Social Work Students See Reservation Life

Laurel Butler (’11) contributed reporting to this article.

Our cover story describes some of the obstacles on the Omaha Indian Reservation in northeast Nebraska: joblessness, poverty, alcoholism. Those problems hit close to home for Angelo Stabler (’09), who is Omaha. He has family on the reservation.

But Stabler isn’t the only one at Nebraska Wesleyan with an interest in addressing those problems. Nine NWU students traveled to the Omaha and Winnebago reservations this summer as part of Associate Professor of Social Work Jeff Mohr’s course, “Field Studies: Native American Life.”

PowwowThese students stayed on the reservations for several days, “learning directly from tribal members about their history, culture, daily life and struggles,” said Mohr. His course covered “Native American history, culture (including social organization, family life, religion, politics, economic life and other customs), relations with the federal government, poverty, reservation life and prospects for the future.”

They heard from Nebraskans for Peace 2001 Peacemaker of the Year and Native American Democratic Caucus chair, Frank LaMere; founder of the Nebraska Indian Community College, Louis LaRose; and Native American health care activist Lorelei DeCora. Decora’s great grandmother survived the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee. At age 19, Decora participated in the 10-week 1973 siege at Wounded Knee, treating wounded protesters. The experience helped launch her lifelong interest in health care for Native Americans. Decora was tried in federal court for her involvement in the Wounded Knee siege, and Judge Warren K. Urbom (’50) dismissed all charges against her.

Audra Duren, a senior from Rising City, Neb., said, “Although it was very sad to hear the hardships, tears and setbacks they have faced and still face today, [the experience] has made me realize that if I put in effort to help and spread the word, then maybe change can happen for their people.”

Social Work StudentsIn addition to the experience’s value as a cultural immersion, the trip also provided a perspective on the challenges social workers face every day. The enormity of the problems on many Indian reservations gives social work students an unusual opportunity to study effective strategies.

For students interested in addressing poverty, Thurston County, which comprises parts of both reservations, is one of the poorest in the country. According to U.S. census data, its per capita annual income of $10,951 is the nation’s 58th lowest.

Students interested in improving school retention can work with the minority group with the state’s lowest high school graduation rate. Only 38.3 percent of Nebraska’s Native Americans graduate from high school, according to Education Week.

The prevalence of alcoholism and drug abuse on the reservations can give students interested in addressing these problems valuable perspective. Duren said, “I think it’s very important to look into where someone has been and what they’ve gone through before you can understand where they are today.”