A conversation with Heather Payne, Otoe-Missouria Tribe public information officer, based in Red Rock, Oklahoma.

How would you describe the resettlement process for your tribe after it was dispossessed? What is the tribal memory of this period?
The tribe was first confined to the Big Blue Reservation on the border of Nebraska and Kansas in 1854 and then relocated again to the Red Rock Reservation in Red Rock, Oklahoma, in 1881.

Our tribal memory, combined with the documentation of the time, records life on the Big Blue Reservation as very difficult. First, the tribe was confined to the reservation and told to convert from a nomadic lifestyle to an agrarian one without consideration of the tribe’s cultural norms or social structure. Second, the treaties signed by the tribe were two-way agreements with the United States, whereby we agreed to give up our domain of desirable land and our rights to it in exchange for food, shelter, farming implements, and animals, cash payments, etc. While we did follow through with our side of the agreement by giving up our nomadic lifestyle and lands, the federal government did not fully follow through with its side of the agreement. They did not provide the essentials needed to maintain a healthy population of humans. The result was that many of our people died due to disease, exposure, and starvation.

One of the Indian agents on the Big Blue Reservation, Agent Green (1867-69), documented some of the most common phrases in Otoe-Missouria at the time as, “my children are very sick,” “no medicine and cannot eat,” and “my wife is sick and very bad.”

Heather Payne

How did the late-1800s federal allotment of individual land parcels affect a sense of tribal unity? What changes occurred in the traditional lifestyle of the Otoe-Missouria as a result?
The Otoe-Missouria Tribe resisted allotment, sending delegations to Washington to fight against the partition of lands. Ultimately, the tribal land was broken up into individual allotments. In 1906, the allotment rolls were updated to include children and to provide a more equitable distribution of land to the original 1899 allottees. The Otoe-Missouria continued to maintain our culture through dances, funerals, and ceremonies.

What impact on the tribe did the change from a hunter/warrior culture to an agrarian one have?
Changing from a nomadic hunter society to an agrarian society dealt a devastating blow to the health and welfare of the people. Historically, Otoe and Missouria women grew small gardens to supplement their family’s diets, but most of the food consumed by the people was animal protein and what grew wild in the forests of the Missouri River valley.

Men who were good hunters were praised. Farming was considered women’s work. Being a good hunter and warrior was how a man earned status in the tribe. Once confined to the Big Blue Reservation and its 25-by-10-mile borders, the men were limited to a much smaller area in which to hunt, and raiding other tribes and settlements was obviously outlawed.

These limitations were a challenge to the social and political structure of the tribes. As chiefs complained about these changes, they would be replaced with more compliant men who would be willing to follow the policies of the Indian agent. In addition, food, tools, animals, and annuity payments meant to help the conversion from nomadic to agrarian life were either not delivered to the Otoe and Missouria people, or the Indian agent sold the items to white settlers.

John Shotton is Chairman of the Otoe Missouria, a post he has been re-elected to every three years since 2007. His portrait was made at the Tribal Council Building.

I’ve read that the Otoe-Missouria children were taken from their families and sent to boarding schools, to be reprogrammed along white guidelines. How did this impact the preservation of tribal language, traditions, and practices? What is being done today to reclaim some of those lost customs?
Yes, Otoe-Missouria children were sent to boarding schools. There was a school on the Big Blue Reservation, but it had limited success because people simply didn’t send their children to the school. However, in the 20th century, and after the tribe was relocated to Red Rock, Oklahoma, the federal government became much more dedicated to the idea that Indian children could be assimilated into American society. Children were rounded up on the reservation and sent to boarding schools. The majority of our tribal children were sent to Chilocco boarding school near the Oklahoma-Kansas border or to Pawnee Indian School in Pawnee, Oklahoma.

The goal of the Indian boarding school was to assimilate children into mainstream society and to give them employable “skills.” They were forbidden to speak our traditional language. At home, some parents did discourage their children from speaking Otoe-Missouria because they felt it would be better for them to adopt “white ways.” [While some] traditions, songs, social, and religious practices were maintained by the people at home, much has been lost now since we no longer have any fluent speakers.

Reportedly, the last full-blood Missouria died in 1985. How does the future look for the Otoe-Missouria nation on historic preservation of language, traditions, etc.? Is the nation fiscally viable?
Our language department is committed to archiving and sharing our language with as many tribal members as we can reach. Today, we have five full-time employees who work to preserve our language. Fortunately for us, our tribal businesses—including our gaming and financial services businesses —provide sustainable income to fund the continuation and expansion of our language program.

How many members of the Otoe-Missouria nation are there today, and where are they located? Is it a cohesive group, with common goals for the community?
Today, there are 3,279 members of the Otoe-Missouria Tribe, with the majority living in Oklahoma. In general, we have not suffered from political upheaval like other tribes have experienced. Our cultural beliefs give us a shared experience and sense of connection that binds us together.