No One Ever Asked Me: The World War II Memoirs of an Omaha Indian Soldierby Hollis D. Stabler, Victoria Smith (Editor)
As a young adolescent, Hollis Dorion Stabler underwent a Native ceremony in which he was given the new name Na-zhin-thia, Slow to Rise. It was a name that no white person asked to know during Hollis's tour of duty in Anzio, his unacknowledged difference as an Omaha Indian adding to the poignancy of his uneasy fellowship with foreign and American soldiers alike.
As a young adolescent, Hollis Dorion Stabler underwent a Native ceremony in which he was given the new name Na-zhin-thia, Slow to Rise. It was a name that no white person asked to know during Hollis's tour of duty in Anzio, his unacknowledged difference as an Omaha Indian adding to the poignancy of his uneasy fellowship with foreign and American soldiers alike. Stabler’s story—coming of age on the American plains, going to war, facing new estrangement upon coming home—is a universal one, rendered wonderfully strange and personal by Stabler’s uncommon perspective, which embraces two worlds, and by his unique voice.
Stabler's experiences during World War II—tours of duty in Tunisia and Morocco as well as Italy and France, and the loss of his brother in battle—are at the center of this powerful memoir, which tells of growing up as an Omaha Indian in the small-town Midwest of Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, and Oklahoma in the 1920s and 1930s. A descendant of the Indians who negotiated with Lewis and Clark on the Missouri River, Stabler describes a childhood that was a curious mixture of progressivism and Indian tradition, and that culminated in his enlisting in the old horse cavalry when war broke out—a path not so very different from that walked by his ancestors. Victoria Smith, of Cherokee-Delaware descent, interweaves historical insight with Stabler’s vivid reminiscences, providing a rich context for this singular life.
Stacy Reaves, Chronicles of Oklahoma
Robert Wooster, Journal of Military History
-Michael Tate, South Dakota History
Megan R. Rooney, Daily Nebraskan
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No One Ever Asked MeThe World War II Memoirs of an Omaha Indian Soldier
By Hollis D. Stabler
University of Nebraska PressCopyright © 2005 University of Nebraska Press
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWanonshe: Soldier
War. No other human activity is as pivotal to the course of history, as decisive in its manifestation, as inhumane in its execution, as war. Yet conflict between humans is as least as old as human memory.
To the Umonhon, Omaha Indians, who had originated in the Great Lakes region of the North American continent, but had settled in eastern Nebraska by the eighteenth century, kikína (war) meant perpetual conflict with the Dakota Sioux, their formidable enemies to the north. The Omahas considered a núdon (warrior) known for his exceptional courage and personal integrity to be hethúshka (guarded by thunder). Even today, an Omaha soldier (wanonshe) who has achieved distinction in the American armed services, man or woman, is honored as hethúshka and welcomed into the Omaha warrior society.
When Hollis Dorion Stabler, a young Omaha Indian, stepped into the U.S. Marines recruiting center at Sioux City, Iowa, in September 1939, he was following but a contemporary version of a path ridden by his ancestors, though he had yet to prove his worth in battle. Despite his heritage, he might not have been so eager to enlist had he known how soon that worth would be tested. But in 1939, America's Pacific navalfleet still basked in the sun of Hawaii's Pearl Harbor, and twenty-one-year-old Hollis Stabler needed a job.
"Come back when you gain weight," the medic administering his physical examination abruptly commanded the tall, lanky young man. Neither the marine recruiter nor the physician could have known they had just rejected the great-great-great-grandson of Pierre Dorion, a French trader who had founded Sioux City. Historians believe him to have been the first white trader to reside among the Yankton Sioux, or even in South Dakota. In 1804 Dorion had served as interpreter for Lewis and Clark, and it was the Corps of Discovery's refusal to use him as their interpreter in conferences with the Teton Sioux that led to their failure to open diplomatic relations with the Teton, at that time the most powerful tribe on the Northern Plains. Dorion married a Yankton woman, and together they had born a son, Jean Baptiste Dorion (see Appendix).
