A drum group performs a Ponca honoring song during a grand opening ceremony at the Prairie Flower Casino in Carter Lake, Iowa, on October 31, 2018. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

A symbol of sovereignty: Ponca Tribe comes full circle with Prairie Flower

Prairie Flower Casino tells story of tribe's sovereignty and survival
By Kevin Abourezk

CARTER LAKE, Iowa – The chief kept walking.

Even after his adult daughter Prairie Flower died and Standing Bear buried her, he continued his long march south to his people’s strange new home in Oklahoma.

He kept walking even after his granddaughter died three days later after a tornado struck the procession of 500 Ponca people.

He kept walking for hundreds of more miles, each step a reminder of what he had lost, knowing he might never again see the chalk bluffs and valleys of his homeland along the Niobrara River in northeast Nebraska.

Larry Wright Jr., chairman of the Ponca Tribe, speaks during a grand opening ceremony of the Prairie Flower Casino in Carter Lake, Iowa, on October 31, 2018. The 9,500-square-foot casino will feature 200 slot-style machines and is just five minutes from downtown Omaha in Nebraska. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

Standing Bear’s people eventually made it to Oklahoma, but a few years later, the chief led a small group of them home. On Wednesday, the descendants of those Ponca who returned home celebrated a milestone they hope will secure a fulfilling future for their children and grandchildren.

They celebrated the opening of a $10 million casino just five minutes from downtown Omaha, a casino that promises to help them achieve self-sufficiency and bears the name of Standing Bear’s daughter who died on her people’s Trail of Tears in 1877.

“This casino doesn’t define who we are as a tribe. Our culture, our history and our people do that,” said Larry Wright Jr., chairman of the Ponca Tribe, speaking at a grand opening ceremony outside the Prairie Flower Casino in Carter Lake, Iowa. “But what it does symbolize is our sovereignty, our ability to determine what economic development opportunities will best meet the needs of our citizens now and into the future.”

Ponca powwow princesses listen to Chairman Larry Wright Jr. speak during the grand opening of the Prairie Flower Casino in Carter Lake, Iowa, on October 31, 2018. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

The 9,500-square-foot casino officially opened Thursday with 200 slot-style machines but no table games, a full service bar and a snack bar. It will be open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The Ponca Tribe still faces legal challenges from the states of Iowa and Nebraska and city of Council Bluffs, Iowa, where local officials have expressed fear that the tribe’s casino will suck revenue from the city’s own casinos.

The National Indian Gaming Commission ruled in November that the tribe could move forward with the casino. The commission initially approved the casino in 2007, but the states of Nebraska and Iowa and city of Council Bluffs challenged that decision.

A federal judge eventually ruled that the NIGC lacked the authority to take action. But the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed and gave the agency another chance to consider the matter.

The Prairie Flower Casino in Carter Lake, Iowa, features 200 electronic gaming machines and is just five minutes from downtown Omaha, Nebraska. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

Though Carter Lake is located in Iowa, it is physically surrounded by Nebraska due to the shifting nature of the Missouri River. It's less than a mile from Omaha’s Eppley Airfield, which sees more than 4 million passengers every year.

The city is also less than five minutes from downtown Omaha, a metropolitan region that's home to more than 900,000 people.

The Ponca Tribe considers the casino, which will employ nearly 100 people, just the first phase in a gaming enterprise that it plans to expand to include more entertainment, jobs and economic development. Wright said he hopes to eventually hire an additional 1,000 employees to manage the casino.

“Our vision is to be the leading gaming, entertainment and hospitality company in western Iowa by providing exceptional services and experiences that reflect the tribe’s culture and hospitality,” said Matt Kennedy, chairman of the Ponca Gaming Enterprise, which will oversee the casino.

Carter Lake Mayor Ron Cumberledge said the casino will serve as an attraction for the city, bringing sorely needed visitors and customers to its business community.

“This means a lot,” he said. “It’s just a tool we’re going to use to bring people to this town.”

The Ponca Tribe also celebrated its Restoration Day on Wednesday, in honor of the 1990 Ponca Restoration Act, which re-established the tribe’s federal status following its termination 28 years earlier.

A row of electronic gaming machines at the Prairie Flower Casino in Carter Lake, Iowa, are seen ahead of the official grand opening. The facility features a full service bar and a snack bar. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

The tribe invited elders and leaders who helped regain the tribe’s federal recognition and who rebuilt the tribe’s government, starting with its first headquarters in 1992 – a meager office in Omaha whose sole furnishings included a folding table, four folding chairs and a borrowed coffee pot – to the tribe’s purchase this summer of 1,800 acres of its ancestral homelands along the Niobrara.

The tribe said this week that it plans to contribute $775,000 per year to the City of Carter Lake to support firefighters, police, emergency responders and community improvement efforts. The tribe plans to use revenue generated by the casino to support tribal programs, including a land management program, an elders program, youth programs and a language program.

Indianz.Com Video by Kevin Abourezk: Ponca Tribe Celebrates Opening of New Casino

The Poncas also plan to use proceeds from the casino to support a 60,000-square-foot clinic that it plans to open just outside Omaha. The tribe has nearly 4,300 citizens, with almost half residing in the states of Iowa and Nebraska.

“Each Ponca that has made a part of this journey helped lay a few stones for those that come later to follow and lay their own stones and progress,” Kennedy said.

“This path is infinite. This path is trodden for our children to explore and expand and their children to experience and enlighten and then their children to enhance and energize the many generations to come.”

Ponca tribal members honor Chairman Larry Wright Jr. with a blanket on Wednesday during a grand opening ceremony for the Prairie Flower Casino in Carter Lake, Iowa, on October 31, 2018. . Photo by Kevin Abourezk

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