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Omaha History

Note: OTHRP was founded by Dennis Hastings, who subsequently earned his MA and PhD at WISR. Dennis is the Director of OTHRP, and the Assistant Director of OTHRP is Margery Coffey. Dr. Hastings and Dr. Coffey earned their PhDs at WISR after producing a number of outstanding scholar projects, culminating in their dissertation, Grandfather Remembers, a history of the Omaha people in the face of the European invasion, from an Omaha perspective. This page describes and reports on their continuing work through OTHRP.
At WISR’s recent 40th Anniversary Celebration, Margery Coffey gave a testimonial on how WISR’s encouragement of this sort of collaboration enabled Dennis Hastings and herself to not only obtain their doctoral degrees, but also to make important contributions to the Omaha people, their communities and the preservation of Omaha culture.  They have asked us to share Margery’s presentation.

Omaha Tribal Historical Research Project, Inc. (OTHRP)

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The purposes for which the corporation is organized is to promote, encourage, and conduct research regarding the history, heritage, language, religion and other aspects of the culture of Umonhon (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.

Cultural Authority for the Omaha Tribe of Nebraska and Iowa in perpetuity by Tribal Resolution


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Missouri River View from the reservation bluffs from proposed museum site point of view.

Photo: Vincent Snyder

Created in 1975 and formally incorporated as a 501(c)(3) non-profit, charitable organization in 1991, the Omaha Tribal Historical Research Project, Inc. (OTHRP), one of the more successful and influential groups of its kind in the United States, has been for over thirty years at the forefront of cross-cultural “coalition building, public education and advocacy to effect positive social change” between the Native and non-Native communities.

Originally coming together under the leadership of founder/director Dennis Hastings (MA Applied Anthropology, PhD Higher Education and Social Change, Western Institute for Social Research), an Omaha Tribal member, in order to bring back its scattered cultural heritage to the Omaha Tribe, OTHRP has grown into officially representing the culture and history for the Omaha Tribe by their own formal resolution.  OTHRP’s Board of Directors includes a  mix of distinguished Umonhon tribal elders and non-Natives.

OTHRP worked with both the Nebraska Unicameral Legislature and the United States Congress to successfully pass landmark legislation on repatriation, including both NE LB 612 and 340, adopted in 1989, and the Federal Native Graves and Repatriation Act of 1990.  Since the late 1970’s OTHRP successfully negotiated a return of sacred objects, including the Sacred Pole and White Buffalo Hide and other cultural materials from such institutions as Harvard University, the George Heye Collection of the Museum of the American Indian, and the Nebraska State Historical Society.

The group has facilitated important original research in a wide range of related fields, including collaborations with the Library of Congress for the remastering of archival Omaha music (www.loc.gov/memory/omahamusic.htm) and production of major exhibits held at such institutions as Harvard University and the University of Nebraska/Lincoln (UNL).

Over the years OTHRP has been responsible or provided significant material for the publication of at least ten books, the production of four film documentaries, and construction of three websites, receiving numerous local, state, regional, domestic and international awards for its work in scholarship, film and cultural leadership. OTHRP won the 1993 Governor’s Art Awards from the Nebraska Arts Council for West Meets West, a collaborative performance with the City of Omaha Symphony Orchestra of contemporary Omaha tribal and symphonic music.

OTHRP was an original facilitator for, and helped achieve designation of the Susan LaFlesche Picotte Memorial Center in Walthill, Nebraska as a state landmark later listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  Picotte, Omaha Tribal member, was the first female Native American awarded a medical degree in 1889.

new moon

Its primary project remains construction and operation of its proposed Interpretive Center/Museum, New Moon Moving to be built on acreage along the historic bank of the Missouri River upon the Omaha Reservation. [SEE: Photos: Vincent Snyder left] New Moon Moving has been designed by architect Vincent Snyder of Austin, Texas.  Mr. Snyder’s professional career includes associations with the noted architects Michael Graves (1986-88), where he was a design team member for the Walt Disney Headquarters Building in Burbank, California; and with Frank O. Gehry and Associates (1988-94), where he served a number of roles as design team member, Project Designer and Senior Associate, most notably with projects such as Festival Euro-Disney, Paris, France, and the Vitra International Headquarters, AG, Basel, Switzerland.  Mr. Snyder’s design won the ACSA Faculty Design Award in 2001-2002 at the University of Texas at Austin. Mr. Snyder’s collaboration with Dennis Hastings on what was to become New Moon Moving commenced in 1995.  The design has thus far received two national awards and international recognition.

