Driven from their homeland in the 1870s, Chief Standing Bear and his Ponca Tribe were forcefully relocated by the federal government from northeast Nebraska to Oklahoma.
Now, 140 years later, an 11-foot tall bronze sculpture of Chief Standing Bear keeps watch over his ancestral homeland where his tribe once again lives.
The statue represents both the past and the future, according to Ponca tribal chairman Larry Wright Jr.
"Chief Standing Bear is overlooking the land from which he came," Wright said. "He is also overseeing the future generations on the land."
The statue was recently unveiled and dedicated during the 25th annual Ponca Tribe powwow near Niobrara, Nebraska. A similar statue was unveiled last year at the state capitol in Lincoln.
"We didn’t want to overshadow the dedication in Lincoln, so we waited with our ceremony," Wright said. "Our statue was brought to Niobrara, and we kept it in storage over the winter."
A third version is being created for the National Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol, which Wright sees as meaningful.
"Chief Standing Bear has a statue for his tribal home, for the state and in Washington," he said.
FIGHTING FOR A HOMELAND
While the statues are imposing, the life of Chief Standing Bear stands even taller. The chief protested a federal order moving the tribe to designated "Indian territory" in Oklahoma.
"We were forced from a land that was once ours," Wright said. "We were considered undocumented — illegal immigrants in our own land."
Standing Bear walked the 600 miles one way to look at the new homeland. The chief rejected the land because of its poor quality, insisting on a different location.
The federal government refused to consider the request. The Ponca tribal members were forced to leave their homeland in 1877 and travel on foot to Oklahoma.
The arduous walk to Oklahoma claimed many Ponca lives, including Standing Bear’s daughter.
Life in the new territory went badly, with Standing Bear watching many of his people die from starvation or disease. The deaths included the chief’s son.
At that point, the Ponca Tribe’s history took a dramatic turn, Wright said.
"Chief Standing Bear’s son requested that he be buried back in Nebraska, the land of his people," Wright said. "The chief promised to take his son home."
A party of tribal members joined Standing Bear’s trek, marking the chief’s third walk between Nebraska and Oklahoma. Before he could bury his son, the chief and his traveling party were arrested for being off the reservation.
But before the party was returned to Oklahoma, a reporter ran Standing Bear’s story in an Omaha newspaper, and two lawyers took the case to U.S. District Court at Omaha.
The central issue focused on whether American Indians were "persons" under the law and entitled to the same rights as others.
Chief Standing Bear’s pose in the statue reflects his 1879 argument in the courtroom, Wright said.
The chief told the court, "If you pierce my hands, I feel pain just as you would yourself. And the blood that comes from it is the same color as yours. The same God that made me, made you. I am a man."
The court agreed, ruling that Native Americans were human beings with the right to decide where they wanted to live. With the decision, the Ponca returned to their Nebraska homeland.
However, the Ponca encountered two major setbacks during their history.
Their land was taken from them, leaving them without a reservation. However, they eventually received some land as service areas.
In addition, the federal government had terminated their status as a tribe. After decades of battles, the Ponca won recognition as a federally-recognized tribe in 1990. The Ponca celebrate the recognition with Restoration Day each Oct. 31.
CREATING THE STATUE
Nationally-recognized sculptor Ben Victor has created the first two Chief Standing Bear statues and is working on the third one.
Victor was recognized during this month’s dedication ceremony at Niobrara, which was posted on YouTube.
"It has been a long road in the design and creating the Standing Bear sculpture," he said.
Wright provided Victor with a tour of Chief Standing Bear’s ancestral land, which provided a bonding experience for the sculptor.
"The land is part of the spirit of Ponca. To see the Ponca people back here today is so moving, and to see the sculpture," he said. "It’s on a hill overlooking the graves of tribal ancestors. It’s so moving, I can’t tell you how much it means to my heart as an artist."
Victor said he put his soul into creating such an important work. He provided tremendous attention to detail, including the beadwork.
"I promise you, I did my absolute best," he told the dedication audience. "I put my heart into every detail to (Chief Standing Bear’s) legacy here, in Lincoln and even in the statuary hall in Washington."
The dedication’s audience included the chief’s descendants. Great-great-granddaughter Alice Erickson spoke on behalf of the family.
"We have just unveiled this statue of a man who fought to lead us where we are today. Our ancestor’s journey was not an easy one," she said. "This statue reminds us of how far we have come. Now, the statue will inspire the Ponca for generations to come."
A PIVOTAL MOMENT
The unveiling of Chief Standing Bear’s statue — and the naming of the nearby Missouri River bridge in his honor — comes at a pivotal time in the Ponca Tribe’s history and future, Wright said.
For the past five years, farmers Art and Helen Tanderup have joined with farmers, friends, family and American Indians to plant the Poncas’ sacred red corn on the Tanderups’ land near Neligh, Nebraska.
"The planting of the Ponca corn symbolizes our relationship, our friendship and our commitment to protecting the land and the environment and all that it means," Wright said.
The farm couple recently deeded and signed over the small but significant 1.87 acres to the Ponca tribes of Nebraska and Oklahoma. The land also takes on political and economic meaning out of proportion to its size, as the land is part of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline route.
In addition, the small parcel of land carries huge historical and cultural weight, Wright said.
"This land was part of our Trail of Tears," he said of the forced relocation from Nebraska to Oklahoma.
The term also refers to the forced relocation of tribes to land west of the Mississippi River.
In addition, the Ponca are finalizing the purchase of an adjacent 1,800 acres, giving the tribe additional land base, Wright said. The land will be put to a specific use, he added.
"We have a dynamic diabetes problem with the tribe," he said. "With the land purchase of 1,800 acres, our plan is to expand our buffalo herd so we have more buffalo meat for our people, which is healthier for them. We’re also expanding the offering of more meat to our members."
Also, the tribe has received permission to proceed with a casino at Carter Lake, Iowa, Wright said. The new venture will create more jobs and boost the surrounding economy, he said.
The Chief Standing Bear statue as an important symbol for the tribe, Wright said.
"Technically, we don’t have a reservation. We don’t have a defined box on a map like other tribes," he said. "This (statue) gives us added recognition and reminds us that we are still a tribal nation."
The impact can be felt for a long time to come, Wright added.
"It’s really a connection to our history. Future generations can know where our people have called home," he said. "It also recognizes the sacrifices that our ancestors made for our people so we could get back to Niobrara."
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