As an adult, Baptiste wed an Omaha woman and the two parented a daughter, Rosalie. Rosalie wed Omaha Chief Four Hands, and they had a son, Long Wing.
"Long Wing was an orphan here at the Presbyterian Mission," eighty-four-year-old Hollis recalled in 2002 from an easy chair that dominated a corner of the living room. He motioned in the direction of a memory that hovered just over his shoulder. "This lady, Victoria Woodhull-ever heard of her? Ran for president and all that?-she came through and adopted him, sent him money and gave her name to him: Spafford Woodhull. So that's how we got the name 'Woodhull.' These are not our real names. 'Stabler' is a German name. They just gave it to us."
The Presbyterian Mission School to which Hollis referred-remembered in Francis La Flesche's bittersweet classic, The Middle Five: Indian School Boys of the Omaha Tribe-was distinguished as the first Protestant mission and school established in the Louisiana Purchase Territory. Though the school only operated from 1856-68, its influence lasted. Located near what was then the Omaha's upper village, which conservative Omahas derisively called "the village of the 'make-believe' white men," today the mission cemetery is acknowledged as an historic site in Thurston County. But in the late nineteenth century, the school loomed large in the lives of Omaha Indians.
As an adult, Spafford Woodhull had married an Omaha woman, Lucy Harlan, and together in 1885 they had born Eunice Victoria Woodhull, destined to be an exceptionally progressive Omaha woman whose accomplishments have been historically overshadowed by those of another significant Omaha woman, Susan La Flesche Picotte, who in 1889 became the first Native American woman to earn a medical degree. Picotte, in fact, was the only Indian ever appointed as a medical missionary by the Presbyterian Board of Home Missions.
"Now," Hollis remembered, "my mother, Eunice, was proud that she was related to Pierre Dorion. And she remembered her grandmother, Rosalie, the granddaughter of Pierre. Rosalie was one-fourth French. I don't speak much Omaha. I understand a little bit. I know more French than Omaha."
"I think when my mother was about eleven years old, and my dad, too, about that age, they gathered up all the Omaha kids and took them to the railroad station in Emerson, Nebraska, just a little ways over here," Hollis waved across the Omaha Reservation's rolling bluffs, "other side of Winnebago. The railroad track goes through there. That railroad took them to the Genoa Indian School. And they left them and they were gone for about four years-just little kids! And she told us about how they were treated in the boarding school. She said the worst thing was, they were hungry all the time. Didn't have enough to eat, you know. They didn't have the kind of food that they were used to: meat, soup, corn. They didn't feed them like that over there.
"When my mother came back from Genoa, her father, Spafford, Long Wing, was pretty well off. He had land at Macy. Well, he leased it out. At that time there were very few Omahas who could speak English like he did, so he was able to get his money's worth, and all that. She told her dad, 'I want to go back to school,' so he sent her to school in Omaha.
"I told you my grandfather, Spafford Woodhull, spoke English. A lot of the Omahas didn't speak English. He'd tell me about different people, different things. He remembered when the Omahas had their last buffalo hunt. He and a friend, they were about the same age. They made that last buffalo hunt. I remember him telling us about it. One thing I will always remember is him telling about the horses and travois and wagons. They all went together, you know, the people. Grandfather said he and his friend rode horses. They had a job to do, just keeping track of the horses, you know, Taking them out to water and bringing them back. They used to talk about it."
Modern research places the last traditional Omaha bison hunt during the year 1876. As with the other indigenous Nebraska Indian tribes-the Ponca, Pawnee, and Otoe-Missouria-access to the reduced herds on the western plains had been impeded by settlers and hostile Sioux. With the demise of the buffalo hunt, many Plains Indian ceremonies passed into history also, as demand for their function decreased, and circumstances for the transmission of certain knowledge-how to call the buffalo near, for example, or other specific rituals for buffalo hunt blessings-diminished.