New Moon Moving has been specifically designed to not only be a museum to house the $3.5 million collection of the Omaha Tribe, but also to be a center where both native and non-natives can meet to study the Omaha culture.  A repository of artifacts and historic photographic collections, New Moon Moving will  include environmentally sustainable facilities and a nature preserve where the plants that were used both as food and medicine as documented by Melvin R. Gilmore and others will be reintroduced and studied.

While awaiting the construction of New Moon Moving, OTHRP continues its cultural work on the Reservation.  With the awarding of the PhD’s by the Western Institute for Social Research, to both Hastings and Assistant Director Margery Coffey, their dissertation presenting the Omaha History from the tribal point of view, Grandfather Remembers,  will be developed for inclusion into the reservation schools by Tribal Resolution. It is the first time in Tribal History that a written work has been endorsed by the Tribal Council.

834 Highway 75
Walthill, NE 68067


View the webpage above as a pdf


Read More about OTHRP’s History

–OTHRP’s Projects and Writings–click here!

Omaha history 1

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Text of Presentation by WISR PhD alumni,

Margery Coffey and Dennis Hastings, OTHRP,

at the WISR 40th Anniversary Celebration, May 1 – 2, 2015:

The Omaha Tribal Historical Research Project, Inc., OTHRP, wishes to thank the Western Institute for Social Research, WISR for giving Dr. Dennis Hastings and myself, Dr. Margery Coffey, the opportunity to be here via technology at the 40th Anniversary of a unique educational institution. We especially thank Dr. John Bilorusky for his years of work helping in the creation of WISR and making it what it is today. We thank the Faculty and Board of Trustees of WISR, past and present, who have helped in the creation of this method of Higher Education and are sustaining it. We also wish to thank WISR’s students, past and present, who are truly the heart of this institution.

Dennis has been associated with WISR since the beginning of the school. He was one of the students that sat in on the planning sessions and searching discussions on the subject of schools, education and how to reach beyond traditional German-based American education. Time and circumstances led Dennis away from WISR initially, but when he was ready to get his Masters Degree, WISR was his immediate choice. His thesis became the book he co-authored with Dr. Robin Ridington, Blessing For a Long Time: The Story of the Omaha Sacred Pole, which is about the journey to retrieve the Omaha Tribe’s sacred artifacts. The book is a classic in its field and is still in print today.

My education was a bit more traditional, two years as a theatre major at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and achieving my Bachelor of Fine Arts degree at Michigan State University as an artist. After several years of working for Dennis, he asked me to get my Masters and I, who in the mid-1970s had sat as a student at MSU dreaming of the alternative education movement on the West Coast, agreed immediately to come to WISR. It was during this time that I received a Newberry Library Fellowship through OTHRP for a six week study at their facilities in Chicago. They have a massive Native American focus within their facilities.

Dennis and I both have a background in Grassroots Organizing—Saul Alinsky style. Mine was based initially within the Anti-draft Movement during Vietnam then revised under Carter’s draft registration reinforcement as well as the Anti-nuke Movement and Native American support work in New York City while Dennis was doing Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay, Pit River in northern CA and Wounded Knee in SD. We met on the Omaha Indian Reservation in Nebraska and Iowa at a powwow in 1999.

Not only did our grassroots organizing backgrounds complement each other but also our skills, his in writing, applied anthropology and research and mine in writing, art and graphic design. As we worked on developing our Ph.D., we wrote in-depth papers on the specific elements that had a massive affect upon the Omaha. Our four major research papers were:

