Interview by Kamrin Baker
Photos by Kimberly Bailey
February 1, 2019
Levelle Wells is the president of the Big Elk Native American non-profit. With an urban Native background, his story is one of hope, resilience and community.
Issue 1 : It is the heart that drives us, beating away to forge and mold each of us as our own magnificent people. This issue is about that.
What is your background? Tell us about your family and big moments in your life.
My name is Levelle Wells—my Native name means Big Elk, and I’m from the Elk Clan. We have ten clans in our tribe. Big Elk was our last traditional chief of Omaha tribe, and he died in 1846. He was an orator. He had a famous speech: the Flood. He went to Washington and told our people we better prepare for the worst because a flood of settlers were coming. He’s buried over there in Bellevue, which, Bellevue is our original land—Bellevue had claim over this town because of us.
I was born here, and grew up here. I lived on my reservation (went to kindergarten there) and moved back. I’ve been in Omaha the rest of my life. I traveled sporadically through the years, but for the most part, I’ve been here. I grew up, with my mom and dad separated, when I was I think eight, and we ended up moving to the public housing. The Projects, people call them. We were one of a handful of other Native folks there. We just had to adapt to the situation. My mom was always in her Native ways—we always went to powwows and hand games, and stuff like that.
Being Native, we have a shield up automatically—there is a trust issue if you’re not Native. I don’t know if I had that. I’ve always been outspoken, a people-person, so saying that, my brothers had a few more traits of being Native because they lived on the reservation more than I did. As I grow older, I’ve always been a negotiator if I see a problem or squabble. I find myself in the middle trying to find peace. From what I’ve read, Chief Big Elk was a peaceful person—that’s who we are, the Omaha. We are a peaceful people. We welcomed settlers. In 1850—had a peace treaty with settlers. We forgave some of them, they killed some of our people, we killed some of their people.
So, like I said, growing up in Omaha, we’re considered Urban Natives because we didn’t grow up on the reservation. Growing up in an urban setting, you adapt to that setting, and some Natives fall off their traditions, while others try to keep those traditions as best they can. My mother did a good job of that. All we knew was Omaha. My mom knew her Native ways and implemented them as best she could, but growing up in an urban setting, sometimes you can lose that. I always knew my ways but I never really followed them until I got older and realized how important that heritage is to who we are.
That’s where I’m at today. I’m President of Big Elk Native American non-profit; I took over recently. It’s been kind of slow; I’m working on building my staff, gaining members, and stuff. I envision that it’s going to be thriving soon. I’m learning as I go, but it’s definitely needed. We need a stance to show people we’re still here—even our own people. We are Omaha native people, and we are somebody. I think Natives get lost in everything in the urban setting—if you’re not connected to your tribe, you’re going to lose a lot of tradition. What I do is very important, because over the years, I have seen other programs without any good outcomes. I equate that to the need for stuff to be run by more Natives. I’m working on being a liaison for my people, to be a mentor. I am a service provider through the state through a program called Native Futures. I am able to be a family support worker, a mentor, working to get some referrals to at-risk kids.
I have a construction and contracting company I’m getting started to employ some Natives, and just inspire those who are Native. We want to live and have a better quality of life. I see the despair of my people, and I almost can’t blame them. From family to family, there is not a lot for the Natives to be connected to. There’s something that’s missing, and I want to fill that void. I’m known, after growing up here my whole life. I can provide a spark in some kind of capacity for my people. If I don’t do it, who else will?
I’m just a day by day person. If I see a Native person who’s homeless, I’m always helping to give them water, a couple dollars. I go to the homeless shelters and give them some courage to stop drinking, too. I’ve been on the Red Road for over six years now—which is a spiritual journey of sobriety. I sponsor people, and I tell anybody to call me when they need someone to talk to.
But yeah, I get into these different spaces to be a representative for the Native people. I was talking to city people recently, and they haven’t had Native folks on their board to give perspective. We need that representation. I know I can help out there.
We were one of a handful of other Native folks there. We just had to adapt to the situation.
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What is the history of the Omaha tribe and its place here in the city?
In the 1200s, we came through the Ohio Valley, and came up the Missouri River, up against the current. U’monhon actually means ‘against the current.’ We settled right there on the bank of Bellevue.
We came, we settled here, throughout the generations, throughout the 1700s. There were Natives all around, and we used to fight with Pawnees, Sioux tribes. There was Native warfare. Then, we had contact with the settlers, now what they were doing is called ‘Manifest Destiny.’ The treaty in 1854 removed us from this land to the present reservation of Macy, Nebraska (75-80 miles north of Omaha). Through the treaty, they were supposed to take care of us and provide for us, but, you know, they took care of us all right; with Smallpox, spoiled food, and by killing thousands of our people. Alcohol wasn’t even thought of in our traditional ways, but settlers would come to our tribe and give little kids alcohol to barter. The rest is history, as far as that.
We don’t have too much contact—to bridge the people on my reservation—that the city of Omaha is our original land. I’d love to create a resource center or something where my people feel safe to come back to Omaha. It’s almost like an invisible fence is up, once they get out of the reservation. They have in their mind that they can’t come to big cities. There must be some kind of psychological thing with that, because my brother will come visit and stay here for only a few hours, but he thinks he has to go back to the reservation right away. I say he can spend the night, but in his mind, he thinks he has to go. I see that there’s this sovereign nation, and I’m happy to see everyone, but I’m sad at the same time, every time I go up there.
It becomes the norm—poverty is seen as the “traditional way.” No. I want to help change that tradition, empower our people, and live a better quality of life for generations to come. We’re prideful people, and that can be a killer sometimes. There’s too much pride that will make things seem like everything’s all right when it ain’t. People die really early out there—the average is 40-55 years old. Just this last year, I knew about 15-20 Natives who died young.
