A Reflection on Connecting to Mother Earth from an Urban Native Traditionalist Living in Lincoln Nebraska
I remember the place where my grandparents lived on the then outskirts of Lincoln, Nebraska. Their address was 445 Adams St. Their home was a two-story farmhouse that sat on the corner of two gravel roads just a field away from the bridge over Highway 34. They had a huge yard for all the grandkids to run around and play in all day, if we wanted. There was also a barn/garage of sorts where many Umoⁿhoⁿ hand games and other cultural celebrations took place.
Renowned Nebraska author, Roger Welsch, wrote about Umoⁿhoⁿ cultural activities that took place in my grandparents’ garage and in other areas throughout eastern Nebraska, including the Omaha Indian Reservation. My grandfather, Oliver Saunsoci, Sr., took Roger Welsch as his nephew in an Umoⁿhoⁿ Adoption Ceremony in 1967. Having heard this story from Roger, I now call him Uncle Roger.
I was born in 1962, here in Lincoln at St. Elizabeth Hospital, which used to be located near 13th and South Streets. I have many fond childhood memories of that house on 445 Adams. It was just like we were out in the country. Not much different than the reservation. Yet, all we had to do was look toward the south and we could see the State Capitol in the distance.
Saunsoci Kids 1967
At present, there is now the Raymond Phillips, Sr. Manor that sits on that corner street where my grandparents former home used to be. Raymond Phillips, Sr. was also an Umoⁿhoⁿ tribal member who lived in Lincoln.
It should be noted that we have always had many Umoⁿhoⁿ people residing in Lincoln, raising their families, and growing their gardens. Many left the reservation to become urban dwellers.
Natural Living and Traditional Tribal Gardening
Before the Indian Reservations and the Homestead Act were created, the Umoⁿhoⁿ People lived freely. Imagine, like I often do, what that must have been like for tribal peoples. We lived in beautiful locations and helped to maintain harmonious living conditions within each ecosystem we resided in. We loved the land.
The Umoⁿhoⁿ People flourished during those freedom times. The part of history that is most often overlooked is how we formed powerful relationships with other tribes. Yes, we got along. There was continual exchange of resources, knowledge, and ceremonies. Sometimes I think western historians get carried away and make it sound like all tribes were fighting each other non-stop.
But that is not what I have learned.
Our tribal circles were based on the balance of the Sky and the Earth. But the reality of such a balanced existence was, at heart, a matriarchal system. You see, the Umoⁿhoⁿ Women owned the homes and governed all the resources. They were in command of the tribal gardens and the annual harvest celebrations.
Umoⁿhoⁿ men had their roles as warriors, hunters, and chiefs, etc. But women were also warriors, hunters, and chiefs. That is the history that is often omitted. We all lived in that Sky and Earth balance with the main providers, Mother Earth and Father Sky, Night and Day Entities. Our laws were based on Natural Laws given by a powerful woman.
Our gardens were grown in several locations. We also had marsh areas and the rivers to harvest. We always made our offerings to the Ancestors and thanked the Plant Nations for their help before we harvested.
We had food aplenty and medicines to keep ourselves healthy. Water was fresh and the land was maintained with controlled burning each year. All had shelter, there were no homeless individuals. Imagine that.
Contemporary Urban Farming Practices
In the early 1800’s, the Umoⁿhoⁿ were decimated by the Smallpox epidemic. Many tribes went through similar devastation. Once we were in a weakened state, we were further stripped of our traditional homelands through the Treaties with the U.S. Government. Then Federal Indian Policies continued to impact the way we lived. No longer could we live, sustainably, while we were held in containment on the Omaha Indian Reservation. Instead, we were forced to assimilate to western civilization and expected to utilize colonial farming practices, while raising farm animals, and living in farmhouses on small parcels of land.
We became disheartened, and, physically and spiritually, disconnected from Mother Earth, the Great Provider.
