Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Nebraska): Speech on Establishing Chief Standing Bear National Historic Trail

Trail in honor of Ponca Chief Standing Bear takes big step forward

Efforts to memorialize the 550-mile path that the Ponca people walked from their homelands in Nebraska to present-day Oklahoma in 1877 got a major boost Wednesday when the U.S. House of Representatives approved a bill that authorizes a feasibility study of the proposed Chief Standing Bear National Historic Trail.

H.R.2490 would direct the Secretary of the Interior to conduct a feasibility study of designating the trail, but a similar bill still must pass the U.S. Senate. The House passed a prior version in December 2015, though the Senate failed to act on it at the time.

“We’re appreciative of the House passing this bill again, and we really look to the Senate to support it this time,” said Larry Wright Jr., chairman of the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska. “We’re hopeful that one of our U.S. senators sees the value in this and understands how this brings recognition to our plight, the trail itself, the historic significance of that trail and the role that the state of Nebraska plays in that.”

If approved, the bill would pay homage to the Poncas’ Trail of Tears, which began after Ponca Chief Standing Bear and his people were forced from their homes along the Niobrara River in northeast Nebraska and marched south to Indian Territory, or Oklahoma. Along the way, many Poncas died, including Standing Bear’s daughter Prairie Flower.

If approved, the bill would pay homage to the Poncas’ Trail of Tears, which began after Ponca Chief Standing Bear and his people were forced from their homes along the Niobrara River in northeast Nebraska and marched south to Indian Territory, or Oklahoma. Along the way, many Poncas died, including Standing Bear’s daughter Prairie Flower.

A 10-foot tall, bronze statue of Ponca Chief Standing Bear was erected October 15, 2017, along a plaza leading to the State Capitol in Lincoln, Nebraska. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

After a nearly a year in Oklahoma, nearly a third of the Poncas had died of disease and starvation, including Standing Bear’s son Bear Shield. On his deathbed, Bear Shield made his father promise to return his remains to his ancestral homelands in Nebraska.

And so in January 1879, Standing Bear and a few of his followers set out for Nebraska. But once they arrived, they were arrested and imprisoned. A newspaper editor, Army general and two attorneys decided to take up Standing Bear’s quest for freedom.

Standing Bear spoke during the ensuing two-day trial, addressing Judge Elmer Dundy directly.

He stretched out his hand and said, “That hand is not the same color as yours, but if I pierce it, I shall feel pain. If you pierce your hand, you will also feel pain. The blood that will flow from my hand will be the same color as yours.”

A statue of Ponca Chief Standing Bear represents the state of Nebraska at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. Photo courtesy Benjamin J. Harris

Dundy decided to free Standing Bear, rejecting federal prosecutors’ assertions that the chief was not a person or human being under existing U.S. law. His ruling established Native people as persons under the law, deserving of the same civil rights and freedoms as others.

Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Nebraska), who sponsored H.R. 2490, said Standing Bear’s decision to fulfill his son’s dying wish became the catalyst that has inspired many generations of Ponca people and now non-Native people.

“Chief Standing Bear didn’t seek to be a civil rights leader; he simply wanted to bury his dead son on his ancestral homeland,” Fortenberry said. “Yet he changed the course of history through that transcendent moment when he raised his hand in that Omaha courtroom and said: ‘I am a man. God made us both.’”

In September, a bronze statue of Standing Bear was placed in the Capitol Visitor Center, an underground complex on the east side of the U.S. Capitol. The Nebraska Legislature passed a bill in 2018 to replace a statue of Nebraska politician William Jennings Bryan with Standing Bear’s.

During remarks on the House floor on Wednesday, Fortenberry said he was recently reminded of how imposing the chief’s visage is in the Capitol Visitor Center. He said he watched as a group of children gathered around Standing Bear’s statue and stood in awe of it.

“I watched the young children gather around the Chief Standing Bear statue because it is so impressive,” he said. “It is so dignified. And the words that are below it are so impactful. ‘I am a man.’”

“This bill is a first important step toward establishing this trail.”

United States House of Representatives Special Events: Congressional Statue Dedication Ceremony in Honor of Ponca Chief Standing Bear of Nebraska

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