Every year, thousands of college students head off campus to vacation during their spring break. At Valparaiso University, we have a different tradition.
Students are encouraged to take part in service trips and spend their break helping those in need.
In the spirit of Valpo, my spring break found me traveling 10 hours west to northeast Nebraska for a service and cultural immersion trip at the Omaha and Winnebago Indian reservations.
I didn’t really know what to expect. I knew general information about Native American culture and reservations, but I knew that seeing it all firsthand would give me a totally different perspective.
On our first day there, we spent our afternoon on a tour of both reservations. The contrast between the two was shocking.
On the Omaha reservation, the people struggle with poverty. There is about a 70 percent unemployment rate and alcoholism is very prevalent. The Winnebago reservation is much better off. There they are seeing new residential and commercial development and a much lower unemployment rate, at only 15 percent.
The Winnebago have been much better at managing the money they have gotten from the United States government and investing it for the future.
It was so interesting, seeing the reservations with my own eyes. I had been imagining a very rustic setting that would make you feel as if you had gone back in time. Instead I received the feeling of a small town, with all the modern conveniences.
That was not the only surprise I had. The issues pertaining to white Americans coming in and assimilating Native Americans were, to me, only lessons in the history book. But to the people there it is something that has affected their everyday lives.
One woman told us the story of her family and how her grandmother was sent away to school at a young age to be “Americanized.” When she tried to speak her language at the school, she was punished by having hot coals put into her mouth. Because of this, her family lost their native language, which is something that still saddens the woman who told us this story.
I was appalled at the horrible treatment of her grandmother and so sympathetic to the loss of an important part of Native American culture.
And while relations between the two cultural groups has improved, Native Americans must still go through a government agency to buy and sell reservation land or use its natural resources, which was another surprise to me.
Overall, this trip was great experience. I learned so much and the people I met there were so kind and generous, so eager to share their stories with complete strangers. I was afraid I might feel out of place, but we received such a warm welcome that I felt right at home.
While we came to do service for them, they also did a great service to us, asking nothing in return but that we help share their story. It is my hope that I have done just that.