He brought his attention back to his mother. "That's where Mrs. Picotte came in. 'Why don't you go to school in Missouri?' she asked my mother. So my mother went down there to 'teaching' school [Teacher's College]. She went there, and she was the only Indian in the school. But she met several women that were part Indian. She went to teaching school and she learned to speak better French. She had a voice. She was a contralto. Do you know what a contralto is? She sang contralto with different people. And she came back and she got this job at the agency, working for Mr. Springer, a real estate agent. She knew all about everything. A lot of people said, 'Why did they ask her?' Why? Because she was educated and she was interesting and she was aggressive, you know. She went right ahead.
"About Mrs. Picotte, she was a sort of mentor of my mother's, a person who encouraged my mother to go ahead. At that time, alcohol came on our reservation, and that was a bad thing. It is still a bad thing. It was against the law for the Indians to drink, or to sell liquor to the Indians, so it was illegal. But they bootlegged here anyway. Anytime the Indians had a payday, all those bootleggers from Sioux City all come out here. And that's where all those bootleggers got the Omahas' land. Because those Omaha guys would get drunk and draw up lease papers or sign a lease paper to sell their land. I still have my land. I have eighty acres out here, and I also have twenty acres out here that belonged to my grandmother on my mother's side, Lucy Harlan. And then I've got a lot of little pieces. I'm the only one left, otherwise I would have to divide it between my brother and sister."
After she completed William Woods College, Eunice had returned to the Omaha reservation. In 1912 she married George Stabler. George had attended the Genoa Indian School with Eunice, and afterwards the Carlysle Indian Institute in Pennsylvania and the Sherman Institute in Riverside, California. "He always said that when he was at Riverside, they had an earthquake while he was there," Hollis relayed. When George returned to the reservation, he and Eunice wed.
"The two young people have had more than ordinary advantages and are intelligent and capable," the local newspaper reported. "Mrs. Stabler attended the Wm. Woods College at Fulton, Mo., and last year Bellevue College. Since then she has been employed as stenographer for Wm. Springer. Mr. Stabler has just returned from Omaha, where he has taken a course in 'automobilogy.'"
"My mother was well educated," Hollis continued. "She married my dad when he wasn't hardly educated, no college education. But he was a nice-looking guy, didn't drink or anything. I think it was because of the clans, she was thinking about the clans, because she belonged to a real good clan. The Omahas have ten clans, five of the Sky People and five of the Earth People. Through my father my clan is the Buffalo clan, an Earth clan. And my mother belonged to the Bird clan, also an Earth clan. If a person married someone from their own clan, well, they'd be marrying a relative, a cousin. They don't go by that anymore."
Although Eunice had found employment on the Omaha Reservation, George could not. He enrolled at Hampton Indian Institute in Virginia, and he and Eunice moved east. "He took his training in carpentry, that's why he was a carpenter. My mother worked in the school office. She had a good friend, Mrs. Darling, a wealthy lady. In fact, she was one of the rich people that sponsored people, and she sponsored my mother. My dad went to school. It was something new for the Indians, because they didn't know how to go to school. But my mother was there. She poked my dad right on. I was born at Hampton in 1918, and I was baptized at the oldest church in the United States. My mother always said that's why I was a soldier, because on the day I was born, soldiers marched down Hampton road in front of the hospital, in uniforms, going off to war."
Just as Hollis had remembered, the Hampton Indian School had initiated a "model families program" into their Indian education curriculum in the 1880s, through which many an Omaha couple and their children had passed by the first decade of the twentieth century. The planners intended that the Indian families who completed their program would "take civilization home to be the center of civilization among the tribes."
As for Hollis's claim to have been baptized in the oldest church in the United States, he may not have been far off. A photograph from the collection of the Denver Public Library, created between 1880 and 1900, shows a Reverend Gravatt and a group of Native American men, teenagers, and boys in front of St. John's Church in Hampton, Virginia. The inscription on the reverse states, "One of the oldest churches, with Indian boys and Rev. Gravatt."
