Service & Justice in Nearby Native American Reservations – Winnebago, NE


I didn’t go far this fall break. There weren’t any trips to beaches or escapes to somewhere warm before the next few months of Midwest winter. I didn’t catch up on homework or rest. Eight others and I went to the village of Winnebago.

We arrived in Winnebago Saturday afternoon. We stayed at St. Augustine, a Catholic church and school, for the week, and were greeted by the Foleys when we got there. The Foleys are an elderly couple who have overseen the bookkeeping and management of this small church and school for most of their lives. They look, and act, as though they could be your grandparents.

If you stay on the main roads, Winnebago looks like a thriving small town. A large, new hospital sits at the edge. There are a few local businesses, even a new housing development. St. Augustine sits next to what looks to be a new public school.

Winnebago sits in one of two neighboring Indian reservations in northeast Nebraska. 26 percent of the population of Winnebago lives below the poverty line, and that number is even higher in the bordering Omaha reservation. Driving off the main road or into any of the nearby towns quickly exposes dilapidated housing and crumbling infrastructure. Despite their shiny exteriors, the hospital and school are severely understaffed.

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We drove through the town of Winnebago, with the Foleys telling us anecdotes of experiences they’ve had here and giving us facts about the abject poverty that surrounds us. They talk about the houses with broken windows boarded with plywood, telling us sometimes multiple families live in these houses that look like they could barely hold one. They talk about broken families, torn apart from a rampant drug problem. They say at one time, 14 different meth labs were operated in the town of Winnebago. Once we leave, we start to head south towards the Omaha reservation. The Foleys move on to talking about the history of the two tribes.

The Omaha tribe historically occupied the area and controlled much of the northeast corner of Nebraska at one time. They’ve been slowly confined to the small reservation they occupy now. The Winnebago originally came from Wisconsin, being relocated repeatedly by the U.S. government over the 19th century before coming to their current location in Nebraska. To give them land, the U.S. government cut the remaining lands of the Omaha people in half and gave it to the Winnebago. The tribes are less than trusting of each other. The Winnebago have undergone a period of financial expansion since 2003 with the establishment of a casino and investing company, Ho-Chunk, inc. (Ho-Chunk being their original tribal name). When Ho-Chunk attempted to meet with the Omaha to discuss starting a similar business on their land, the two tribes refused to enter the building together.

Driving through what is now Omaha land, we hear stories about the ever deteriorating health, crime, and economy of the two tribes. We find out that the people don’t actually own much of the land, or only small, isolated portions. Farmers from the surrounding area own many of the corn and soybean fields that we see. Despite the parcels of land given to Native Americans after arriving on the reservations, subsequent ever expanding families have split that land up into fractions of what they were before. Most have sold their land trying to get something usable out of it before it’s divided into nothing.

We see the local community center that turns into a chapel and thrift store on certain days of the week. The windows are bullet proof, a deterrent for anyone that might try to break in and steal items kept there for the thrift store. It doesn’t sound like the Foleys care much about the stolen items as much as needing to repair broken windows. They’re mostly donated items, and the people who need the items most can’t even afford the severely marked down thrift shop prices. This isn’t a situation to be too strict.

After eating breakfast on our first day of service, we headed to meet the pastor of the town’s Reformed Church. We find out that we’re going to be gutting a group of trailer homes and cleaning out what is a jungle of a yard. The plan is to eventually turn these into a sort of makeshift homeless shelter.

Pastor Clay leads us. While we work, we start to learn things about him and this project. Clay is currently housing someone nearly every night in a camper in his backyard. It’s a service he doesn’t seem to mind, but over the last few weeks others have started to need a place to stay and he’s been forced to also start pitching a tent. These trailer-houses were abandoned behind the Winnebago fire station, and he’s hoping to renovate them to at least provide a passable shelter that will beat sleeping outside.

We pull bushes out of the yard and begin to clean out one of the trailers, tossing the junk and moving anything else into a trailer that has been designated as storage for now. While we’re working, a young man from the community arrives. While I’m inside the trailer, I hear him talking to Pastor Clay. He’s a student at the nearby community college that the tribe has opened to try and combat how far out of reach college is for many of their young adults. Yesterday, he had been walking along a country road to get to class when he was held up. They stole his wallet and took with it nearly all his credentials and money. He is currently broke, but needs to replace his license and student ID to be able to return to classes. He asks Pastor Clay for any job he can have. He spends the rest of the day working with us.

The main point of this trip is to work with the school that St. Augustine runs as part of its mission. They run an elementary school, mostly supported out of charitable giving and scholarships, that serves the community. We spend most of the days working on and improving the grounds. The first day we spend sealing the windows of their “modular classrooms,” small, cabin-like buildings. We paint walls and stain stairs.

We more or less take on the responsibility of the school’s handy men and women for the week. If there’s a task that needs to be done, no matter how small, we’ll get it done. We lay non-slip weather stripping, plant grass, move a freezer, and I’m sure other things I forgot to write down in my journal. At times it’s frustrating, there seems like there could be more we should be doing in the community. Sometimes we question what sort of effect our work is going to have, but there’s more to this trip than just these small jobs.

As I’m working to be a coordinator for next spring’s Service & Justice Trips, I’ve had to read an article as part of the application process, “Unfinished Houses: Building the kingdom on God’s time” by John J. McLaughlin. McLaughlin addresses these feelings, and it’s helped me to understand the role of subsidiarity and understanding what your place is in a mission. McLaughlin points out that there is something more important than just service.

When we focus on accompaniment, we realize what our work really is. Service is fundamentally about relationships, and it invites us to redefine work. Yes, it involves mixing concrete or ladling soup, but it also means walking with and listening to the suffering, sharing stories and laughter, tears and prayers. Understanding service as accompaniment reminds us to whom the house really belongs, and to Whom we really belong.

The most exciting part of our week, was getting to hang out with the children at the school, building the relationships and coming to see the community we lived in. Hearing their experiences, seeing how they differed from our own, and better getting to know the place we were only able to spend a week. We ate breakfast and lunch with the children, and then went to mass with them. We got to know as many of their names as we could remember and showed them all our interest in their lives. Often between service, we would try to sneak in time to play games with them on their playground. On our last day, we spent time in the classroom, and saw their education system. We got to learn just what sort of community these children were growing up in by being a part of it.

We came to understand just what sort of problems existed in the community. We learned about their home lives, how they lived their everyday lives, and just what they did as kids. We got to experience a bit of their culture and bring that home with us. Hopefully, we will be able to take that little bit of them and use it to push us to advocate for them and bring attention to the problems that they will have to face for much of the rest of their childhood years on the reservation. Maybe by bringing attention to these problems and spreading what’s going wrong, we will be able to build the support needed to bring about that long-term change that we didn’t quite feel in our typical service.

Reservations are suffering, and not just the Omaha and Winnebago reservations. There are children all over the country who are being born into and raised in these social settings. Native Americans need housing, they need health services, and they need jobs. The Indian Health Services and Department of Housing and Urban Development are consistently underfunded by our government and leave the Native Americans sick and homeless. They don’t own their own land, and economic development has remained elusive. Their education system is broken, and dreams of a college education are far out of reach for many. Steps need to be taken to encourage economic development and better care for groups on reservations, while still respecting their rights as sovereign and free nations.

I want to end with a verse from Isaiah 1:17: “Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.” I think we need to remember that God calls us to bring about a better world, and when these people are so close to us, it would be wrong not to try and do something about it.

Jacob Tilstra

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