Chairman Larry Wright Jr. of the Ponca Tribe speaks at the dedication of the Chief Standing Bear statue in Niobrara, Nebraska, on August 11, 2018. Photo courtesy Ponca Tribe

'It honors all of our people': Ponca Tribe dedicates statue of Chief Standing Bear

Ponca leader watches over ancestral territory
Ceremony comes as tribe reclaims homeland in Nebraska
By Kevin Abourezk

An elder held an eagle feather high and waved the smoke from the burning sage onto the chief, to purify him and ward off any evil spirits.

The chief stood on a hill overlooking his people’s homelands near the confluence of the Niobrara and Missouri rivers in northeast Nebraska.

Before him, the people trilled and drummers chanted an honoring song for Standing Bear, chief of the Ponca Tribe.

Home again.

On Saturday, the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska unveiled a statue of Standing Bear near their tribe’s headquarters in Niobrara.

The statue of Chief Standing Bear is seen on Ponca homelands in Niobrara, Nebraska. Photo courtesy Ponca Tribe

The ceremony took place during the tribe’s 25th annual powwow, held Friday through Sunday just southwest of Niobrara.

“We are standing here today because of a promise a father made to a son,” said Larry Wright Jr., chairman of the Ponca Tribe. “This statue honors him, but it also honors all of those that came back.”

“It honors all of our people who endured injustice after injustice.”

The 10-foot tall bronze sculpture is now the second in Nebraska. The first was erected in October outside the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s journalism school on Centennial Mall, a plaza that leads to the State Capitol.

Wright also announced Saturday his tribe’s plans to purchase 1,800 acres of land near the Niobrara River, land that includes Standing Bear’s last allotment and burial site. He said the tribe has nearly completed the land purchase.

“We will own that again for our people and have a place where our people can call home and come home,” he said.

Dedication ceremony for the statue of Chief Standing Bear in Niobrara, as part of the 25th Annual Ponca Powwow.

Posted by Ponca Tribe of Nebraska on Saturday, August 11, 2018
Ponca Tribe on Facebook: Dedication ceremony for the statue of Chief Standing Bear

A third statue of the chief will be placed in the National Statuary Hall inside the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., following a decision this past spring by the Nebraska Legislature to replace a statue of famed Nebraska politician William Jennings Bryan in the Capitol with Standing Bear’s statue.

Wright thanked Nebraska state senators Tom Brewer and Burke Harr for sponsoring and supporting legislation to place the Standing Bear statue in the U.S. Capitol. He also thanked the donor for the statue, Don Campbell, an investor who grew up in Lincoln, and the sculptor, Benjamin Victor.

He then honored Brewer, Campbell and Victor by inducting them into the Ponca Tribe.

“This statue recognizes a commitment to a son, a commitment to a land where we now stand,” Wright said. “Our nation is coming back to our homeland.”

Alice Erickson, Standing Bear’s great-great granddaughter, thanked those who helped bring the statue to Niobrara and shared a story that she said demonstrated how wide-reaching her great-great grandfather’s story has become.

She said she once worked as a structural engineer for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. When her supervisor learned she was Ponca, he asked her if she knew the story of Standing Bear.

Before she could answer, he told her about the Ponca people’s forced removal from their lands along the Niobrara to Oklahoma in 1877 and the chief’s decision to return to Nebraska two years later in order to fulfill a promise he had made to his dying son to bury him in the chalk bluffs of the Niobrara River Valley.

And he told Erickson about Standing Bear’s famous words as he stood before federal judge Elmer Dundy in Omaha, words that inspired the judge to grant the chief his freedom.

“That hand is not the color of yours. But if you pierce it, I shall feel pain. If you pierce your hand, you also feel pain. The blood that will flow from mine will be the same color as yours. I am a man. The same God made us both.”

From left: Nebraska State Sen. Tom Brewer (R), donor Don Campbell and sculptor Benjamin Victor were inducted into the Ponca Tribe during a ceremony in Niobrara, Nebraska, on August 11, 2018. Photo courtesy Ponca Tribe

When he finished, Erickson told him she was Standing Bear’s descendant.

He began to tear up and said he regretted his people’s treatment of the Ponca.

Erickson said the statue is just one more reminder of how powerful her great-great grandfather’s story is.

“Our ancestors’ journey was not an easy one, and this statue will forever remind us of how far we’ve come,” she said. “I’m excited to see his life continues to be shared.”

The statue of Chief Standing Bear is seen at night. Photo courtesy Ponca Tribe

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