Ponca Tribe

Ponca Tribe

The Ponca (Páⁿka iyé: Páⁿka or Ppáⁿkka pronounced [ˈpːãŋkːa]) are a Native American tribe of the Dhegian branch of the Siouan-language group. There are two federally recognized Ponca tribes: the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska and the Ponca Tribe of Indians of Oklahoma. Their traditions and historical accounts suggest they originated as a tribe east of the Mississippi River in the Ohio River valley area and migrated west for game and as a result of Iroquois wars.[2]

The term Ponca was the name of a clan among the Kansa, Osage, and Quapaws. The meaning of the name is unknown.[2]

Ponca. One of the five tribes of the so-called Dhegiha group of the Siouan family, forming with the Omaha, Osage, and Kiansa, the upper Dhegiha or Omaha division. The Ponca and Omaha have the same language, differing only in some dialectic forms and approximating the Quapaw rather than the Kansa and Osage languages.[1]

At first European contact, the Ponca lived around the mouth of the Niobrara River in northern Nebraska. According to tradition, they moved there from an area east of the Mississippi just before Columbus' arrival in the Americas. Siouan-speaking tribes such as the Omaha, Osage, Quapaw and Kaw also have traditions of having migrated to the West from east of the Mississippi River. Iroquois' invasions from the north pushed them out of the Ohio River area. Scholars are not able to determine precisely when the Dhegian-Siouan tribes migrated west, but know the Iroquois also pushed tribes out from the Ohio and West Virginia areas in the Beaver Wars. The Iroquois maintained the lands as hunting grounds.[2]

The Ponca appear on a 1701 map by Pierre-Charles Le Sueur, who placed them along the upper Missouri. In 1789, fur trader Juan Baptiste Munier was given an exclusive license to trade with the Ponca at the mouth of the Niobrara River. He founded a trading post at its confluence with the Missouri, where he found about 800 Ponca residing there. Shortly after that, the tribe was hit by a devastating smallpox epidemic. In 1804, when they were visited by the Lewis and Clark Expedition, only about 200 Ponca remained. Later in the 19th century, their number rose to about 700. Unlike most other Plains Indians, the Ponca grew maize and kept vegetable gardens.[2]

In 1817 the tribe signed a peace treaty with the United States. By a second treaty in 1825, they regulated trade and tried to minimize intertribal clashes on the Northern Plains. Their last successful buffalo hunt was in 1855.[2]

In 1858, the Ponca signed a treaty by which they gave up parts of their land in return for protection and a permanent reservation home on the Niobrara. In 1868, the US mistakenly included lands of the Poncas in the Great Sioux Reservation. The Poncas were plagued by the powerful raiding Sioux, who claimed the land as their own.[2]

After decades of broken treaties, the Ponca continued to suffer from attacks by the Sioux, terrible weather conditions, and lack of financial support from the U.S. Government. In 1875, A.J. Carrier, the Ponca agent, visited President Grant in Washington about moving the Ponca to the Indian Territory. Grant agreed to the move if the Ponca were willing to move. Carrier stated that the Ponca would be better off moving and he returned to the Ponca reservation to confer with the tribe members. As a result of these discussions, Standing Bear and other tribal members signed a paper in which they agreed to move to the Indian Territory.[5]

On September 11 and 23, 1875, Ponca Indian agent A.J. Carrier held meetings with the Poncas. A paper was signed after the last meeting, and Standing Bear and some members of the Ponca Tribe agreed to move to Indian Territory. A request was also included that a delegation of Ponca chiefs should be allowed to visit the Indian Territory to select a new reservation. Carrier later claimed that the agreement represented the unanimous opinion of the Indians present at the meetings. Standing Bear, however, later claimed that there was a misunderstanding, as the Ponca language had no separate word for land in the Indian Territory. He further stated he reasonably thought he was agreeing to move to the Omaha Reservation.[5]

Nevertheless, in 1877 Indian Inspector E.C. Kemble was told by Washington to meet with the Ponca leaders and make arrangement for them to visit the Indian Territory and select a site for a new reservation.[5]

The Trail of Tears began with a scouting mission. On February 2, 1877, Inspector E.C. Kemble, Ponca agent J. Lawrence, Standing Bear, and nine other Ponca leaders left for the Osage Reservation in Indian Territory to select a site for the new Ponca Reservation. Adequate preparations had not been made for the visit to the Osages and many of the Osage chiefs were absent when the Ponca arrived. Consequently, no serious business could be conducted and the land shown to the Ponca as possible sites for their reservation were not satisfactory.[5] 

