Nebraska language professor faces pressure over Omaha affiliations

By Kevin Abourezk
Lincoln, Nebraska (AP) July 2010

To some, Mark Awakuni-Swetland is a culture thief, a non-Native American who has built a career and benefited financially from fictitious affiliations with the Omaha Tribe of Nebraska.

To others, he is a humble servant of the Omaha people, a man who has worked tirelessly to preserve their language and who truly cares about the Omaha Tribe.

Those who oppose his efforts to preserve the Omaha language say he has falsely claimed to be an Omaha tribal member to win lucrative federal grants and gain tenure as a University of Nebraska-Lincoln assistant professor of anthropology and ethnic studies.

“He’s not an Omaha,” said Jeff Gilpin, an Omaha tribal council member. “We proved that. He doesn’t belong to any clans of the Omaha people there.”

But those who know Awakuni-Swetland say he has never claimed to be anything more than who he is: a non-Native teacher trying to help the Omaha people.

“He’s never said that he was a member of the Omaha Tribe,” said Emmaline Walker Sanchez, an Omaha tribal member who has worked with Awakuni-Swetland to preserve the Omaha language for 10 years. “But he was adopted by some enrolled tribal members.”

Omaha tribal member Barb Stabler-Smith said her now deceased parents, Charles and Elizabeth Stabler, adopted Awakuni-Swetland years ago. She said her parents’ adoption of Awakuni-Swetland also involved his induction into the Black Shoulder Buffalo Clan of the Omaha.

Some Omaha tribal members have pushed University of Nebraska leaders to remove Awakuni-Swetland as a professor. On June 11, two of those tribal members, including Gilpin, spoke before the NU Board of Regents, calling for his removal.

The effort has brought up questions relevant to other tribes, such as: Who has the right to preserve and protect Native languages and cultures? Should academic institutions have the right to study and publish academic material related to tribes – against those tribes’ will?

On April 16, the Omaha tribal council passed a resolution creating a committee to investigate claims of impropriety by Awakuni-Swetland and named Gilpin to lead the committee.

“What we’re finding is that he really doesn’t have the authority do this – the permission,” Gilpin said.

Awakuni-Swetland said when he was given the professorship at UNL to teach the Omaha language in 1999, he immediately worked to gain tribal approval to teach the class, speaking to Omaha tribal members in Lincoln, Omaha and Macy, where the tribe has its headquarters. He said no one opposed his request to teach the language.

He said he even received support of the Omaha tribal council in late 1999, though the council did not pass a resolution to support his efforts at that time.

“That’s the premise I’ve been operating on, and it doesn’t seem to satisfy everyone,” he said.

He said he’s continued to seek support from successive tribal councils, with varying success over the years.

Among the criticisms of Awakuni-Swetland is that he will profit from an upcoming Omaha language textbook the NU Press has agreed to publish. However, Awakuni-Swetland said, all proceeds will go to support the Omaha Nation Public Schools’ Language and Culture Center, which helped him create the textbook. In addition, he said, NU regents will hold the copyright to the textbook.

Gilpin said Awakuni-Swetland has failed to acquire permission from the entire tribal membership, something he believes the UNL professor should have acquired before publishing an Omaha language dictionary or seeking a grant to digitize that language.

“That’s ours. That belongs to the Omaha people,” Gilpin said of the language. “Who is Mark Swetland to put that on the Internet? It’s very upsetting to us.”

UNL spokeswoman Kelly Bartling said UNL Chancellor Harvey Perlman’s office has investigated claims made by Awakuni-Swetland’s detractors and found them to have no merit.

“The chancellor is supporting his tenure,” Bartling said. “It seems to me that several members of the tribe are really supportive of his work and want him to continue working with them.”