennis Zotigh, NMAI
Please introduce yourself with your name and title.
Judi M. Gaiashkibos, executive director of the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs and adjunct professor at the University of Nebraska Lincoln College of Journalism and Mass Communications Native Daughters Project.
Can you give us your Native name, its English translation and/or a nickname?
My nickname is Brown Sugar.
What responsibilities do you have to the Native peoples of Nebraska?
Our agency’s mission is to enhance the cause of Indian rights and to develop solutions to problems common to all Nebraska Indians. We are the state liaison between the four headquarters tribes of the Omaha, Ponca, Santee Sioux, and Winnebago of Nebraska. I help ensure that the sovereignty of both tribal and state governments is recognized and acted upon in a true government-to-government relationship. The commission serves off-reservation Indian communities by helping assure they are afforded the right to equitable opportunities in housing, employment, education, health care, economic development, and human and civil rights within Nebraska.
The commission's goals are accomplished through advocacy, education, and promotion of legislation. We actively promote state and federal legislation beneficial to tribes and Indian citizens in Nebraska, and monitor and assess the law's impact. We assist in development and implementation of state and federal programs that provide equitable services and opportunities for Nebraska's Indian families in the areas of housing, employment, economic development, health, human services, law and order, tribal sovereignty, and civil and human rights. I educate legislators, educators, school-age youth, and the general public on the issues and legislation that impact Indian country in Nebraska, especially the availability of government and private resources to improve the lives of Nebraska's Indian citizens.
Specific areas that we are currently focusing on are youth and family, economic development, governance, and public relations.
How is the commission set up?
The Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs was established in 1971 and consists of 14 Indian commissioners appointed by the governor. Additionally, the commission originally has four "ex-officio" members representing the Pawnee, Ioway, Sac and Fox, and Oglala Sioux tribes. Each of the four tribes headquartered in Nebraska—the Santee Sioux, Omaha, Winnebago, and Ponca—has two commissioners on the board who are selected by their tribes. Additionally there are six commissioners appointed representing the City of Omaha (two commissioners), the City of Lincoln, the Northwest Panhandle, the Southern Panhandle, and an at-large seat.
The board establishes the strategic vision of the agency, which is carried out by the agency executive director, who answers to the board, not the governor. As executive director I oversee all day-to-day operations of the agency.
How often are commissioners chosen?
Commissioners serve staggered four-year terms.
How often do the commissioners meet?
By state statute, the board of commissioners meets four times per year.
How does the commission relate to the rest of the Nebraska state government?
We promote and effectively mobilize government and private-sector resources to improve equitable opportunities for Indians in Nebraska. We educate legislators on issues and legislation that impact Nebraska's tribes, Indian citizens, and their families. We apprise the governor of the climate in the Native American community at the state and national levels. We work to foster diversity and cultural sensitivity with the Nebraska State Legislature. We advance sovereignty issues within the state. We promote state and federal legislation.
We coordinate existing programs in housing, education, welfare, medical and dental care, employment, economic development, and law and order. We work with other state and federal government agencies and federal and state elected officials. Specifics include working with the state tribal relations committee and on graves protection, the Indian Child Welfare Act, gaming, and other issues.
What attractions are available for visitors on Nebraska's Native lands?
Using a broad historical definition of what constitutes tribal lands, we have a great variety of attractions, including the People of the Plains exhibit at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. The Ponca Tribe has a cultural center located at the confluence of the Niobrara and Missouri rivers. The Winnebago Tribe has been developing a Tribal Bison Project, and it is gratifying to see the bison once again grazing on tribal lands. Fort Robinson State Park was the site of several significant events including the death of Crazy Horse, as well as the location of the Cheyenne Outbreak. The Pawnee tribe once again has a presence in Nebraska with the establishment of the Pawnee Arts and Cultural Center in Dannebrog, Nebraska. Walthill, Nebraska, is the home of the Susan LaFlesche Picotte Center—a former hospital that was established by Dr. Picotte, a trailblazing Omaha doctor. We are also working with the City of Lincoln to establish tribute tiles on Centennial Mall honoring six historic Nebraska tribes and three Native Americans significant in our history—Chief Standing Bear, Chief Red Cloud, and Susette LaFlesche Tibbles.
