As a child, the late Paul Brill was intrigued with Native Americans and their culture. Spending summers on his grandmother’s farm in Riley, Ind., the boy would roam the woods and fields finding arrowheads and other artifacts.
That life-long fascination later led Brill to his dream job at the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs. Starting there in 1958, Brill proceeded to spend the rest of his life working with and for Native Americans.
Now he will be laid to rest with his adopted family, the Omaha Nation in Nebraska. Brill died March 19 after suffering a stroke a few days earlier. Brill had turned 86 four days before his death.
“My father loved what he did and he was dedicated to it,” said his daughter Lori Brill Lee. “He lived an incredible life and has left quite a legacy.”
Born March 15, 1931, in Terre Haute, Brill graduated in 1948 from Garfield High School where he was class president. Planning to become a teacher, Brill then enrolled at Indiana State Teachers College, now Indiana State University.
Although he faced a major medical problem, the former high school football and basketball player didn’t let it hinder him. “My father had tuberculosis and lost a lung right after he graduated from high school,” Lee said. “He was never supposed to be active or play sports again but, of course, he did. Nothing stopped him.”
Brill went on to become a place kicker for the Sycamore football team. He also met the woman, Marjorie, who would later become his wife. “When my dad met my mother at 17, he said he knew she was the one,” Lee said.
Marjorie was a member of Kappa Kappa sorority and the 1951 Junior Prom Queen. The couple married on June 12, 1953, after graduating from college. They moved to Detroit where Brill earned a master’s degree from Wayne University. Then they returned to Terre Haute where Brill taught at Garfield High School for two years until he was offered a position with the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1958.
“He eagerly accepted,” Lee said. “He worked with nearly every tribe in the United States and learned to speak five Native American languages which are extremely difficult to learn.”
The growing family lived in several different states, including Washington D.C., Virginia, South Dakota, Florida, New Mexico and California. “I was born in Aberdeen, S.D.,” said Lee, the youngest of the four Brill children. Siblings are Jeffrey Brill of Coatesville, Julie Denny of Terre Haute and Denise Brill of Nashville, Tenn.
Brill found his life’s calling in October 1961 when the Secretary of the Interior asked him to go to Macy, Neb., to determine which members of the Omaha Tribe should receive money allotted by Congress in a land claims act. His job was to document who qualified by documenting the percentage of their blood that was Native American.
To accomplish that task, Brill embarked on the arduous journey of Omaha genealogy. To trace Omaha lineage, Brill conducted extensive interviews with Omaha tribal chiefs and elders, much of that work done without charge on his own time. Brill spent more than 25,000 hours tracing Omaha Tribe lineage, all the way back to the first Spanish explorers.
“Everything my father did was meticulously hand written,” Lee said. “It was our life. It was nothing for him to be out until 2 or 3 in the morning working on this. It wasn’t done on government time. It was his free time because he wanted to get it done.”
The Brills returned to Terre Haute in 1971 so the children could grow up in the family hometown. “But he continued to work with the bureau and various Indian tribes on his own time,” Lee said. “He absolutely worked just as hard, spending days on end doing genealogy.”
Once his children were grown and had a college education — Jeffrey, Denise and Lori graduated from Indiana State, Julie from Ivy Tech Community College in Terre Haute — Brill decided to go back to his former job with the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
“But the rules had changed,” Lee said. “Now you had to be a Native American to work for the Bureau of Indian Affairs.”
Brill was a Hoosier. Not a Native American. But then an amazing thing happened.
“The Omaha Indians asked my dad to fly to Macy, Neb. That they needed to have a talk with him,” Lee said. “My dad flew there and was legally adopted by the Omahas. That had never happened before. The United States government legally recognizes his adoption, so he went back to work for the bureau.”
Brill also was given his own Native American name — E’sta mah’za, which means “Iron Eye.” In 1995 his alma mater recognized Brill’s lifetime work with the Native American Indians by bestowing the Distinguished Alumni Award from Indiana State.
Brill retired in 1998 and moved back to Terre Haute but he continued working on Omaha Genealogy. In 2016, Brill was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for his more than six decades of work with Native Americans. Brill worked to protect “numerous indigenous nations’ sovereignty rights; promoted respect and cultural understanding between the U.S. government agencies and federally recognized tribal nations; and acted as a cultural ambassador for international visitors, introducing them to Native American cultures,” a letter of nomination from Nebraska Indian Community College said.
“His work in Native American genealogy has been critical in assisting several tribes resist pressures by the United States to assimilate and/or terminate their tribal sovereignty rights,” the letter said.
If he received the Nobel Peace Prize, Brill had said he would donate the $1 million award to the Omaha tribe to create business enterprises for employment opportunities for the tribe which has a high unemployment rate.
Last year, Brill donated his genealogy records to Nebraska Indian Community College for tribal archives. “They came with the largest U-Haul ever, a 24-foot truck and filled it with my dad’s lifelong work,” Lee said. “They still have to come back one more time to get more.”
The goal, Lee said, is to build an archives wing at Nebraska Indian Community College to be named in honor of Paul E. Brill. “He visited the college three times last year to participate in programs and help raise funds for the addition,” she said. “Almost a million dollars has been raised.”
Groundbreaking for the project is set for June. “When it is finished, the archives will be open to the public,” Lee said. “My father had been offered millions of dollars for his work but he felt it needed to be given that all people as well as Native American Indians could learn from the material that he had spent his life collecting. That is what my father wanted. That is his legacy.”
After his stroke, Brill knew that his time on earth was coming to an end, Lee said. “My mother passed away in January 2013. They were married for 59½ years. My father knew he was dying, and he knew where he was going. He told me he was going to be with my mother.”
Paul and Marjorie Brill also planned for their final resting place. After a celebration of life for Paul Brill in Terre Haute on April 7, a special ceremony will be held by the Omaha Tribe in Nebraska.
“They will take my dad’s ashes back to Nebraska. His ashes were mixed with my mother’s and the Omaha Indians will have a private ceremony where they will be buried on Indian grounds,” Lee said. “My dad is considered their brother and that is where he wanted to be laid to rest.”