Building forward: Omaha plan museum to serve both past and future

A version of this article appeared in Indian Country Today in September 2011.

Model of planned museum's central portion.
This museum is about the future,” says Omaha tribal historian Dennis Hastings, Ph.D, an anthropologist, activist and author. In design elements large and small, a museum planned by the Omahas will seek to reattach them to their land, their traditional clan structure, their history and their cosmology. It will do so by building on the past—specifically on a bluff that’s sacred to the tribe and overlooks the Missouri River, with extensive views of ancestral territory to the east. “In this way,” says Dr. Hastings, “we will ensure that our children become better human beings.”

Hastings and fellow community members are survivors of federal assimilationist policies, including the boarding schools used to tear children from their tribal cultures. He sees the building as a way to heal the wounds caused by those policies and to make certain today’s Omaha youngsters grow up knowing who they are and where they belong. Hastings and colleagues at the Omaha Tribal Historical Research Project (OTHRP), the scholars Richard Chilton and Dr. Margery Coffey, are now planning to seek funds from private-foundation and public sources for construction of the museum. Called New Moon Moving in memory of a famed Omaha medicine woman of that name, the plan has already won three major architectural awards.

Partial view of a model of the museum on its site.
“Each child who enters through the east door of the museum will find his or her clan inscribed on the walls of the rotunda in just the orientation it would have occupied in an historic camp circle,” says the building’s architect, Vincent Synder, a University of Texas-Austin professor and former associate of famed architects Frank Gehry and Michael Graves. “A child would be able to say, for example, ‘I belong to this clan, and I’m located here in relation to the other Omaha clans.’”

Brought up in Nebraska, Snyder went into the project with fond childhood memories of attending powwows and participating in boxing matches on the Omaha reservation in the northeastern corner of the state. Before setting pen to paper, he did extensive research on the tribe’s intellectual, spiritual, and material life under Hastings’ guidance and discussed innumerable related issues with elders. “On the day I met with the elders, I recall feeling as though I were in a dream state. People came and went, expressing very complex ideas in elegant, economical language,” says Snyder. “I tried to bring this to the project, which needed to be unquestionably Omaha.”

Many subtle Omaha ideas came together in the building’s plans, which OTHRP board member Lawrence Sommer, former head of the Nebraska State Historical Society, calls “spectacular.” The structure will glorify the primacy of the circle, the importance of duality, the relationship of the tribe’s earth and sky clans, the theoretical horizon at which these come together and the Omaha people were born, mythic figures, sacred numbers, and the cardinal directions and their relationship to the seasons.

Close-up of a portion of the museum.
These concepts manifest themselves, for example, in a window positioned to catch the light on the last day of winter and carry it inside in a symbolic regeneration that welcomes the first day of spring. In the rotunda, the clan names circling the room will conjure up the graceful, nodding grasses of the surrounding prairie; the font in which the names will be engraved is itself relevant, as it was based on the geometric forms of an Omaha tipi. Blue-green and white slate will garb the outer walls in the sacred “hailstone” pattern used in Plains tipi coverings. 

“We didn’t want a four-square building,” says Hastings. “We wanted to ‘tribalize’ it. If archaeologists dig it up many years from now, it’ll teach them something about the people who made it.”

Both Hastings and Snyders descriptions of their process reveal the way information (a list of clans, some historic dates) and experiences (of the site, among the people involved) can be transformed into something else entirely: plans for a beautiful, functional building that depends entirely on those things but has its own exquisite life.

            When built, the 45,000-square-foot, energy-efficient, low-maintenance structure will be determinedly practical, with community gathering places, spaces for contemporary exhibits, tribal offices, classrooms, a library for the many scholars worldwide who make requests to do research on the tribe, and a restaurant that will serve Omaha specialties. As a cultural-tourism attraction, the museum can serve as an economic driver, bringing in money via gate receipts, events, memberships and fundraising and endowment campaigns. 

Overview of a model of the museum.
It will also inspire professional development, according to Hastings, because Omaha youngsters who train in anthropology, museum management, and numerous other careers can return to work there, he says: “When we’re gone, our kids will take over the museum, because everything about it will be about them and to their liking.”

The Omaha language will be used at every opportunity in the structure. “I can’t commend that enough,” says Sommer. “As on many reservations, few [Omaha] speakers are left, and what OTHRP has already done to preserve the Omaha language is a huge accomplishment.”

“We’ve got everything in place,” says tribal elder Charles Baxter. “As soon as we get the funding, we’re ready to build. It’s such a positive project, and we’ve been waiting a long time for something like this.”

The germ of the idea for New Moon Moving emerged during the 1969 takeover of Alcatraz, when Hastings sat on committees that had hoped to construct a museum on the island. They were not able to create one there, but when Hastings got back to the Omaha reservation, he told himself, “We’ll do it here, and it’ll serve as a model for other Native communities, so they can say, ‘We can do this, too.’”

Many important artifacts had to be repatriated. Hastings—an ex-Marine, Vietnam veteran, and alumnus of not just the Alcatraz takeover, but also the occupation of Wounded Knee and other storied Native American land-claims and fishing-rights actions of the 1970s—spent decades seeking out items that had landed in what he wryly calls “protective custody” at the Smithsonian, Harvard University’s Peabody Museum and other institutions. The objects are now in storage, waiting to make their journey home.

Along the way, Hastings worked on landmark 1989 Nebraska repatriation and reburial legislation, which led to the 1990 passage of the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. He was also instrumental in an effort to return and rebury more than 100 Omaha remains excavated during the late 1930s and 1940s by the Works Projects Administration (WPA); he devised oral-history, language-preservation and genealogical projects; he started a collection of historic photographs of the Omaha; and he worked with tribal elders and the Smithsonian to re-master 19th-century wax-cylinder recordings of Omaha songs.

He also co-wrote with Robin Ridington Blessing for a Long Time: The sacred pole of the Omaha tribe (University of Nebraska, 1997), which explores the significance of a cottonwood pole that is the most vital artifact repatriated by the tribe. According to Hastings and Ridington, Umon’hon’ti (translated as “Venerable Man” or the “Ultimate Omaha”) has accompanied the Omaha on their life journey for centuries. He is both a physical object and a living being, they say: a “venerable elder” and “a rich container of meaning [who] communicates in the language of philosophy and ceremony.”

When the museum is completed, it will be home to Umon’hon’ti and nearly 1,400 other pieces. Critical to the living culture of the tribe, the items—and the museum—will harmonize a proud past with a hopeful future.

Text c. Stephanie Woodard; photographs of the museum model courtesy of Vincent Snyder.

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