Participants in the Sovereign Native Youth Leadership Program, conducted by the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs (NCIA), on a field trip to the law offices of Fredericks Peebles & Morgan in Omaha, Nebraska. Attorneys at the law firm spoke with students about careers in the law, especially practicing Indian law. NCIA Excecutive Director Judi M. Gaiashkibos is the second person from the right. Photo courtesy of the NCIA.
What annual events does the commission sponsor?
The Tribal Veterans Ceremony recognizes all tribal veterans in Nebraska for their service to our country.
We are very proud of our Chief Standing Bear Breakfast Commemoration honoring the legacy of Ponca Chief Standing Bear’s historic court case. This breakfast event had an attendance of over 750 people last year. We also partner with McDonald's to sponsor a Chief Standing Bear Essay Contest each year, and we award two to four scholarships to Native students in Nebraska each year.
The Sovereign Native Youth Leadership Academy is held every year to promote leadership and educational achievement for Native Youth from around the state. Talented Native presenters and educators from across Indian Country work together with Native youth in Nebraska with a goal of developing personal excellence and self-development through a variety of experiential learning experiences. The youth are given the opportunity to hear from many strong Native voices from areas such as advocacy, education, business, legal affairs, and the arts. The youth will then develop their own voices as confident young Native men and Native women with a sense of purpose and a commitment to attaining excellence in their lives.
I strongly believe in supporting educational achievement for Native students in Nebraska, and so in addition to our yearly leadership academy, we offer scholarships to students ranging from $500 up to at present two to four $2,500 scholarships every year.
How did your life experience prepare you to lead?
I was blessed to descend from a family of leaders. The women in my family were not dancers or artists in the traditional sense, but definitely were traditional leaders. My mother was born in 1913 and as a young girl attended the Genoa Indian School. She returned to the Ponca homelands along the Niobrara River and served on the Ponca Tribal Council as a young woman in her 30s. This was a time in our nation’s history when non-Indian women were not represented in elected positions.
My Santee Sioux grandmother who lived with us was also a very important role model. When my mother took her family from the reservation to Norfolk, Nebraska, she became a working woman along with my grandmother. They took turns working and taking care of my ten brothers and sisters at a time when most women were not working outside the home. Grandma was the storyteller in our family, and she was a fluent speaker of both Ponca and Santee Sioux. My mother continued leading her people who followed her off the reservation seeking opportunities. She was the liaison between the two worlds much I like I am today.
My grandfather, Otto Knudsen, the last chief of the second rank of the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska, followed my mother to Norfolk and lived there the last years of his life. He was a great leader and inspiration to me. With the love and support of my family, I was able to overcome poverty and racism and come away with a desire to carry on the leadership of my ancestors.
Who inspired you as a mentor?
I have been blessed by many mentors over the years. My grandparents, parents, aunties, brothers, and sisters all were great mentors. We grew up in a home filled with people who were great storytellers, and there was a great appreciation for everyone’s story. My aunties and other female cousins and friends of my mother were so inspirational.
As an adult I have had the great blessings of many other mentors outside of my family, including Chuck Trimble, Alice Roach, Fred LeRoy, Charlie Wright, Dr. James Riding In, Dr. Natalie Hahn, Dr. Judy Diamond, and Roger Welsch. There are really too many to name. Many of my teachers and professors have been great mentors over the years. Now I am in a place in my life where I am the mentor more than the mentee. I still seek out new mentors on my journey and really do love mentoring others. Mentoring is a full-circle process in life, and I truly believe what you send out you get back many times over.
Are you a descendant of a historical leader?
