Native children plant seeds at the fifth annual Ponca sacred corn planting ceremony on the Tanderup farm near Neligh, Nebraska, on June 10, 2018. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

Ponca tribes reclaim ancestral land along Trail of Tears in Nebraska



'A force field against the Keystone XL Pipeline'

Ponca tribes secure return of ancestral land during annual corn planting ceremony
By Kevin Abourezk
@Kevin_Abourezk

NELIGH, Nebraska – They stuck their hands into the ground, poking small holes into the fine sand and filling each hole with a single seed.

They did this in the Sandhills of northeast Nebraska, more than 100 people standing in a long line stretching from one end of the field to the other. A sweltering sun beat down, and a strong wind blew the trees and grass.

When they finished one section, they moved to the next until the entire field was filled with the seeds of the Ponca people’s sacred red corn. In a few months, many of them will return to harvest the corn and in doing so will help the Ponca people revive their traditional foods and culture.

For the fifth year, farmers, friends, family and Native people planted the Poncas’ sacred corn on Art and Helen Tanderup’s land on Sunday. Nearly 200 people filled the couple’s farm to participate in the corn planting and to celebrate a transfer of land from the Tanderups to the Ponca tribes of Oklahoma and Nebraska.

Indianz.Com Video by Kevin Abourezk: Ponca Plant Seeds of Resistance, Sacred Corn

The Tanderups' farm is located on the Ponca Trail of Tears, the path the tribe took 141 years ago when the federal government forcibly removed them from their land in northeast Nebraska and sent them to live in Indian Territory in Oklahoma. The farm is also along the proposed path of the Keystone XL Pipeline, a controversial project opposed by environmentalists and landowners along its path.

The 1,179-mile pipeline would link the oil fields of Canada’s Alberta province to refineries in the United States. Former President Barack Obama rejected the project, but President Donald Trump reversed that decision after gaining office in 2017.

But Nebraska has remained a hurdle for the project, and the Nebraska Public Service Commission didn't approve a route for the Keystone XL until November. However, the route the commission approved wasn’t TransCanada’s preferred route, and attorneys for the pipeline’s opponents have argued the commission didn’t have the authority to consider anything but the company’s originally requested route.

Jane Kleeb, chairwoman of the Nebraska Democratic Party and president of the Bold Alliance, said she is hopeful the Tanderups’ decision to grant land in the path of the Keystone XL to the Ponca tribes will further complicate the project.

From left: Larry Wright Jr. (Ponca Tribe of Nebraska), Casey Camp-Horinek (Ponca Tribe of Oklahoma), Helen Tanderup and Art Tanderup, and sit at a table on June 10, 2018, in a cornfield near Neligh, Nebraska, before signing a deed handing a 1.62-acre portion of the Tanderup's farm to the Ponca tribes of Oklahoma and Nebraska. Jane Kleeb of Bold Alliance is seen standing next to Wright. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

When TransCanada eventually requests eminent domain over the Tanderup's land, the company also will have to fight the two tribes who now own part of that land as well, Kleeb told those who gathered for the sacred corn planting ceremony on Sunday.

“That land transfer not only protects the sacred ground and the certified corn we’ve been planting, but it also protects the Ponca Trail of Tears and more importantly serves as a force field against the Keystone XL Pipeline,” she said.

Before the deed signing Sunday, people ate salads, pulled pork sandwiches and cake and listened to candidates for elected office speak.

Afterward, they jumped on a flatbed trailer attached to a tractor and rode a mile or so to the corn field where the sacred corn was to be planted. An older Native man followed the tractor while beating a drum and singing.

In the corn field, people watched as two Native grass dancers performed to the sound of drumming.

Nathan Phillips of the Omaha Tribe sings and plays drum while following a flatbed trailer carrying people headed to a cornfield to plant seeds as part of the fifth annual Ponca sacred corn planting ceremony on the Tanderup's farm near Neligh, Nebraska on Sunday. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

Nathan Phillips of the Omaha Tribe performs a grass dance at fifth annual Ponca sacred corn planting ceremony on the Tanderups' farm near Neligh, Nebraska on June 10, 2018. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

At a table covered by a buffalo hide, officials for the Ponca tribes of Oklahoma and Nebraska joined Art and Helen Tanderup as they signed the deed for the land.

“If you don’t know it, you are actually standing right over where they want to dig that trench,” Art Tanderup said before signing the deed for 1.62-acre property. “It’s right here folks. It’s right here, and we know it’s never going to happen. We’re going to stop them. We’re going to kill that black snake once and for all.”

Helen Tanderup then signed the deed, and Casey Camp-Horinek, a councilwoman for the Ponca Nation of Oklahoma, began to sign but then paused, overcome by emotion.

She began to cry, and then thanked God for the day.

“My children back here, they’re all named for those who walked this trail you’re standing on, and when we call their names, we’re calling those spirits, and they’re here with us this day,” she said.


Larry Wright Jr., chairman of the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska, said the deed signing represented yet another step in his people’s long journey home that began with Chief Standing Bear’s decision to leave Oklahoma with some of his people in 1879 and return to Nebraska.

Even after they made it back to Nebraska, the Ponca people’s fight continued following the federal government’s decision to terminate the tribe 54 years ago. The tribe was reinstated in 1990.

“When we talk about these issues on eminent domain, the Ponca Tribe is painfully aware of what can happen, how the federal government can make up its mind to erase a nation, to erase a people,” Wright said, shortly before signing the deed.

He said his tribe is preparing to purchase nearly 1,800 acres of its ancestral homelands along the Niobrara River, land that includes Standing Bear’s grave.

“One day, we’ll plant Ponca corn there,” he said.

Larry Wright Jr. (right) speaks at the fifth annual Ponca sacred corn planting ceremony on the Tanderup's farm near Neligh, Nebraska on Sunday.