Immigration, the American West, and the twentieth century: German from Russia, Omaha Indian, and Vietnamese-urban villagers in Lincoln, Nebraska

Kurt E. Kinbacher
Dept. of History, University of Nebraska, Lincoln
July, 2006


The North American West is a culturally and geographically diverse region that has long been a beacon for successive waves of human immigration and migration. A case in point, the population of Lincoln, Nebraska-a capital city on the eastern cusp of the Great Plains-was augmented during the twentieth century by significant influxes of Germans from Russia, Omaha Indians, and Vietnamese. Arriving in clusters beginning in 1876, 1941, and 1975 respectively, these newcomers were generally set in motion by dismal economic, social, or political situations in their sending nations. Seeking better lives, they entered a mainstream milieu dominated by native-born Americans---most part of a lateral migration from Iowa, Illinois, and Pennsylvania---who only established their local community in 1867. While this mainstream welcomed their labor, it often eschewed the behaviors and cultural practices ethnic peoples brought with them.
Aware but not overly concerned about these prejudices, all three groups constructed or organized distinct urban villages. The physical forms of these enclaves ranged from homogeneous neighborhoods to tight assemblies of relatives, but each suited a shared preference for living among kinspeople. These urban villages also served as stable anchors for unique peoples who were intent on maintaining aspects of their imported cultural identities.
Never willing to assimilate to mainstream norms, urban villagers began adapting to their new milieus. While ethnic identity constructions in Lincoln proved remarkably enduring, they were also amazingly flexible.
In fact, each subject group constantly negotiated their identities in response to interactions among particular, cosmopolitan, and transnational forces. Particularism refers largely to the beliefs, behaviors, and organizational patterns urban villagers imported from their old milieus. Cosmopolitan influences emanated from outside the ethnic groups and were dictated largely but not exclusively by the mainstream. Transnationalism is best defined as persistent, intense contact across international boundaries. These influences were important as the particularism of dispersed peoples was often reinforced by contact with sending cultures.