We have the oldest powwow in America—214 years old. It’s called Hedewachi. It’s a harvest celebration. It’s usually the first moon of the harvest, and we celebrate life. This guy, Nathan Phillips, he’s from our tribe. He’s coming up to Lincoln to do something. They’re going to have a fundraiser with him as a guest speaker. He was at the powwow this year, and he sung a Holy Fireplace, overlooking the Bluffs and the river.
I know I talked to a couple reporters trying to get me to get in touch with him, but I actually told them more about the government shutdown. The director of the clinic on the reservation said they’d have to choose between food or medicine during that time, because they rely solely on the government. Thank God they opened it up.
What about Omaha makes you feel open to new possibilities?
Just being the person I know I am, I’m excited to get into these spaces and speak up for our people from our perspective, because far too often, it’s left out the window. We’re speaking up from our experiences and what we deal with. I can speak for my people and speak up for them. It’s just in my DNA. It’s no coincidence that by name is Big Elk, and our last chief was named that, as well. I’m led by the spirit of him.
How does the tribe fit into the dichotomy of Omaha, and how can people support you?
They should come to some of our meetings, and learn about our history, be more engaged in our history—and pay homage to our peoples. We are the original inhabitants of these lands. Get rid of those stereotypes—that Natives are alcoholics and drug addicts. There is a story behind that, so be mindful of that, be respectful to our peoples.
Even more than that, just come to know who we are. I plan on doing some “Why the City of Omaha has forgot about the Omaha Tribe” presentations so I can present that to the community. Those are a few ways you can support us in that aspect. Get rid of those old stereotypes and understand that we are humans. We are still here.
Where does the passion and love for your community come from?
It comes from my heart. I grew up here, and I’ve seen a lot of changes. One thing that hasn’t changed is my people. They’re kind of in a rut, almost. They don’t want to ask for help. They feel defeated. I think I know I can bring a spark once I get things going. I want to be that voice, turning the volume up for my people. For far too long, we’re not even at the table. We forgot we could be.
I feel compelled and convicted to speak for my people.
Just, growing up, from my grandparents. My grandpa was in Ames, Iowa. His name was Harvey Wells, he was in a 1971 stand-off at Alcatraz. Some of my people call me Baby Harvey. He was a big guy. We Wells were always big, from what I’m told, we were protectors of the tribe. That’s where my passion comes from. My mom is still around, and she’s seen the change in me to be a better person, to be a good person for our people.
I haven’t always been like that—made a lot of bad choices when I was younger. I have evolved for the better, and I think there’s a lot that can be done that I can do.
I got involved with the gangs, who infiltrated here a little over 30 years ago, and I grew up in the Projects—it was called Vietnam. My dad was out of the household, and my stepdad had passed. There was no male role model inside the house. These gang members started showing up in ’88. The Projects were like a concentrated poverty.
When these people started showing up, before you know it, I see some of my friends with brand new clothes, brand new shoes. First, they were lookouts. They got paid $100 a day to tell people the police were coming by. They had these brown paper bags full of crack. This was the whole nation going through that crack wave—infiltrating all these Midwest cities. It hit Omaha, and before you know it, we started selling. My mom didn’t know right away, but she did after a while, after I had new clothes and a bankroll of thousands of dollars when I was going to school.
It turned on the Projects, and we were wearing the colors of the Bloods and we were claiming these families. The Crips were on the other Projects in Hilltop. It became a color gang—blue and red. You had Kansas City boys coming up, bringing dope and selling in our Projects, then you had a little turf war going on—us Omaha cats right smack in the middle of it. A kid from Kansas City got shot in the head right behind my Auntie’s house, and another guy was killed in the alley. Things started getting hot in the Projects. There were drive-by shootings that started increasing. Being at that age where my mind wasn’t fully grown, it was a venture.
One day, just over 30 years ago, I’ll never forget that day. My friend was selling dope, and I got into it more. My friend sold a crack rock to an undercover. The undercover cop pulled up and dumped a trash can on me. They took me, and the undercover said “to the best of my knowledge, it was him.” I went to trial and was sentenced by lunchtime.
This started my spiral of being real bitter against the system. They sentenced me at the age of 17—instead of going to my senior year, I went to prison. That jail was the start of my feeling of “it didn’t make me better; it made me bitter.” When I got out, I got right back in it. I was living in a rap album. In ’94, I was caught up in another shooting. It didn’t dawn on me to live past 25 or 30, that was unthinkable back then. I didn’t care. In ’96 I got set up on a drug deal, and that slowed me down. That time, I really was guilty. They gave me a 9-10 year sentence, and I ended up doing a little over 4 years in prison. Got out with good intentions to do things differently, but then I got shot after five weeks of getting out of prison.
Someone was trying to kill me. They shot me right in my ankle, and I had to be on crutches for five months. It shattered my ankle. It threw me into a depression, and I’ve gained all this weight, for years. When I got shot, I slowed down all the way, but these other guys became opportunists and preyed on others. I wasn’t selling or anything, but I’d be their protector. Then, I had my daughter. I started cleaning my act up, and in 2012, I got my second DUI. I looked into the rear view mirror, as the police came up, and I looked at myself and talked to the mind behind the mind. I said: “you can do better. You know what you’ve got to do.”
Change don’t happen til you make a change. I’ve been clean and sober a little over six years now. I went back to school at Metro, graduated in 2016 with an Associate’s Degree in general studies and a certificate in culinary arts. Just moving forward, little by little.
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