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Growing out of poverty: Nebraska’s UMÓⁿHOⁿ Nation school featured in new Omaha museum

May 18, 2023

Article originally published by Midwest Messenger author Amy Hadachek.
View original story here(opens in a new tab).

When Nebraska students fraught with poverty and hunger got the chance to turn their lives around and grow a huge vegetable garden for their tribal community, the story from UMÓⁿHOⁿ Nation Public School in Macy, Nebraska, was documented through an exhibit at the new Kiewit Luminarium in Omaha, which opened to the public April 15.

Awareness grew from the ground up, when dismayed to learn that his students from a tribal nation community often came to school hungry, Ricardo Ariza, Jobs for America’s Graduates (JAG) career specialist at UMÓⁿHOⁿ Nation Public School, helped arrange free and reduced breakfast and lunches for the kids.

After assessing strengths and weaknesses in their community, a high level of heart disease, diabetes, obesity and drug addictions was revealed. The students and Ariza started talking about what they could do about it.

Backed by support from their school and JAG, Ariza, and Suzi French, UMÓⁿHOⁿ Nation Farm-to-School director, created a garden that blossomed into 10,000 vegetable crops including Indian corn, tomatoes, onions and other vegetables.

A California film crew traveled to Macy to shoot the video about how the students growing plants and creating economic development in their community. The video features French, the students, the fantastic program, and how they’re learning to sustainably grow vegetables, said Chris Stratman, community engagement manager for Kiewit Luminarium.

It’s already made an impact, he said.

“As I looked at the UMÓⁿHOⁿ Nation exhibit here, there was a woman with two kids taking pictures of their exhibit. She was part of the UMÓⁿHOⁿ tribe, but never saw her native flag flown outside of the tribal area. That was kind of a telling moment,” Stratman said.

Kiewit invited the UMÓⁿHOⁿ school to visit before the exhibit was revealed to the general public. Teachers brought 25 students to view the exhibit floor.

“The documentary is powerful in highlighting significant parts of a complex story where the voice of our youth, vision, tradition, UMÓⁿHOⁿ culture and hope seize the day,” Ariza said.

Students were encouraged to provide feedback about their exhibit.

“I love how our project helps our community and the elders,” said Teia Saunsoci, a student from UMÓⁿHOⁿ Nation Public School.

“I am happy that I decided to visit the Luminarium because this is a pretty cool place,” said Travis Phillips, another UMÓⁿHOⁿ student.

Their school therapist captured the ambiance surrounding the students’ visit.

“Our kiddos are being recognized for all of their hard work, and this makes me feel very proud,” said Kari Bappe, UMÓⁿHOⁿ Nation School Psychologist.

Seeing the documentary had a profound impact on Kiewit staff, too.

“I get goosebumps, just remembering it – the teachers, the administrators, Ricardo and Suzi and having the culture highlighted in such a positive way,” Stratman said. “It was exciting to offer, and it meant a lot to them.”

Before Kiewit opened, its team met with groups who work specifically with populations who have been excluded. The Kiewit organization focuses on being accessible in an elusive space for people of color, and indigenous people. It has worked extensively with other groups, including the Latino Center of the Midlands, and Girls Inc., which is a non-profit working with African-American girls.

The Kiewit is a new 82,000-square-foot museum that features many other exhibits, including one displaying seeds native to the region in English, Spanish and in the UMÓⁿHOⁿ language, as well.

Meanwhile, UMÓⁿHOⁿ students are excited for more growth this summer.

Their school superintendent hired 18 teachers to work with them this summer on an almost one-to-one basis. They’ll have lessons on drone technology, culinary arts, how-to run meetings and more.

Through an agreement with the Nebraska Department of Labor, Ariza and French will teach students this summer about farming, including planting, hoeing and watering crops, and growing sweet corn and Indian corn. They’re also hoping to have a farm and field safety day this summer.

For the future, they hope to eventually build a $1 million food processing facility to can vegetables.