  1. Lewis and Clark. Our version of their story is the Indian point of view based upon their relatives’ experiences. Lewis and Clark started their famous journey, to announce to the Indian Tribes along the way that they no longer owned their lands, with the Omaha. They were escorted by the two hired Omaha guides who knew multiple languages and the Missouri River. Within the tribes along their path, the expedition abandoned women and left their children behind. This co-mingled relationships between formerly unrelated tribes from the Missouri to the west coast. Swapping food supplies for sexual favors cost the expedition dearly during the winters when they came close to starving. We also looked at York’s experiences as Clark’s slave. Suffering the same life threatening situations as the rest, he was never paid and never freed from slavery by Clark and unlike the others he had no choice in whether to go or not.
  1. Steamboats. Both military and commercial ships came up the Missouri River as they were slowly developed to adapt to a treacherously fast-moving river. Three steamboats sank in the reservation’s section of the river. The steamboats took Omaha children and young adults on their first step of the journey towards the new education on the East Coast. This was not always voluntary. The steamboats were also the first step for the group of 19 Omaha who went to Paris, France in 1883 to be part of a French museum exhibition. The steamboats were replaced by the railroads by the end of the 19th
  1. Omaha Tribal member Hiram Chase. Chase and his partner, Omaha Tribal member Tom Sloan were two of the success stories of the boarding schools. Chase became the First Native American lawyer. Charles Evan Hughes, a law professor at Cincinnati Law School when Chase was a student there, became Chief Justice of the Supreme Court around the time the Chase and Sloan law firm argued their cases in front of that court.

While Chase argued cases in the US Supreme Court, he was not the first Native American to do so. Thomas Sloan got that honor. Sloan, a partner with Chase in the first Native American law firm, received his legal training under Hiram Chase. Chase also was the first Native American to devise a shorthand method of writing the Omaha Language, publishing a booklet on it in Pender, NE in 1897.

  1. Macy School Report. We tackled the present day reservation when we were asked by the Superintendent at that time to create a workbook for the faculty and staff of the school so they could understand the culture better. We did. We also documented exactly how we were treated in the process by the school. It is a testimony as to why Euro-American education fails on an Indian Reservation.

All of this and much more came together within our dissertation, “The Completely Illustrated: Grandfather Remembers — Broken Treaties/Stolen Land:  The Omaha Land Theft,” filling 1,500 pages along with 1,500 illustrations. It is a documentation from the Omaha viewpoint of their history from the Ohio River Valley to the Return of the Sacred Pole – it covers four centuries.

WISR gave us the space to take a real in-depth look at the situation in which we were working and documenting. At the same time WISR offered its expertise and a friendly place to exchange ideas and evaluations.  We worked on our joint Ph.D. together, blending our work with the work of others historically recognized in our field of interest. We placed it against the backdrop of the history of Euro-Americans. Together we created a collage of Omaha history through story, text, art, photographs and song. As is true in any creative endeavor, it took on a life of its own and taught all of us who worked on the project, changing forever the way we looked at history, religion, government and its relationship to people in this country, Omaha specific.

The American government has always been consistent. The foreign policy refined upon Native America through wars of extermination and courts that reward the rich over the people is the same policy as the one we are using in the Middle East. At home, America is repeating the 19th century endlessly as it continues to steal Indian land, exterminate black males, repress  women and starve children while it exports its military based philosophy around the world. Time only makes the technology more horrendous and genocide more efficient. Unless change happens, this policy of greed will continue until everything is gone and the earth is bare with some life forms struggling on a hostile planet. Unlike us, cockroaches will probably make it, they adapt very well.

We have a short time to turn things around. Water has become critical in many areas of the world, California being one of them. Here, your traditional American government punished the people and rewarded the rich industries with water. In Detroit, their government simply turned the water off in their ghettos. Peru also had a water problem. It turned billboards into water collectors from the humid winds that blew moisture from the ocean over the mountains.  The billboards collected the water into tanks that were free to the public for usage around the clock.

We have the ability to solve our problems. We do not have the mechanism in which to do so.  The American government is styled on governments by the rich, of the rich and for the rich. Its bureaucracy is designed to say “no” to all problems so that it has less to do, costs go down and that way it can survive and the wealthy can get richer. That doesn’t work in the long run. In recorded history going back to Babylon all civilizations that have used this approach have failed.

Our schools are in shambles. Truth is being banned from the classrooms and mythology is being promoted in its place. Our higher educational systems are beholden to large government and industrial grants so they adapt the military/industrial mode and punish the students with unreasonable lifetime debts in order that the institution can grow indefinitely and cover it all with the antics of their expensive professional football teams. Not WISR.

