Multifaceted, comprehensive action-oriented research, aimed at preserving and restoring the Omaha culture


Dennis Hastings, PhD and Margery Coffey, PhD


(by John Bilorusky)

Over the years, students at WISR have done many outstanding action research projects as part of their studies. Especially for their thesis or dissertation, these projects have often been valuable and transformative for the students themselves. In addition, some of these projects have been published as books on such topics as human trauma, adult literacy instruction, U.S. civil rights and labor history, therapeutic strategies, and mindfulness methods to supporting the health of at risk people, among others. Oftentimes, also their projects have often made a difference in the lives of others, and sometimes in contributing to organizational innovations and change, or even modestly building toward larger societal changes. This includes, for example, contributions to statewide policies and practices to improve the prevention and treatment of child abuse and neglect, health education of young people, prisoner education, and strategies for addressing bullying by those in positions of power, just to mention a few different examples. Some such examples with be briefly highlighted and discussed in Chapter 13.

This chapter will focus on one particular noteworthy and massive undertaking— the collaborative doctoral dissertation research of Dennis Hastings and Margery Coffey, September 2009, Grandfather Remembers, Broken Treaties/Stolen Land: Tie Omaha Land Theft. This 1,500-page dissertation has been acknowledged by academic experts and tribal members as the definitive history of the Omaha people in the midst of the European invasion. Various spin-off publications are in the making— aimed especially at developing accessible paperback print versions of readings and graphic novels for Omaha children and adults, alike. Efforts are still underway to fund the production of these much-needed, remarkable educational materials, but one, “Dancing for Peace,” has recently been made publicly available as electronic pdf files, at: https://www.gofundme.eom/f/othrp-book-publishing-fundraiser (Hasting, Coffey & Chilton, 2020).

Quite notably, the dissertation was key in setting the historic tone for the U.S. Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling (March 23, 2016) in favor of the Omaha people. More information about the Supreme Court case and ruling, and about other projects pursued by Dr. Hastings and Dr. Coffey can be found at: inquiry-and-social-change/wisr-publications/social-change-and-multiculturality/oma ha-history/.

This chapter is drawn from the action research methodology chapter of the Hastings—Coffey dissertation. Hastings and Coffey each, separately, pursued and earned their MA degrees at the Western Institute for Social Research (WISR). They subsequently pursued and earned their PhD degrees at WISR, and in the process did nearly a dozen outstanding research-action projects, then culminating with their dissertation. It should be added that Dennis Hastings, who is a member of the Omaha tribe, is the founder and Director of the Omaha Tribal Historical Research Project (OTHRP), and Margery Coffey is European American, culturally Irish, who is highly respected by the Omaha and the Assistant Director of OTHRP. OTHRP is the Cultural Authority for the Omaha tribe of Nebraska and Iowa in perpetuity by Tribal Resolution. Its mission is:

to promote, encourage, and conduct research regarding the history, heritage, language, religion and other aspects of the culture of Umo"ho” (Omaha) Indian people for the purposes of encouraging the preservation of materials and the information collected and perpetuating the Omaha culture and traditions, and to serve as an educational resource for Omaha people and other people who may be interested in the culture and traditions of the Omaha Tribe of Nebraska.

Before learning about the comprehensive research methods used by Hastings and Coffey, it is important to at least read the abstract of their dissertation.

Grandfather Remembers is a kaleidoscope of Omaha culture and history. It covers five centuries of history, completely illustrated. There are ten sections of photo albums in addition to the photos within the script, altogether over 1,500 pictures. It starts after the NISHU’DE KE section and ends just before the ELDERS RETURN section. It is arranged in the order one would approach an Omaha village. Inserts appear throughout the ten sections of the narrative. These serve several functions. They will sometimes give color of the Omaha culture, information of interest to the ongoing text, side bars of local history and a break from reading a very rich often tragic story line. The inserts are drawn from news stories, books, articles, and Internet web pages. Tribal thinking goes back and forth from Indian to Euro-American, as a result of forced education. The book also goes back and forth between Omaha and Euro-American history. It is not enough to simply tell what happened; one must also understand the context in which it happened. It makes it more comprehensible to the reader in the 21st century who is looking back several centuries. It does not excuse the evil that was done but knowing the logic behind the evil explains why it happened. Grandfather Remembers is a way of bringing the historical information for the proposed Omaha learning center/ museum to the people directly while the work continues with the development of the plans for a physical museum. It is a tip of the iceberg as to what is waiting in the collection and what is available through Euro-American and Francis La Flesche’s documentation of the Omaha culture a century ago. This book is a beginning of a journey for those who want to learn from the past and about the Omaha and their section of the prairie called Nebraska. It is also a blueprint of America’s foreign policy.

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