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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NOW, A HALF CENTURY after the government decided these Ponca did not deserve to exist, the tribe is thriving again with nearly 3,000 enrolled members. A dispute over Ponca restoration prevented full reservation status from returning in the Niobrara area, reportedly over concerns by one Nebraska congressman that a potential casino could be developed. Ponca tribal members in Nebraska, Iowa and South Dakota have the small agency headquarters near the village of Niobrara, and service stations in Omaha, Norfolk, Lincoln, and Sioux City, Iowa.
Many Poncas moved on decades ago. They no longer could listen for the Running Water. Taylor spent years butchering beef for a Norfolk meatpacking company. Then in 1990, when the tribe was restored, he left the hard days of cutting meat and headed back home to the Niobrara.
He is 78 now, and Taylor readily admits that qualifies him as a tribal elder. He lived in downtown Niobrara in tribal housing with several other Poncas until a recent move to Winnetoon. His duties as an archivist had him surrounded by inspiring paintings of Standing Bear, but it was still a mixed message for him.
"He's not special to me because he needed the tribe to be who he is," Taylor said. "If he was alone it wouldn't be much of a story. There was no beaming glory shining over him or something like that when you worship somebody. It's just that he had the desire to come back. But, we're all part of him."
A part of Standing Bear also lives on in Norfolk with one of his great-granddaughters, 80-year-old Cheryl Wright. She is the granddaughter of Fannie Bear Laravie, the oldest of three daughters of Lali Bear, Standing Bear's third and final common-law wife, who died in 1922.
"I never really thought about it when I was growing up," she said. "When I got older, it just makes me proud."
About 5 miles southwest of Niobrara is the Ponca Tribal Cemetery, and less than a mile away, a dirt road brings you to the property of lifelong Niobrara resident Rayder Swanson, a farmer, county supervisor and owner of historic turf on 521st Avenue.
After the short ride from the museum, Stanford Taylor stared out at the field Standing Bear once worked as a gentleman farmer. Somewhere across the field is where some say he is buried.
It is the same field where Taylor played as a boy after roaming from his uncle's neighboring land.
Unlike generations before him, this Ponca is free to leave, and free to return. That first perilous bridge to freedom was built by Standing Bear.
(This story originally appeared in the May/June 2013 issue of Nebraska Life Magazine)