Tom Brewer, Oglala Lakota, speaks during the "Invisible No More March" for murdered and missing indigenous women in Omaha, Nebraska, on October 14, 2019. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

'We'll fight the good fight': Lawmakers tackle Indigenous issues at state capitol

Two state senators in Nebraska, including the state’s first and only Native senator, have introduced a pair of bills that they say would help create greater awareness of Indigenous issues, culture and history.

State Sens. Patty Pansing-Brooks and Tom Brewer, a citizen of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, have sponsored or co-sponsored the two bills.

The first, LB848, would rename Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples' Day in order to “recognize the historic, cultural and contemporary significance of the people indigenous to the lands that are now known as the Americas, including Nebraska, and the many contributions of such people.”

Indigenous Peoples’ Day would be recognized on the second Monday in October.

Nebraska State Sen. Tom Brewer, a citizen of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, and State Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks are seen at the Whiteclay summit in Whiteclay, Nebraska, on September 29, 2017. Photo by Kimberly Greager / Native Sun News Today

At least 10 states and dozens of cities have renamed Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day, as part of an effort to end the celebration of the Italian explorer whom many Native people consider a mass murderer and to honor the beauty and resilience of Native peoples.

In Hawaii, Columbus Day was renamed Discoverers’ Day, and in South Dakota it’s called Native American Day.

Brewer, a 61-year-old retired Army colonel, said he’s worried that it may be difficult to get at least 25 state senators to approve the bill, considering some may believe to do so would demonstrate prejudice against Italian Americans.

“It's a gamble because there are some that perceive if you change anything about Columbus Day, you’re anti-Italian, anti-whatever, but what we’re going to try to stress is that this is just a chance to recognize and to honor a group that has been on the short end of many of those things that have just been unfair,” he said.

The Flatwater drum group performs during the "Invisible No More March" for murdered and missing indigenous women held in Omaha, Nebraska, on October 14, 2019. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

The second bill, LB937, would require the State Capitol administrator to display the flags for the four tribes that have their headquarters in Nebraska – the Ponca, Santee Sioux, Omaha and Winnebago – in the main legislative chambers in the State Capitol. The flags would have to be placed on each side of the front of the George W. Norris Legislative Chamber, next to the American and Nebraska state flags.

The bill also would require the State Capitol administrator to display flags of any tribes with historic or regional connections to Nebraska in the Memorial Chamber on the 14th floor of the capitol.

The bill would charge the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs with determining which tribes’ flags would be displayed in the Memorial Chamber and with obtaining those flags.

Brewer said he expects gaining enough votes to get the bill out of committee and approved by the full Legislature could be difficult.

“It’ll probably be a fight,” he said. “But we’ll fight the good fight. I think there's a good chance of it getting through.”

Brewer said he’s hopeful recent legislative efforts to improve conditions for Native people in Nebraska and on the Pine Ridge Reservation have paved the way for the Indigenous Peoples' Day and tribal flags bills. Those legislative efforts included his own efforts to convince Nebraska liquor regulators to shut down four beer stores in town of Whiteclay, which is less than a mile from the Pine Ridge Reservation, something the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission did in April 2017.

Those efforts also include a bill passed in 2018 by the Legislature that replaced a statue of William Jennings Bryan in the U.S. Capitol’s National Statuary Hall with one of Ponca Chief Standing Bear, who led his people back home to Nebraska from Oklahoma in January 1879 and later convinced a federal judge to let them remain on their ancestral lands.

Most recently, the Legislature passed a bill requiring the Nebraska State Patrol to study ways to improve the gathering of data related to missing Native women in Nebraska.

“We felt that with the positive mood right now in the legislature, with what just happened with both Standing Bear and Whiteclay and so many of the other things that we've done, the time might be right to be able to push forward with the opportunity here,” Brewer said.

Participants in the "Invisible No More March" for murdered and missing indigenous women walks across a downtown intersection in Omaha, Nebraska, on October 14, 2019. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

He said he plans to focus on the positive reasons for displaying tribal flags in the Legislature and changing the name of Columbus Day. He said the two bills being considered could help convince state educators to improve education about Native people and could force state senators to never forget the first peoples of the land they call home.

“If all of a sudden something new is on the floor of that Legislature, especially something they look at every day, maybe that helps to remind folks that the first people were Native Americans who were forgotten for so very long,” he said.

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