A bust of Chief Standing Bear, a leader of the Ponca Tribe, sits in the State Capitol building in Lincoln, Nebraska. Photo: John Carrel

Native Sun News Today: Ponca Tribe struggled to survive in face of broken treaty

The Ponca struggled to survive

Ponca Chief Standing Bear struggles to save his people
By James Giago Davies
Native Sun News Today Correspondent

In 1881, Helen Hunt Jackson wrote a landmark book, “A Century of Dishonor,” which examined the dark history of seven tribes, meaning their relationship with the United States government. Each week the NSNT will examine one tribe from the book, updating Jackson’s observations to the respective tribe’s present day circumstance.

In the early 1830’s the Ponca were visited by the famed artist George Caitlin. He sat and talked with Shoo-de-ga-cha (Smoke), their principal chief, about the plight of the tribe, and the bleak future that the people faced.

Caitlin was much impressed by Smoke, the “dignified manners” and the “soundness of his reasoning.”

Smoke provided a detailed analysis of the dire reality the Ponca struggled to survive against, he told Caitlin the Ponca had “once been powerful and happy; that the buffaloes which the Great Spirit had given them for food, and which formerly spread all over their green prairies, had all been killed or driven out by the approach of white men, who wanted their skins; that their country was now entirely destitute of game, and even roots for food…and that his young men, penetrating the countries of their enemies for buffaloes, which they were obliged to do, were cut to pieces and destroyed in great numbers.”

Smoke then talked to Caitlin about alcohol: “…his people had foolishly become fond of fire-water, and had given away everything in their country for it; that it had destroyed many warriors, and would soon destroy the rest.”

Like many tribes who entered into negotiations with the United States, the Ponca made the fatal mistake of relinquishing their equal status as treaty partners. This mistake persists to this day, as no tribal government understands that to actually be sovereign, you must never concede to be anything less than the equal of the United States in every matter of interaction.

In 1825 the Ponca agreed that they would reside “within the territorial limits of the United States, acknowledge their supremacy, and claim their protection.” But for thirty years little was recorded of that relationship, until an 1858 report from the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, about treaties entered into with the Yankton and Ponca tribes “for the purpose of extinguishing their title to all the lands occupied and claimed by them, except small portions on which to colonize and domesticate them. This proceeding was deemed necessary in order to obtain such control over these Indians as to prevent their interference with our settlements…”

It is clear the Ponca did not recognize the malignant intent of their treaty partners, as they trusted them to be honor bound to any agreement, and the Commissioner’s report goes on to indicate that is exactly how the Ponca acted: “…the Ponca proceeded in good faith to comply with (the yet-to-be-ratified treaty) stipulations by abandoning their settlements and hunting grounds, and withdrawing to the small tract reserved for their future home. Being without a crop to rely on, and having been unsuccessful in their summer hunt, they were reduced to a state of desperation and destitution.”

The treaty was ratified a year later, and promised protection from the Sioux to the northwest, but the only time we hear of the Sioux is when they are attacking unprotected Ponca, and riding off with half their horses. The Ponca relationship with soldiers was actually much different than the government alleges in subsequent legal arguments (as rationale for finding against a Ponca suit), where they erroneously cite protection of the Ponca against enemies as being a determinative reality. Jackson writes: “A party of Ponca’s…had camped for the night about 12 miles from their own reservation…soldiers from a military post on the Niobrara River came to their camp, and began to insult the squaws…”

The Ponca attempted to move to the protection of a nearby “copse of willows,” but, “…the soldiers fired on them…and began to destroy all their effects. They cut the lodge covers to pieces, burnt the saddles and blankets, cut open sacks of beans, corn and dried pumpkin, and strewed their contents on the ground…”

The Ponca hid their ponies in a willow thicket, and when they returned for the ponies, the soldiers also returned: “The soldiers fired on them, wounding one woman by a ball through her thigh; another, with a child on her back, by two balls through the child’s thighs, one of them passed through the mother’s side…women and children who were looking for beans were half a mile below; a little dog belonging to them barked and revealed their hiding place in the willows…the soldiers deliberately shot them dead as they huddled helplessly together—three women and a little girl!”


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The Ponca struggled to survive
James Giago Davies is an enrolled member of the Oglala Lakota tribe. He can be reached at skindiesel@msn.com

Copyright permission Native Sun News Today

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