WISR believes in real education where the teachers learn as much as the students. WISR believes in the integrity of the educational process and studies the experiences of other alternative educational practices from around the world. It is open to the process of sharing ideas and creating an atmosphere where this can be applied within their classrooms and through the Internet, world-wide.

WISR’s impact upon the Omaha has been profound. The Omaha reservation boundaries are basically the same as Thurston County, NE. The reservation borders the Missouri River with some land on the Iowa side. The town of Pender is the official county seat. There has been a lot of turmoil stemming from that over the years. The racism of the Euro-American establishment on the reservation is basically very actively anti-Indian and has been from the beginning. Their history includes Pender’s public gun runs, via the railroad, to the city of Omaha (80 miles south) so that they could try to overthrow the legal law enforcement of the Omaha on the reservation, a preview of the KKK in NE. The whole idea of Indian police having any kind of jurisdiction over a Euro-American controlled town located on the Reservation is beyond the pale for the historical immigrant population. Never mind that the Omaha did not want to sell their lands at the time, the town was created illegally and the Omaha have never been paid for the land yet, Pender filed a lawsuit against the Tribe to prevent them from creating liquor taxes to help solve the chronic alcohol problem locally, claiming they were not on the reservation. The lawsuit was funded basically by racist out-of-state interests and the local liquor industry initially.

Omaha Tribal Council called a special meeting with OTHRP at that time and we were privileged to meet with Dr. R. David Edmunds from the University of Texas’ School of Arts and Humanities where he serves as the Anne and Chester Watson History Professor. Dr. Edmunds was hired by the Tribal lawyers to do a historical background report on the reservation boundary dispute being fought within the courts over Pender, NE. Since “Grandfather Remembers” documents the historic periods that covers both the illegal acquisition of the property and the attitudes stemming from this period as they irrupted over the centuries afterwards, OTHRP had a lot to say. It was a three hour interrogation on Omaha history, Pender applicable, by both Dr. Edmunds and the seven Omaha Tribal Council members. At the end of the session Dr. Edmunds asked for a copy of our dissertation. Portions of our dissertation were used directly in the Omaha Tribal Brief that was submitted to the courts.

To make a long story short, Pender lost at Tribal Court, they lost again at Federal Court. The racist influence from out-of-state backed out of the case financially and Pender levied a tax to cover their appeal. A three judge panel of the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against them. Pender appealed for a hearing in front of the full court. The Court said NO. They not only lost every step of the way, but also each Court lectured Pender about submitting frivolous law cases to the courts. The Tribal Court judge was polite, the Federal Court made itself unquestionably clear, the judges of the Appellate Court spelled it out in no uncertain terms. Pender has levied a second tax in order to take the case to the US Supreme Court.

This is the first case in the 200 year history of arguing legalities with the Euro-American legal system in which the Omaha won across the board. Everything. Always it has been a 2/3 decision, the Euro-American takes 2/3 of the decision and the Omaha get 1/3 of what they should have gotten. It shocked both sides. WISR deserves credit for this. OTHRP would never have had the time to do the research and writing on its own. It was the ability of OTHRP combined with the opportunity at WISR that allowed this to happen. Wi’bthiha. Thank you WISR.

Update on the Key Role Played by Dennis Hastings’ and Margery Coffey’s WISR Dissertation in Case Heard Before the US Supreme Court!

Breaking News! March 23, 2016:  US Supreme Court rules unanimously in favor of the Omaha people, in a case regarding the Omaha’s rights and sovereignty, and in which the WISR dissertation, by Dennis Hasting and Margery Coffey, on the history of the Omaha people provided key evidence. Justice Clarence Thomas wrote the decision.

The Supreme Court heard arguments on January 20th, and subsequently the following press release from the Omaha Tribal Historical Research Project points to the key role played by the WISR doctoral dissertation on the history of the Omaha people in the face of the European invasion, “Grandfather Remembers” by Dennis Hastings and Margery Coffey.