I descend from Chief Shu-de-ga-xe (Smokemaker), one of the chiefs painted by Karl Bodmer and a signatory to an early treaty between the United States and the Ponca dated June 9, 1825.
Where is your home community located?
I grew up first generation off reservation in Norfolk, Nebraska, a predominantly German community located in northeastern Nebraska, approximately 90 minutes from the Ponca homelands.
Where are your people originally from?
The Ponca homelands were along the Niobrara River in Northeastern Nebraska, and we lived on 96,000 acres north of the Niobrara River in what is now South Dakota.
What is a significant point in history from your people that you would like to share?
There are two important points in the history of the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska that I would like to share. The first is the Trial of Chief Standing Bear. After their forced removal to Oklahoma and the “Warm Lands,” Standing Bear began the return journey home to bury his 16-year-old-son Bearshield, keeping a deathbed promise. The Ponca were arrested in Nebraska by General George Crook’s soldiers. On May 12, 1879, Standing Bear won an important legal victory for himself and for all Native Americans stating that he was a person under United States law. The second significant point in history was the Ponca tribal termination in 1966 and the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska’s historic restoration October 31, 1990.
Approximately how many members are in your home community?
There are currently 3601 enrolled Ponca tribal members living in Nebraska and throughout the country.
What are the criteria to become a member of your tribe?
To become a member of the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska you must be a direct descendant from the last tribal roll prior to 1966, when we were terminated.
Is your language still spoken on your homelands? If so, what percentage of your people would you estimate are fluent speakers?
At this time our language is not spoken on our homelands, or more accurately, our service areas since our restoration in 1990. We have almost no fluent speakers of our language. We may have a few conversational speakers. There are efforts to reclaim our language through various revitalization programs using the newest language apps. This is a difficult process due to the lack of fluent speakers in our communities. Restoring our language remains a cultural priority for our tribal leadership and so important for our tribal identity.
What annual tribal events does the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs support?
We support Omaha, Ponca, Winnebago and Santee Sioux powwows, as well as a variety of other powwows including those hosted by the Lincoln Indian Center, Creighton University, and the University of Nebraska Inter-Tribal Exchange (UNITE), the Native student group at University of Nebraska–Lincoln (UNL).
What message would you like to share with Native youth?
I would like to encourage our youth to take the time to listen to their elders and learn their stories. Our tribal identity is under attack in America, and one of the best ways to maintain that identity is to know the stories from the past. These stories teach lessons and cultural values that will help lead us forward.
We don’t have to look to Hollywood for our heroes or to the NBA. They are around us in our own families. Over the past six years, I have enjoyed teaching in the Native Daughters Project at UNL College of Mass Communication. Our first publication had the words of a Northern Cheyenne proverb on the back cover. I believe they are still true:
A nation is not conquered until the hearts of its women lay on the ground.
We are all ambassadors for our people, and it is important that we show up each day for duty and live by these traditional principals. I would close with this inspirational quote for our people from the another Native Daughters publication on the women of Oklahoma. It's by Wilma Mankiller:
The secret of our success is that we never, never give up.
To read other interviews in this series, click on the banner below.
From left to right: Representative Ponka-We Victors (Tohono O’odham/Southern Ponca) taking the oath of office in the Kansas House of Representatives; photo courtesy of Kansas Rep. Scott Schwab. Bird Runningwater (Cheyenne/Mescalero Apache) at the Sundance Film Festival; photo courtesy of WireImage. Sergeant Debra Mooney (Choctaw) at the powwow in Al Taqaddum Air Force Base, Iraq, 2004; photo courtesy of Sgt. Debra Mooney. Councilman Jonathan Perry (Wampanoag) in traditional clothing; photo courtesy of Jonathan Perry. Suzan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne/Hodulgee Muscogee) at Blackhorse et al. v. Pro Football, Inc., press conference, U.S. Patent and Trade Office, February 7, 2013; photo courtesy of Mary Phillips. All photos used with permission.