Standing Bear and the Poncas Journey
With Bright Eyes as his translator, Ponca chief Standing Bear is famous for delivering the speech that finally won human rights for Native Americans - but his journey, and that of the Ponca, would not end so easily.
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(This story originally appeared in the May/June 2013 issue of Nebraska Life Magazine)
THE STEEL TRAIL reaches out 2,953 feet across America's longest river to join two lonely highways from northeast Nebraska and South Dakota. It faces funding resistance that spanned either decades with critics who ranged from President Franklin Roosevelt to TV journalist Tom Brokaw. But in 1998, the $17 million Chief Standing Bear Memorial Bridge finally crossed the Missouri River. Another long journey finally had ended for perhaps the greatest legal warrior in American Indian history.
There are many bridges to the most famous of all Ponca leaders - bridges shrouded in mystery and others shining in glory. There is a still-shaky 500-mile bridge between the Ponca tribes of Nebraska and Oklahoma. They have been divided since Standing Bear's epic exodus in the late 19th century, when he desperately tried to return home to bury his son by the Niobrara River. His capture in the spring of 1879 led to one of the most famous trials in Nebraska history when Standing Bear fought for his freedom in an Omaha courtroom.
"This is a story about freedom, about democracy, about love of family, about love of homeland, about perseverance, fortitude, honor and courage," said Joe Starita, a journalism professor at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln and author of the highly acclaimed Standing Bear biography, I Am A Man. "If those aren't inspirational themes, I guess I'm beyond inspiring."
Nearly a century later, Nebraska's Northern Ponca followed the inspiring tale of Standing Bear to cross perhaps the most challenging bridge in its history. In 1966. the Northern Ponca were officially eliminated from government funding as part of the U.S. termination policy of smaller tribes. It forced a 24-year battle to regain their tribal sovereignty and their identity as a people. They were haunted by this termination until Halloween of 1990, when President George H. W. Bush signed the law recognizing reinstatement of tribal status for the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska.
"We refuse to melt down," said Judi Morgan Gaiashkibos, director of the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs. "I am a citizen of the Ponca Nation, and of this great land of America. For the Ponca people, we have basically risen from the fires of near extinction imposed on us by the termination era."
THE FLAMES OF WASHINGTON injustice first scorched the Ponca in 1877. This small and peaceful tribe was burned by the government's deal with their giant neighbor, the Great Sioux Nation. The Ponca treaty was ignored, and the U.S. cavalry troops yanked them away from their Christian church and their log houses by the rolling green hills and the white-chalk cliffs of the Niobrara, the sacred river they called the Ni obhatka ke, or Running Water.
They were ordered to leave. First, 170 tribal members left. Standing Bear and his big brother, Big Snake, protested and were put in jail for a couple of weeks. Then supreme Ponca chief, White Eagle, along with Standing Bear and other secondary chiefs marched 500 people on a Ponca trail of tears. They went to the swamplands of the Quapaw Agency near the borders of Missouri, Kansas and Oklahoma. Mosquitoes and death were constant companions. The journey then took them to a place of purgatory deep into Indian Territory.
About one-third of this tribe died over 18 months while traveling to their final destination in Indian Territory. As 1878 drew to a close, so too did the life of Standing Bear's teenage son, Bear Shield. The chilling blanket of malaria wrapped tighter around him, and the 16-year-old gasped a dying Christmastime wish to his father that began Standing Bear on an arduous journey homeward. In changed the course of American Indian legal rights.
Bury me in the earth of my Ponca ancestors near the great bluffs that look down on Running Water, Bear Shield pleaded. He was a Christian just like his father, but Bear Shield's heart beat strongly as a Ponca. Bear Shield feared if he was not returned to his homeland, his spirit would wander forever in the afterlife.
It was on the second dawn of 1879 that this 50-year-old, middle management Ponca chief called Ma-chu-nah-zhe began one of the great journeys of the human spirit, carried on by a father's love for his son. Standing Bear was one of nearly 10 chiefs under White Eagle, but on Jan. 2, he stepped onto a land where only legends walk.
He led nearly 30 other Poncas on a treacherous cross-country trek home, joined by the wagon tht carried the bones of his son. They endured extreme blizzards and prairie winds. They survived starvation through the kindness of Nebraska farmers along the way. Standing Bear's relentless quest was halted just 100 miles from home when soldiers arrested the cold and hungry Indians resting on the Omaha Reservation.
"If Standing Bear could walk from Oklahoma to Nebraska through the freezing winter, then I tell myself I can do whatever it is that I am facing, and it usually pales in comparison," said gaiashkibos, whose grandfather, Otto Knudsen, was the last recognized Northern Ponca chief before his death in 1959.
"Perhaps because of this powerful story of returning home, it is something we can all connect with," she said. "The love of family, homeland and doing what is right appeals to all of us."
WASHINGTON HAD BEEN alerted by Indian Affairs agents that Standing Bear and his followers were at a campsite on the Omaha Tribe's reservation, and it was Gen. William T. Sherman who ordered their capture and return to Oklahoma. After a two-day march, the sickly Indians arrived at Fort Omaha on March 27. Many soldiers took pit on the Poncas. No one seemed sadder than their general.
There are enough fascinating characters in Standing Bear's struggle to fill out a Hollywood script, including the man who hel him prisoner at Fort Omaha, the famed Indian fighter Gen. George Crook. He know that a march back to Oklahoma would be a death sentence, so Crook became a secret ally of the chief. A few days later, the commander of the Department of the Platte plotted Standing Bear's release in a midnight meeting at the Omaha Daily Herald with a rough-and-ready newspaperman named Thomas Tibbles.
Tibbles' flamboyant frontier adventures rivaled Davy Crockett, and as an abolitionist fighter with John Brown he twice made dramatic escapes from hangings just as the noose was literally being places upon his neck. He schemed with the general to come up with a lawsuit to block the Oklahoma return, ironically named Standing Bear v. Crook.
Tibbles' fiery writings won support from local ministers, and a judge allowed the Poncas to remain at the fort for Standing Bear's trial. The chief waited for his judgment day, and he waited with his son's wagon for their final journey.