Editor's note: This column first appeared in the Omaha World-Herald on May 8.
Nebraska’s history is filled with interesting stories about Native Americans. Perhaps the most well-known is the story of Ponca Chief Standing Bear, who was tried in court in 1879 for returning to his homeland to bury his son against federal orders. The U.S. attorney had argued that Standing Bear was not a person under the law.
Standing Bear is famously quoted as saying in court, “I am a man.” The court agreed for the first time that an Indian is a person. Representing Nebraska, a statue of Chief Standing Bear is on display in the U.S. Capitol’s National Statuary Hall.
The Omaha Tribe also has a great historic figure. Dr. Susan La Flesche was the first female Native American doctor, and she opened a hospital on the Omaha reservation in 1913. While Dr. La Flesche’s achievements as a physician are remarkable, she was not considered an American citizen because of her race. For her many accomplishments, she will soon have her own statue on Nebraska’s Centennial Mall in Lincoln.
I am a member of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska. We have lots of great figures from our historic and modern era, and I want to share one that is important to me and the Winnebago people. My great uncle was U.S. Army Sgt. First Class John Rice. He was awarded the Bronze Star and a Purple Heart for his heroism in the Pacific Theater in World War II. For his extraordinary actions leading a squad of soldiers in one of the opening battles in Korea, he was awarded the Korean Service Medal, United Nations Service Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Korean Presidential Unit Citation and the Republic of Korea War Service Medal.
At age 36, Sgt. Rice was killed in action in Korea on Sept. 6, 1950. His remains were not returned to his wife until the summer of 1951. His wife, Evelyn, was a White person living in Sioux City. She searched for a place to bury her husband and was turned down by the local cemeteries because Sgt. Rice was a Native American.
Mrs. Rice did finally secure a plot in a private cemetery when the employees assumed that because she was white that Sgt. Rice was too. During the service, my great uncle received full military honors with a three-volley salute. The service had not yet concluded when one of the employees of the cemetery noticed several Native Americans in attendance. Upon discovering Sgt. Rice was a Native American, the service was halted. The widowed Mrs. Rice was forced to endure the indignity of removing her husband from his own grave and leaving the cemetery with his body.
Harry Truman was president in 1951. He heard what happened and chastised the “White only” policy of the local cemetery. He ordered the remains of Sgt. Rice to be brought to Arlington National Cemetery for burial with full military honors.
Sgt. Rice was a war hero and made the ultimate sacrifice for his country. However, his death fighting for his country mattered less than his status as a Native American when it came to burying his body. I can only imagine the trauma that his widow and our relatives experienced when they were forced to remove this Winnebago patriot from his grave. Their anger, indignation and pain are impossible for me to fathom.
My grandfather served in World War II. My father served in the Vietnam War and I also served in the U.S. Army. While in the Army, I served with people from rural Nebraska, the backwoods of Louisiana, the streets of San Juan, Puerto Rico, and even a guy from Bulgaria who joined the Army so he could become a U.S. citizen. The U.S. military is a melting pot of people from all backgrounds and cultures. We were just American soldiers. When someone is shooting at you, nobody cares about your skin color.
Our country has come a long way on race relations since Chief Standing Bear’s trial and Sgt. Rice’s funeral, but we clearly still have work to do. We must remember these painful stories, acknowledge the past, and work together toward a better future where we are all just Americans.
Lance Morgan is a member of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska and the CEO of Ho-Chunk Inc. He is a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Harvard Law School.