WISR’s remarkable capacity to provide the institutional flexibility for world-class academic research can find no better example than the joint dissertation proffered by In’aska: Dennis Hastings and Margery Coffey: Mi’onbathin entitled “Completely Illustrated: Grandfather Remembers
— Broken Treaties/Stolen Land: The Omaha Land Theft,” (2009.) The yet unpublished work was referenced as a key document in the legal record filed on behalf of the Omaha Tribe of Nebraska and Iowa at the Tribal Court and District Court levels for litigation.

The Smith vs. Parker case was originally brought before the Federal Court in 2007 by the Village of Pender, challenged the external boundaries of Reservation lands imposed
upon the Omaha by the U.S. Government originally through an 1854 Treaty. Pender lost the decision in all the lower courts. The state of Nebraska joined the village in a final appeal to the U. S. Supreme Court changing the name to: Nebraska vs. Parker (Docket 14-1406.) Oral Arguments before the U. S. Supreme Court were heard January, 20, 2016. “By far the most detailed account of the loss of Omaha lands during these years can be found in In’aska and Coffey, “Grandfather Remembers,” pp. 491-620, 791-795, 802-804, passim,” wrote Dr. R. David Edmonds of the University of Texas, cited in Joint Appendix, Volume 4, Page 1007, footnote 205, compiled by the US. Supreme Court.

The “excellent report,” as it has been referenced, was based upon a 1,500 page manuscript with 1,500 historic photographs and artwork, many of which have never before been published; 126 pages total. Dr. Edmonds not only paid the WISR/OTHRP crafted work and the Omaha the highest professional compliment, but also delineated important criteria through which to present and interpret Native American history. Included in Dr. Edmonds’ cited references were not only key passages of original research
unknown to the authors of the published books on the subject — including one that was a finalist for the 1995 Pulitzer Prize; but also, a fictional parody and photographic montage. These are innovative narrative devices which, once published, will likely make publishing history by incorporating such stories and photographs for a visually-oriented culture rooted in oral history, demonstrating an equal weight of these stories and images in conveying tribal history as do “words.” It will be used in creating a curriculum on the Omaha culture and history for the Omaha people. Just as important, given the fact that 80% of all Indian Reservations in the United States today are non-tribally owned, “Grandfather Remembers” is the first and most detailed account of the loss of tribal lands in the post-Reservation era.

[Photos of Dennis Hastings and Margery Coffey, below]

The forthcoming book is thereby a model for the next half-century of archival research in the 21st Century, as The Omaha Tribe of Francis La Flesche and his collaborator Alice Fletcher was in anthropological field research, over 100 years ago at the birth of the 20th Century. This achievement with “Grandfather Remembers” provides key insight into how these lands all over the country were diminished through deceit, stealth, thievery and crooked sales, a history in the last third of the 19th Century whose only human rights equal in “America” is that of the prior 200 years of slavery itself, and are being pushed again by wealthy forces in American government today.

Dr. Hastings and Dr. Coffey are currently preparing their dissertation manuscripit for publication through WISR’s Academic Press.

OTHRP (Omaha Tribal Hstorical Research Project, Director and Founder, Dennis Hastings, and Assistant Director, Margery Coffey—both WISR PhD Alumni) Previously Reported on the Background of this Case:  

Walthill, Nebraska—On January 20th the Supreme Court of the United States held oral arguments in Nebraska vs. Parker (Docket #14-1406). This case is known locally as Pender vs. Omaha Tribe.

According to the U.S Supreme Court’s website, the two questions before the court in this case are:

In Solem v. Bartlett, the Court articulated a three-part analysis designed to evaluate whether a surplus land act may have resulted in a diminishment of a federal Indian reservation. See465 U.S. 463, 470-72 (1984). The Court found that the “statutory language used to open the Indian lands,” “events surrounding the passage of a surplus land Act,” and “events that occurred after the passage of a surplus land Act” are all relevant to determining whether diminishment has occurred.

The questions presented by the petition are:

1. Whether ambiguous evidence concerning the first two Solem factors necessarily forecloses any possibility that diminishment could be found on a de facto basis.

2. Whether the original boundaries of the Omaha Indian Reservation were diminished following passage of the Act of August 7, 1882.

Transcripts of the oral arguments are made available by the Supreme Court to the public the same day the arguments are presented. Recordings of the oral arguments are made available on Friday of the same week.