After surviving such an onslaught, the Umoⁿhoⁿ People, ever pragmatic, continued to survive. When the Indian Relocation Act came about in the 50’s, many Umoⁿhoⁿ families headed out to the urban areas to find work and new homes. Leaving behind reservation life. My people, the Saunsoci family, moved to Lincoln. My grandparents, parents, aunts, and uncles, and many, many cousins all made their homes in this little city.
This region, that Lincoln occupies, was quite familiar to all our tribal nations. The Umoⁿhoⁿ called this place, Ni Skithe Tonwon or Salt Town. This is where we harvested salt, for generations.
In the last 25 years or so, Food Sovereignty has become a strong movement for Native people across Turtle Island (North American Continent). Suddenly the push to begin growing organic gardens and to restore traditional methods of Native farming practices is all the rage. As it should be. We need to restore our Native foods.
My grandparents had a big garden in the 70’s. My parents, who returned to the reservation to live, also had a tribal community garden in the 80’s. In fact, I spent my summers helping to harvest the Blue Corn that my parents grew in great quantities. This experience taught me to revere the Indian Blue Corn for its beauty, wonderful flavor, and nutritious value. I could eat Indian Corn everyday during those harvest times. Great memories.
Currently, I have seen many great efforts to grow community gardens, here in Lincoln. The Ponca Tribe of Nebraska has a beautiful garden at their Tribal Office. They grow traditional medicines for Native community members to utilize for ceremonial purposes, etc. It is very well maintained.
This spring, we begin the process of starting a Healing Garden at the Indian Center. Many of us came together to plant a traditional garden seeds and we worked throughout the summer to keep it going.
The Healing Garden
My children and I, also, tried, at creating a traditional garden. We planted Ponca Blue Corn, Pawnee Spotted Like a Horse Beans, and Umoⁿhoⁿ Pumpkin. Sadly, there were some other fierce plants that took over and choked out our traditional plants. We made up our minds to try, again, next year.
We have all become Urban Farmers. Restoring our connections to Mother Earth.
Harvest Time Celebrations
Hundreds of years ago, we used to have elaborate Harvest Time Celebrations. This was the time that we gave thanks for our beautiful, bountiful harvest and buffalo hunts. It was a sacred time of ceremony that lasted for days.
The Harvest Celebration was a celebration of life and renewal. These days, we can only do a smaller version of these ceremonies. We do our best to restore the appropriate meaning and ceremony of celebrating life.
Given the circumstances that Urban Natives find themselves living in, we strive to maintain loving connections with one another. We work on putting aside any tribal differences from Ancestral times. Besides, many of our children are either of blended tribes or multi-racial backgrounds.
We honor these interrelationships, especially during a pandemic, like COVID 19.
How Do We Stay Connected to the Natural World During Pandemic Times?
Since returning to live in Lincoln in 2013, my children and I have found that we missed the connection to Mother Earth. When we lived on the Omaha Indian Reservation, we lived out in the countryside with my late mother, Alice Saunsoci. We loved that we could be outside on tribal land without fear of trespassing.
There is a freedom that exists on tribal lands unlike anywhere else in this country. Just give us back our land. #LandBack.
But here we are living in the Near South Neighborhood. We would like to be outside more often, but we have maintained an isolation that began even before the Pandemic. That is a whole other discussion.
In front of our house is a little garden area, probably 4 feet by 12 feet. There are roses that grow in this space and other non-Native plants. I look at it longingly and wish that we could grow sage or natural tobacco. Not sure if our landlords would like this idea, however.
I find myself going to the Indian Center, which has a large area of open space where there are trees and grass. It is somewhere I can feel close to my Ancestors and Mother Earth, without anyone else disturbing me or making me feel like I am trespassing.
I think of the Umoⁿhoⁿ Ancestors who were confronted with the Smallpox Epidemic, over 200 years ago. They survived great tragedy. Therefore, it is important that we also survive this COVID time. I am determined to stay alive by touching Mother Earth as often as possible. I recommend you do the same.