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Local leader leaves lasting impact on Native American community

Posted at 4:22 PM, Apr 23, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-23 17:22:10-04

OMAHA, Neb. (KMTV) — “I personally miss my dad’s stories. My dad could just capture everybody’s attention in a room when he was speaking. He had the best stories,” Michele O’Brien reminisced.

Robert O’Brien spent 61 years of his life wondering who his parents were.

At the Fort Berthold reservation in North Dakota, Robert’s mother, Marie Gdanietz, worked as a nun and his father, Arthur Mandan, was the first tribal chairman for the Three Affiliated Tribes.

They fell in love and she got pregnant with Robert.

“The Catholic Church found out about it. She had her baby, the Catholic Church took her baby and sterilized her so she could never have kids again,” said Michele.

Robert grew up in a Minnesota orphanage.

“The Catholic Church gave a Native American baby the last name O’Brien so nobody would be able to find him,” said Michele.

Robert eventually left the orphanage to work then began a 20-year military career starting in the Navy and ending in the Air Force, bringing him to Offutt.

Robert became a founding board member of the Nebraska Urban Indian Health Coalition, but lacking any proof of Native American ancestry he had to leave the board in 1990.

He eventually got help tracing his roots.

“He got the call from the private investigator giving him the information of where he’s from and everything. And she said, well, Mr. O’Brien, I have someone on the other end here that would like to say hello to you. And it was his mother. She was still alive,” said Michele.

Decades of questions… finally answered.

He spent about six years with his mother before she died.

“It’s the only time I've ever seen my dad cry,” said Michele.

“He came back on the board and by 1994 he was the president of the board and that really changed everything,” said Donna Polk, CEO of the Nebraska Urban Indian Health Coalition.

Polk described Robert as a passionate, impactful leader.

“He was so committed to having an organization that provided services to the Native community,” said Polk.

Under Robert’s leadership, the nonprofit’s annual budget grew to $2 million, helping establish residential and outpatient behavioral health treatment and other programs.

After Robert passed away at 90 on March 28, Michele visited the facility.

“I left there in tears… just knowing that my dad was able to do that,” Michele said.

The Nebraska Urban Indian Health Coalition has expanded to Lincoln.

In Omaha, a new building has been purchased with plans for housing across the street, increasing access to hard-to-find healthcare for Native Americans.

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