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 peoples today.
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.
To read the full interview, visit the NMAI series here.