Renee Sans Souci has experienced pain and hardships for most of her life.
As a member of the Omaha Tribe of Nebraska, her people’s traditions and land have historically been taken away; her native language, UMÓⁿHOⁿ is diminishing; and soon she fears her entire native culture could disappear.
Since she was a young girl, she has been objectified and harrassed because she is a Native American woman. Every year, thousands of Native women are kidnapped or murdered.
In 2020, two young Native women were murdered on the Omaha Reservation, one of the women being Sans Souci’s niece. A year later, no one has yet been charged with these deaths.
Sans Souci is a single mother of four children who are now all grown.
On a daily basis, she experiences microaggressions because of her native origin, making her fearful to even go to the grocery store alone.
But despite all this pain and hardship, she remains compassionate.
“Even as we’re crying, hurting, angry, we need to come back to a place of compassion,” Sans Souci said. “It’s the only way I can cope with the horrific things that are happening. Compassion is about how we deal with such ugliness.”
Compassion is at the center of all the work she does – as a cultural consultant, educator, social activist and spiritual practitioner.
To her, being a cultural consultant is like being a diplomat for native tribes in Nebraska.
She helps outside organizations and institutions create relationships with Native people who either want to do business or develop a program with them. She said she enjoys making these connections and helping people.
Her niche however is in education.
As a practitioner of traditional healing and with a teaching degree from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, she combines personal experiences with a learning process to teach others about who Native people are and create an awareness of the challenges they face everyday.
“My goal has centered on how do I help people understand what it’s like to be native in a territory that is now occupied by the United States of America and therefore occupied by people who aren’t original to this land,” Sans Souci said.
Currently, she teaches an online class through Stand in for Nebraska called Racial Healing that helps Black, Indigeneous and People of Color engage in their own cultural identities and languages.
Her work as a teacher goes hand in hand with her drive for social activism because to her, activism is all about education.
“My role is to advocate continually for native people, our rights and to educate people about the history, what has happened here,” she said. “I ask, how did we come to be in the positions that we are in now?”
The history of native people and the colonization of America is long and painful, but she said the truth is largely ignored or not talked about.
“People are only learning one side of history,” she said. “Because of this teaching, there is a lot of miseducation and misunderstandings that are leading to misconceptions about.”
To fight these misconceptions she gives cultural presentations to classrooms, businesses and organizations weekly about what happened to the tribes.
She has spoken on tribal history and colonization, the scourge of smallpox, broken treaties, trails of tears, stolen lands, and forced assimilation and other relevant issues like environmental justice.
Nancy Engen-Wedin, director of education and creative initiatives at the Lied Center for Performing Arts, said she is always learning from Sans Souci.
“In the time that I have known Renee, she’s never been afraid to speak her voice,” Engen-Wedin said. “She’s taught me so much about her cultural traditions and history.”
Engen-Wedin admired her courage so much, she nominated Sans Souci for the 2020 Inspire Founders Award in which she became a finalist for her work as a community advocate for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.
According to the U.S Department of Justice, Native women face murder rates that are more than 10 times the national average. Sans Souci works with #MMIW to put an end to this violence.
She said most people don’t realize the violence that Native women face every day on their reservations, their neighborhoods and their homes.
“I’ve heard people say before that ‘no one is going to miss them, they’re only native,” she said. “But we are not invisible. My voice is strong now.”
She is proud of the work she’s done and the changes she has helped make, but she said she is tired. Instead of constantly fighting these issues, she would much rather be using her time learning to speak her Native language fluently or simply going for walks down the street without fear.
But she knows her fight for justice and inclusion must go on.
Until people fully understand their history and what it is like to be a Native person in the U.S., she said change cannot happen.
She knows it won’t be easy, but then again, she has always had to work hard her whole life. She has hope for the future.
“I want a good future for my children, for my grandchildren, for all people of color and their grandchildren,” she said.