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A first step in reconciliation: Mayor recognizes Lincoln as ancestral lands of Otoe-Missouria tribe

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Otoe-Missouria Day 9.21

A guest and tribe members give donations while participating in a blanket dance during a ceremony proclaiming Otoe-Missouria Day on Wednesday at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's Center for Great Plains Studies. The proclamation acknowledges the tribe's ancestral lands in and around Lincoln. 

A special ceremony that took place on Sept. 21 by Lincoln Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird to welcome back members of the original inhabitants of the Lincoln area. The proclamation of “Otoe-Missouria Day” is being hailed as a major step in fostering awareness about the Indigenous peoples who lived in present-day Lincoln and Lancaster County, and in “promoting reconciliation” between the city and the Otoe-Missouria nation.

Once, members of the Otoe-Missouria tribe lived and hunted along Salt Creek and its tributaries, harvesting salt from its deposits on the Southeast Nebraska land that now includes Lincoln.

On Wednesday, 189 years after the Otoe-Missouria nation signed the first of two treaties ceding land to the U.S. government, members of the tribe gathered at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Center for Great Plains Studies — a formal welcome home to their ancestral lands.

Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird greeted the roomful of guests, reading a proclamation making Wednesday Otoe-Missouria Day, an act of good faith and acknowledgement that the Capital City sits on their ancestral lands.

City Council, 5.17

Lincoln Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird

The large group was drawn there by friendship, a desire to confront and heal from a painful past, to develop relationships and reconnect with the last place their ancestors and relatives chose to live, said Margaret Jacobs, a history professor and director of the Center for Great Plains Studies.

“You have so much to teach us about how to persist through hard times, how to face up to and honor our histories and our ancestors,” she said during the ceremony. “How to build and restore one's culture and society, how to become stewards to our precious lands and waters and how to be good relatives. I'm really humbled to be here today among you, and hope that this is only the beginning of a long and fruitful kinship between us.”

Just being in Nebraska, the place so many of the stories handed down by relatives took place, is powerful, said Christina Faw Faw, a tribal education specialist and member of the Otoe-Missouria tribe who traveled from Oklahoma for Wednesday’s ceremony.

“There’s just something special about coming up there and being on the land,” she said in an interview. “Just kind of knowing our ancestors once walked those lands. That kind of thing is very powerful.”

The ceremony Wednesday — part of a larger reconciliation movement across the country to reconnect indigenous people with their ancestral lands — began with a chance encounter more than a year ago.

Jacobs and Kevin Abourezk, a journalist with, began a multimedia project in 2018 called Reconciliation Rising in which they produce podcasts and short films showcasing Natives and non-Natives working together and moving toward reconciliation.

As part of that work, they met Cory DeRoin, a member of the Otoe-Missouria tribe who came with his aunt, who was doing an interview for a podcast on a seed preservation project by the Pawnee. He joined her again when Jacobs and Abourezk filmed them harvesting corn.

“I just felt an immediate connection with him,” Jacobs said in an interview. She asked if the Otoe-Missourias would be interested in reclaiming their lands — and DeRoin said yes.

Jacobs and Abourezk had interviewed people in at least two other communities that had done similar reconciliation work, including one in California that returned some land to the Indigenous people who had once lived there.

In May, they invited a group of Otoe-Missourias to come to Lincoln, where they met with city officials, environmental groups, UNL officials and local Native leaders. That trip led to Wednesday's proclamation and ceremony.

Otoe-Missouria Day 9.21

Tribe members watch a ceremony proclaiming Otoe-Missouria Day on Wednesday at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's Center for Great Plains Studies. The proclamation acknowledges the tribe's ancestral lands in and around Lincoln. 

It’s a beginning, Jacobs said, hopefully creating a day where the Otoe-Missourias can come home to celebrate their history, and a way to educate people in Lincoln about that history.

After the treaties ceding the land where Lincoln now sits to the U.S. government, the Otoe-Missourians moved to the Big Blue reservation near Beatrice until Congress sold their land and removed them to Indian Territory in what is now Oklahoma in 1880-81.

Nebraska gets its name from two Otoe-Missouria words for the Platte River: Ni Brathge, which means “water flat.” The town of Yutan, where an Otoe village once stood, is the anglicized version of a chief’s name.

Jacobs said the work is about building relationships, which is also empowering to non-Natives.

Otoe-Missouria Day 9.21

Guests and tribe members participate in a blanket dance during a ceremony proclaiming Otoe-Missouria Day on Wednesday at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's Center for Great Plains Studies. The proclamation acknowledges the tribe's ancestral lands in and around Lincoln. 

“As non-Native people we shouldn’t be dictating the outcome of restoring relationships,” she said. “Our role is to be open to restoring relationships, to promote dialogue and respect, and then work really closely to support the aspirations of our partners.”

Eventually, Faw Faw said, they’d like a place to return to for ceremonies, she said, on land returned to their people.

DeRoin said it was important to bring their young people with them for Wednesday’s ceremony, so they can continue the work for years to come.

“That is very important to me,” DeRoin said. “I would like for the relationship we build with the people of Lincoln and Nebraska as a whole to last for many, many generations, so our people always have a place to go home and we have a friendly relationship with the current residents.”

This journey home, he said, is important.

“It’s just such a magical feeling when we’re up there,” he said. “When we come to Nebraska, it feels like home.”

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7226 or

On Twitter @LJSreist


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Local government reporter

Margaret Reist is a recovering education reporter now writing about local and county government and the people who live in the city where she was born and raised.

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