Photograph by Arlen Lazaroff
Buffalo Skull

Roots to Racism
This essay was originally written for Macy Public School [now Umonhon Nation Public School] during Dennis Hasting's term on the local school board.

Dennis Hastings
©1987 Dennis Hastings
All rights reserved.

Racism is both overt and covert, taking two closely related forms: individual and institutional.Individual racism consists of overt acts by individuals, which cause death, injury or the violent destruction of property.The second type is far more subtle, but no less destructive of human life. It originates in the operation of established and respected forces in the society, and receives far less public condemnation than the first type.Members of the Omaha Tribe have been victimized by a system of social relations which deprives them of a chance to share in the more desirable material and non-material products of a society -- a society which depends, in part, upon their land and loyalty. Similarly; they have limited access to the attributes needed for rising in the general class system: money, education; contacts and know-how.What white people have never fully understood -- but what the Omahas can never forget -- is that white society is deeply implicated on the reservation. White institutions created, maintained and condoned it.Contrasted to the old days of freedom, on the reservations the Omahas were ruled with red tape and government restrictions. The first woman Indian MD, Susan La Flesche Picotte, who took her medicine home to the reservation, noted:

We have rules and regulations to the right of us, to the left of us, behind us, do you wonder why we object to continuation of them in front of us?

History and Ideology

From the beginning the early colonizers considered themselves culturally superior to the natives. This sense of superiority over the Indians was fostered by the religious ideology the colonizers carried to the new land. It found its expression in their self-proclaimed mission to civilize and Christianize.The mission impulse was doomed to failure. A shortage of missionaries and an unexpected resistance on the part of the Indian (who was not sure that the white man's ways were inherently superior) led to the dismantling of the few programs aimed at Christianization.Thus it became clear that conquering was on balance less expensive and more efficient then civilization. This resulted in an extended process of genocide.It was at this time that the ideology of white supremacy on the North American continent took hold. Since Indians were capable of reaching only the stage of savage, they should not be allowed to impede the westward progress of the white civilization.The church quickly acquiesced in this redefinition of the situation. The disappearance of the Indian race in the path of expansionist policies was widely interpreted as God's will.It apparently never seriously occurred to spokespeople for Christianity that what they saw as the mysterious law of God in the disappearance of the Indian race was actually a brutal process of oppression; dispossession and even extermination.In short, what began as a movement to civilize and Christianize the indigenous native people was converted into a racist force by justification ideology.

Racism, Today, in Education

Today, institutional racism can be found in the educational system on the reservation.The people who are making decisions about who and how Omaha children are to be taught, and how their progress is to be evaluated, have little understanding of Omaha people and culture. There are too few Omaha teachers. Indian principals and superintendents remain exceedingly rare.


The curriculum and the set of learning conditions do not relate to the students' lives outside school. Textbooks and procedures are developed by and for whites and have little relevance to Omaha parents with an Omaha rural background.In the classroom Omaha children discover that the school does not like them, does not respond to them, does not appreciate their culture, and does not think that they can learn.As the situation now stands, the white "experts" in the educational system tend to view Omaha students as potential whites and give little consideration to their distinct culture and style of life.Our educators have insisted, consciously or unconsciously, that Omaha children be educated out of their Indianness.

What Needs To Be Done

The Omaha people, thus, must raise hard questions challenging the very nature of the society itself: its long-standing values, beliefs and institutions. But we are faulted for our inability or unwillingness to pursue this theme. While institutional racism no longer has the status of law, it is perpetuated nonetheless, sometimes by frightened and bigoted individuals, sometimes by good citizens merely carrying on business as usual, and sometimes by well intentionally but naive reformers.

An attack on institutional racism is clearly the next task for us.  Indians who hope to obtain for our children a society less tense and more just than the one of the past.


                                                                        Photograph courtesy of National Wildlife
Bison on the High Plains


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