This case was originally brought before a local Federal District Court in Omaha, Nebraska by the Village of Pender in 2007 to challenge a decision by the Omaha Tribal Council to exercise its sovereign authority in levying a 10% tax on all liquor sales made within the exterior boundaries of their Reservation which were imposed upon the Omaha by the U.S. Government through an 1854 Treaty.

The Federal District Court judge deferred the case to the Omaha Tribal Court to exhaust all legal remedies in that jurisdiction before taking the case under consideration. In a 45 page decision the Tribal Court ruled in February, 2013 in favor of the Omaha, a decision then taken under advisement by the Federal District Court.

A year later in early 2014 the Federal District Court affirmed in even stronger legal language in a 49 page decision the judgment made by the lower tribal court, which prompted the State of Nebraska to intervene on behalf of the Village of Pender for appeal to a three judge panel of the Eight Circuit Federal Court of Appeals, situated in Kansas City, Missouri.

That appeal was made de novo, which means “as if the case were new.”

In a five page decision released in December, 2014 the three judge panel again ruled in favor of the Omaha, utilizing even stronger language than the District Court declaring how the previous court rulings were constructed “. . .in such a fashion that any additional analysis would only be unnecessary surplus.”

Nebraska and Pender then appealed to the full 11 judge panel of the Eighth Circuit, which declined without comment in February, 2015 to hear the case, setting up an appeal by the State of Nebraska/Pender to the Supreme Court, which accepted the case for review last October.

In their Petition to the Court, the State of Nebraska and the Village of Pender conclude:

For over 130 years, the people and businesses of the Pender, Nebraska area have developed justifiable expectations that their community was under the jurisdiction of the State of Nebraska. The lower courts’ decisions in this litigation destroyed that longstanding status quo and upset the public’s justifiable expectations. . . . Doing so, however, ignores this [Supreme] Court’s observations that “when an area is predominantly populated by non-Indians with only a few surviving pockets of Indian allotments, finding that the land remains Indian country seriously burdens the administration of state and local governments.” (emphasis added)

In response, the Omaha Tribe concludes:

At the heart of this Court’s diminishment doctrine is the basic proposition that deprivations of Indian sovereignty must come from congressional action. . .adopting Petitioners’ freeform theory of de facto diminishment would undercut Congress’ power to determine the boundaries of Indian reservations. . .[b]asing a reservation’s boundaries on ever-changing demographic trends, as opposed to laws fixed in the statute books. . .as reservation boundaries are defined clearly — which would not be the case under the expansive de facto diminishment doctrine Petitioners champion — state, local, tribal, and federal officials can work cooperatively to allocate and, where appropriate, share jurisdiction.

Those interested in following the case at the Supreme Court level may refer to the website of the American Bar Association, athttp://www.americanbar.org/publications/preview_home/2015_2016_briefs/14-1406.html, linked from the U.S. Supreme Courts website, for review of the primary and amicus briefs filed in this matter.

A fuller treatment of the entire case since the original filings in 2007 may be found at Turtle Talk, a website of the https://turtletalk.wordpress.com/, typing in the word “Pender” in the website search box, then clicking on the various entries concerning the case.

The Omaha Tribal Historical Research Project (OTHRP), the Official Cultural Authority of the Omaha Tribe of Nebraska and Iowa, played a key role in providing historical context for the legal arguments being presented to the court regarding whether “events that occurred after the passage of a surplus land Act” have relevance in this case. OTHRP’s views may be found at http://www.indianz.com/News/2014/016004.asp. A rewritten and shorter version is found at http://norfolkdailynews.com/blogs/pender-case-was-doomed/article_66287130-92bb-11e4-bb61-13fa22bb9c51.html.
Independent commentary on this case by a columnist for Indian Country Today may be found at http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2015/12/19/judging-indian-character-nebraska-v-parker

OTHRP encourages all interested citizens of the United States and sovereign Native Nations alike to take advantage of our 21st technology in being able to readily access the key materials available online, and be a participant in history.

If you like, I can send you a copy of the briefs that have been filed.



Margery Coffey, PhD
Assistant Director
Omaha Tribal Historical Research Project, Inc.
PO Box 279
Rosalie, NE 68055