Through his mother's line, Hollis Stabler identified himself as having 1/32 French blood, but his paternal heritage had been purely Omaha. His father, George Stabler, was the son of Hinzízhnga, Sampson Stabler. Sampson had been born to Monégahi, Jordan Stabler. Jordan and Sampson, father and son, were born to the Black Shoulder Buffalo clan of the Omaha, who were responsible for the buffalo hunt. This clan considered themselves to be the first Omahas. As headman of his clan, Jordan had been signatory to the 1854 treaty signed in Washington DC, which had ceded Omaha land west of the Missouri to accommodate demand created by passage of the Homestead Act.
As a youth, Hollis's father, George Stabler, attended the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania. There, he had shared a dormitory room with Jim Thorpe for two years. Thorpe would later come to be widely regarded as the greatest athlete of the twentieth century. "My dad played baseball. He played with Jim Thorpe. Dad played centerfielder, then second baseman. Yeah, he made semi-pros," Hollis remembered proudly. "The semi-pros worked, they got paid, too. They do it all the time nowadays, but that was a big thing then.
"When they came back from the East, we moved to Walthill, on the Omaha reservation. Dad couldn't get a job." George and Eunice moved to Rosalie and built a small house on Spafford Woodhull's land near the railroad tracks. Hollis continued,
* They didn't have to pay rent, because it was my grandfather's land. They had a lot of garden stuff. But my mother didn't want to live on the reservation. When I was young, you could take the train to Sioux City for fifty cents, and fifty cents back. My dad went up there and he got a job at the Hanford Creamery. Where the post office now is, that creamery was located just about right there. And he played baseball in the summertime. In those days, baseball was a big thing. He played ball in the summertime, and worked in the wintertime. My mother said one time he went up there and didn't get back for about a week, and we only had one chicken left, and she said we finally had to kill it. So, he moved our family to Sioux City. That was in 1920.
In Sioux City, 7th Street was kind of a main thoroughfare. It had a streetcar running down it. People sold merchandise on the outside in those days, with tables outside with shades over them. We lived on the west side of Sioux Street, between 5th and 6th Streets. Up there was Webster School, on 4th Street, and that's where I started school. It was a big, tall, brick building, with a tower. And in that tower you walked around, kind of at the top of the library. And we'd go up there and we'd have to listen to people read. The playground was brick. My mother said we were the only American Indian students in the school. She said I played with all the boys around there. She said, "Why don't you say something to them?" I said, "I don't have much to say." She wanted me to talk, and I wouldn't talk very much. Anyway, I was the only Indian in my class. But there was a little black girl in there-I don't remember her name. Us boys used to lay the girls' chairs on their sides and go around and jump over them. It wasn't because she was black, it was because she was a girl.
Across the street, on the east side of the street, was a little store. A lady had that store. We'd buy candy and stuff like that. One thing I remember about buying candy in those days was the little sack. It had little colored stripes up and down it. You never see them no more. In those days, one penny could buy a lot of candy. Anyway, that's all she did was sell a little candy and gum and all like that. Spearmint gum was a big thing.
But she and my mother were good friends and we went over there. She always had liver and onions, and my mother would go in there and eat with her, and I'd go, too. Wherever I went, I was always with my mother. One time the lady was over there cooking, and she was drinking wine and she almost fell into the stove. Then my mother said, "Ida, let me finish that cooking." I remember that just as plain as anything.
In those days not many people had a car or buggy. We walked or rode the trolley on 7th Street. If you stayed on the trolley long enough going west you ran into Riverside Park, and if you rode the trolley east you passed through downtown on 4th Street. My dad liked to walk or hike. I think we walked all over the west-side hills along the river bank. We had no canteen, but used a milk bottle wrapped in a damp gunny sack. He carried a pocket knife with one broken blade and he would cut green willows and make us whistles. He always had a paper sack so we could carry back wild grapes and plums and onions.
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Meet the Author
Victoria Smith is an assistant professor of history and Native American studies at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln.
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