Harvey Perlman
Harvey Perlman (LJS file photo)

A few members of the Omaha Nation tribal council have complained publicly about the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and one of its faculty members. Professor Mark Awakuni-Swetland has pursued a career attempting to study and preserve the language and culture of the Omaha Nation.

Awakuni-Swetland is not a member of the Omaha Nation nor has he ever claimed to be. He was adopted at a young age by an Omaha tribal couple and grew up among members of the Omaha tribe. By experience, but not by birth, he is familiar with the Omaha language and Omaha culture.

In 2008, Awakuni-Swetland received a three-year major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to digitize a 19th-century Omaha and Ponca language collection for an online dictionary. He is, by all accounts, a passionate advocate for the preservation of the language and culture of a proud people who are an important part of the history of Nebraska.

Members of the Omaha tribal council and Omaha Nation are apparently not united in their complaint about Awakuni-Swetland and his work. Some praise him for his efforts to preserve in tangible form this important heritage. Indeed, the tribal council in 2004 formally supported Awakuni-Swetland's application to NEH to document the Omaha language.

Those who express complaint seem to contend that his work has not been approved by the Omaha Nation or that he has not been certified by the tribe as competent to teach or work with the Omaha language. Their contention is that absent such approval, he should be restrained from pursuing this course of teaching and study.

I understand the sentiment of those Omaha tribal members who believe that the Omaha language and culture is specifically the property of the Omaha tribe and would work to retain an exclusive franchise on approving those who can study and publish in this area. I am committed to preserving the right of the university and its faculty to inquire about any subject free of any official permission. Whether it is the tradition of academic freedom, the protections of the First Amendment or the importance of open inquiry, universities and their faculty are created in part to assure the freedom of inquiry and pursuit of truth.

As a public figure, I would welcome a world in which I could control what history will record about my actions or beliefs, my failings or successes, my character or persona. However, this is not the world we inhabit. My only resource, if offended or unjustly described, is to rebut the assertion. The Omaha Nation is under no less a restraint.

I have every reason to believe that Awakuni-Swetland has approached his work with sensitivity and a heartfelt intention to preserve this rich language and culture for future generations. As I carefully have considered the complaints against him, I find no example given of any error or misunderstanding by Awakuni-Swetland. If such error or misunderstanding exists, my sense is no one would welcome correction more than Awakuni-Swetland.

The university has no wish to be in conflict with the Omaha Nation or its people. From first receiving the concern, I reached out to the chair of the tribal council to discuss the matter but have not yet received a response. Awakuni-Swetland also has never been approached by anyone in the tribe voicing concerns nor had his offers to discuss their questions acknowledged.

We respect the culture, history and traditions of the Omaha Nation. The current complaint, however, strikes at the heart of what a university does. Any other stance would, in the long run, serve neither the Omaha Nation, the university or the people of Nebraska.

Harvey Perlman is chancellor of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

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