The time is 9:58 a.m. and your heart is racing as you speed walk through the Durham building to arrive at your Environmental Geology lecture on time. You burst through the doors and rush to take your seat just as Dr. Lawrence Bradley, Geography and Geology Professor at UNO, prepares to begin class.
Today, Bradley has on a navy-blue Yale crewneck paired with jeans, his signature watch with Native American beading, and a military-cut covered by a newsboy hat. He’s rummaging through his worn-in leather briefcase searching for the environmental newspaper clippings he cuts out to share with the class.
The clock tower chimes as it hits 10, and Bradley says his famous opening words: “10 O’clock, time to rock.”
Students in Bradley’s classes quickly pick up through his life stories, his unique demeanor, and mention of his research, that he is no normal Geography and Geology professor. Bradley has lived an inspirational life, that eventually led him to be America’s leading expert on vertebrate fossils dispossessed from Native American lands.
Bradley was raised by Oglala Lakota since he was two-years-old and has first-hand experience with life on a reservation.
“[You see] the good, the bad, and the ugly, we’ll put it that way,” said Bradley. “I certainly have seen issues from a different light growing up within it. There was poverty, there was violence, there was tragedy, but then there was a lot of love, simplicity, humor, beauty, and wisdom.”
Bradley and his siblings were brought up by his mom and stepdad, who were full-blood Oglala Lakota. Bradley himself is half Mexican and half Irish Danish along with having some Native American lineage, and he makes sure to celebrate every one of his cultural heritages.
Growing up, Bradley and his family struggled for money.
“When we were young and little, we were homeless to a certain respect. I always say we followed the buffalo; we were nomadic. My family, we would pack all our belongings in a station wagon and drive from Omaha to Denver or drive from Omaha to Salt Lake City,” said Bradley. “We would live up in the mountains at the campsites and during the day drive down into the city. My dad would look for work or we’d look for an apartment. Eventually, my dad would find a job, or we’d find a house or something, and make things work. Then, we’d just pull up stakes and do it all over again.”
As Bradley got older, he ended up joining the United States Army as a freshly minted 18-year-old. While in the Army, he served as a Veterinary Food Inspector for four years.
“I was in Norfolk, Virginia for two years and while I was in Norfolk Virginia–the largest naval base in the world–I also went to Old Dominion University there part-time. Then, it was two years in Frankfort, Germany, the real army. My ultimate mission was to put a hurtin’ on the iron curtain and spread Americanism. Somehow, that helped a bit. Because soon after, the Berlin Wall fell, as they say,” said Bradley.
After the army, Bradley went to college and earned his undergraduate degree in biology and geology with a minor in Native American Studies, and then his master’s degree in biology at UNO. He then went to UNL to get his doctoral degree in geography.
While Bradley was a student at UNL, he had a dream of being an ambassador between science and paleontology.
At the time, he was doing a paleontology survey for the Santee Sioux on their reservation in Knox County Nebraska. He gained permission to find fossil sites on their land for them to better monitor the fossils against being pillaged. While that was going on, someone from Center, Nebraska claimed they found a plesiosaur on Santee Sioux land as they were looking for shark teeth.
“I found out [about the plesiosaur] while at a conference in Norman, Oklahoma in the fall of 2002, at a poster session. I asked the Santee Sioux if they knew anything about people coming to collect a plesiosaur, they said no. The tribal government didn’t know anything about it. Then, the University of Nebraska said I could be part of the dig and keep everybody informed. That was in the fall. Then, in the spring, I opened the front page of the Omaha Herald, and it shows they were already on the dig, and they never told me about it,” said Bradley. “I again asked the tribal government, ‘Did University of Nebraska Department of Roads consult with the Santee Sioux at all?’ They said no. They didn’t know anything about it, there was no consultation with the tribal government.”
Bradley then asked if the Santee school students could participate in the dig, and they denied the request because the dig was too close to the state highway. Yet, a couple months later, on the museum website of the University of Nebraska, it showed two non-native kids about five to six years old participating in the dig.
“To me, that was blatant discrimination by the University of Nebraska Department of Roads against the Santee school students on their own reservation,” said Bradley. “So then I had asked, well, if that occurs here in 2003, how far back does this go?”
Bradley went on to find that fossils have been dispossessed from Native American tribes all over. That’s how he found his eureka moment as the scientists say, or the moment it all began.
Bradley then self-published his dissertation on the dispossession of fossils from Native American lands in 2014. Yet, his work didn’t really get discovered until the Chicago Field Museum ‘blew the dust off it and dug it up’ right before the pandemic in 2020. Bradley’s research was featured nationally on Public Broadcasting System (PBS) in the critically renowned “Prehistoric Road Trip” series. After that, his work blossomed nationally and internationally.
“I was maybe 20 years ahead of my time, had the University of Nebraska not sat on my research, or prevented me from doing what should be done as a full-tenured professor. Nonetheless, I persevered, and I always say have faith and confidence in the scientific method,” said Bradley. “You don’t give up, you never give up, and you don’t let them beat you down. You just keep going like a civil rights activist. So, a lot of things sprung from my life after that, how I was treated, the racial barriers as I perceive them, but it’s just suppression of academic freedom.”
Now, Bradley visits museums and universities, looking to identify fossils that were dispossessed from Native American lands. He uses his past experiences, as well as his inspector training in the military, and his educational knowledge to help track down the background of the fossils.
“Much of my work isn’t out in the field looking for fossils where they sit. Instead, it’s going to museums, going through drawers, rooms, discovering things, and then looking at the identification tags. You’re looking at the taxonomy of the fossils and it helps you determine if there’s any matrix left on the fossil. It determines the time and place, how many millions of years ago, where it was geographically and stratigraphically, and then you go from there,” said Bradley. “Many times, you can pinpoint those from a certain reservation area at a certain time, depending on the collector, who collected it, and if their names are even there.”
A few places Bradley has found fossils dispossessed from Native American lands are the University of Nebraska State Museum, South Dakota School of Mines, Yale Peabody Museum, Chicago Field Museum, and the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.
“[Once they’re found] the fossils stay there. Many tribal government officials and others realize they don’t have anywhere to house the fossils. But it’s about if the museum acknowledges where they come from,” said Bradley. “There are some reservations that do have the means to store fossils. There have been some cases where universities have repatriated fossils back to the tribes, but certainly once you find them, then what? You have to publish papers, publish books and material, and also talk at academic conferences, let people know.”
Aside from searching for fossils, Bradley also gives lectures about his work. During spring break, Bradley went to lecture at Oglala Lakota College on the Pine Ridge reservation. And, on his most recent trip, he went to lecture at Yale, Harvard, and Brown. To him, it felt like flying with the eagles.
“On one hand, I want to be very humble and thankful. When you’re raised by Native Americans, you’re taught to be humble and not brag about yourself. That’s humility, and it’s tough. I feel validated, it’s validation, substantiated. That’s a good feeling. Just when I thought I was going to wind down and maybe contemplate retirement or semi-retirement, now my star is rising and exploding. I have to be here, there, and everywhere. It’s better late than never,” said Bradley.
Bradley’s research is now the framework for people around the world to provide their own justice to their indigenous populations. On our very own campus, Bradley is a geography and geology professor by day and a world-renowned expert on vertebrate fossils dispossessed from Native American lands by night.