Neb. He was an Irish kid until the first grade. Then, the
orphanage children discovered cowboys and Indians. Ever after, he
was "the Indian." Only later in life would he discover that his
blood carries not a drop of Irish heritage.
O'Brien was an American Indian orphan. He grew up to become
a leader of numerous Native outreach programs in Nebraska. On June
20, the Nebraska Urban Indian Health Coalition recognized O'Brien
for his life of service.
welled in the eyes of Donna Polk-Primm, NUIHC executive director,
as she presented him with an honorary plaque and star quilt. On
top of his inspiring dedication to Nebraska's Native community,
Polk-Primm knows his uplifting life story, how he retraced his lineage
to "tribal royalty."
From his birth Feb. 28, 1931 until early adulthood, O'Brien
had never met another Indian. He spent his teenage years working
for room and board on a farm in rural Minnesota. Friends at the
small town school called him "Chief." He was a leader
among the boys strong, tall, articulate, president of the
snuck into the Navy Reserve at age 16. His 20-year military career
spanned enlistments in the Navy and Air Force; fellow soldiers often
referred to O'Brien as "the Indian." He met a Native
American for the first time while serving in France. The Navajo
sergeant asked him about tradition, song and ceremony. "What
tribe are you?" O'Brien had no answer. He grew up without
moved to Omaha after being stationed at Offutt Air Force Base. On
a stormy afternoon, he noticed a soggy paperboy seeking refuge from
the elements. O'Brien invited him inside for hot cocoa. Surprised,
the boy stared and said, "You're an Indian, aren't you!" The paperboy
was Indian, too.
boy introduced O'Brien to his father, Peter Thomas, a member
of the Winnebago who was helping to organize a local Native community
group in the late '60s.
O'Brien attended the first meeting, he had never seen so many
Indians in one room. To his astonishment, they voted him president
of the Indian Community Center Association, and O'Brien began
his first immersion among people of America's First Nations.
we were going out to the parking lot to get in the car, I thought,
'what in the hell have I gotten myself into?' Because
I didn't know anything about Indians."
began with a dream of creating a Native health clinic for Indian
people, and over the next 40 years, O'Brien helped guide the
dream through the reality of numerous Native programs.
1986, he helped establish the NUIHC. Shortly after, the state of
Nebraska invited him to become an Indian commissioner. However,
O'Brien said an influential naysayer protested that he didn't
belong: "'He doesn't even know if he's Indian.
We don't even know if he's Indian. He doesn't have
an enrollment number.' So they withdrew the offer to be on
the Indian Commission because I didn't have an enrollment number."
in 1990, IHS announced that he could no longer serve on the NUIHC
board of directors. Without proper paperwork, he wasn't eligible.
began assembling the puzzle pieces of his origin story. On a summer
road trip, he stopped by the orphanage where nuns raised him in
St. Paul, Minn. The building was gone. After some research, he found
a paper trail leading to his birth certificate.
found a name. Arthur Mandan.
learned his father was the first chairman of the Three Affiliated
Tribes of Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara in North Dakota. His great-grandfather
was Chief Red Buffalo Cow, the last recognized Mandan chief, who
signed the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie.
62 years without siblings, he had more family than he could have
possibly imagined. He found a welcoming network of sisters, brothers,
cousins, nephews, nieces and clan relations.
he learned of his mother. She was a nun (the orphan child of German
immigrants). When she became pregnant, the Catholic Church spirited
her back to Minnesota from the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation.
The church took her newborn child, who received an Irish name and
a hidden identity. He grew up in the same orphanage as his mother.
enrolled in the TAT in 1992. The same year, he rejoined the NUIHC
board of directors. Energized by positive momentum, he said, "We're
going to make a go of this.
really all I wanted to do; for so long, we had heard people complaining
and bringing up charts and graphs and showing how Indian health
was the worst in the country. Everybody talked about how bad it
(I thought,) let's get in there and do something
instead of sitting on our butts and complaining."
his leadership, the coalition's annual budget grew from $300,000
to $2 million, and NUIHC established many key programs, including
residential and outpatient behavioral health treatment, the "Tired
Moccasin Elders Program," transportation, diabetes education/services,
and HIV/AIDS testing and counseling.
we could ever get the money to buy our buildings, I would love to
rename them in honor of Bob O'Brien," Polk-Primm said.
"We are who we are because of him."
retired from the NUIHC in 2006 and regularly chats over the phone
with his remaining brother and sisters in North Dakota. As he sits
in his living room, a picture of his father hangs over his shoulder.
The black and white image shows Arthur Mandan shaking hands with
President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Mandan visited the president with
a delegation to rescue a sacred bundle from the Heye Museum in New
face is Mandan's reflection; they share facial features
the same high cheekbones, identical slicked-back hair. After a 1992
ceremony, they even share the same name Mea Iràaxi
Madoush "Spirit Woman." Tony Mandan said their father
received the name from someone who saw a spirit woman in a vision.
a prolonged search, O'Brien found his mother, Marie (Gdanietz)
Bruestle, and he hugged the former nun outside her home in Mendota,
Minn. She lived her final years in Omaha with her lost son.
broken circle of their lives mended.