In January of 1877, a United States government representative named Edward Kemble brought word from Washington DC that the government had decided that the best way to handle this problem was to relocate the Ponca to Indian Territory now known as Oklahoma. The tribe refused, but the government insisted. In 1878 the Ponca sent a contingent of ten chiefs, headed by Standing bear, by train with a government official to check out the land and report back to the people. Their report was not favorable. They chiefs were not accustomed to the climate and grew ill and refused to bring their people south to die. Kemble decided that their opinion of the relocation was irrelevant and abandoned the Ponca leaders. They were forced to walk five hundred miles back to their home in Nebraska with no money or food, and only one blanket and one pair of moccasins for each person.[4]

Standing Bear and the other tribal leaders informed Kemble they wanted to return home. Kemble was furious with their refusal to survey any other lands. He called their actions "insubordination." He refused to honor their request to return   home. On February 21, 1877, Standing Bear and seven of his fellow chiefs decided to return on their own. It was midwinter, they had to sleep much on the time on the open prairie, and they went for days without rations. An agent for the Otoe Reservation in Gage County remarked that the Ponca leaders left bloody footprints in the snow. After a strenuous journey, the Ponca leaders arrived at the Ponca Reservation on April 2, 1877.[5]

It took two months for the Ponca to get back to Nebraska, and a contingent of U.S. soldiers was waiting for them. They forced the Ponca to relocate in a terrible journey that began on May 21, 1878. The soldiers formed a line and drove the people like cattle, as other soldiers confiscated- stole- their tools, seed and household goods.[4]

Unfortunately for Standing Bear and the Ponca, Kemble was already back, and he had new orders from Washington — the Ponca were to be moved, using force if necessary, to Indian Territory.[5]

The Ponca were divided in their willingness to leave. Those willing to journey south left with Kemble on April 16. In May, Standing Bear and the remainder of the Ponca Tribe started the long journey to Indian Territory, prodded along by the U.S. military. They encountered bad weather almost from the beginning of the trip, and by the time the tribe reached their destination, the summer heat had become oppressive and they were constantly plagued with insects and extreme weather conditions. Nine people died on the journey, including Stand Bear's daughter, Prairie Flower, who died of consumption and was buried at Milford, Nebraska. White Buffalo Girl, daughter of Black Elk and Moon Hawk, also died and was buried near Neligh, Nebraska. The people of Neiligh provided a Christian burial for the girl with an oak cross over the gravesite. Black Elk asked that the grave of his daughter be honored, and in 1913 Neligh erected a marble monument. It is still there.[5]

The early history of the tribe is the same as that of the other tribes of the group, and, after the first separation, is identical with that, of the Omaha. After the migration of the combined body to the mouth of Osage river the first division of the Omaha group took place, the Osage settling on that stream, and the Kansa continuing up Missouri river, while the Omaha and Ponca crossed to the north side. The course of the latter is given from the tradition recorded by J. O. Dorsey (Am. Nat., Mar. 1886) as follows: The Omaha and Ponca, after crossing the Missouri, ascended a tributary of that river, which may have been Chariton river, and finally reached the pipestone quarry in south west Minnesota. All the traditions agree in stating that the people built earth lodges or permanent villages, cultivated the soil, and hunted buffalo and other animals. When game became scarce they abandoned their villages and moved north west. On reaching a   place where game was plentiful, other villages were built and occupied for years. Thus they lived and moved until they reached the pipestone quarry. After reaching Big Sioux river they built a fort. The Dakota made war on the Omaha and   their allies, defeating them and compelling them to flee south west until they reached Lake Andes, S. Dak. There, according to Omaha and Ponca tradition, the sacred pipes were given and the present gentes constituted. From this place they ascended the Missouri to the mouth of White river, South Dakota. There the Iowa and Omaha remained, but the Ponca crossed the Missouri and went on to Little Missouri river and the region of the Black hills. They subsequently rejoined their allies, and all descended the Missouri on its right bank to the month of Niobrara river, where the final separation took place. The Ponca remained there and the Omaha settled on Bow creek, Nebr., while the Iowa went down the Missouri to the site of Ionia, Dixon county, Nebr. The Yana, who on Marquette's autograph map (1673) are placed near the Omaha, apparently on the Missouri about the mouth of the Niobrara, are supposed to be the Ponca. If so, this is the earliest historical mention of the tribe.[1]

They were met by Lewis and Clark in 1804, when their number, which had been greatly reduced by smallpox toward the close of the 18th century, was estimated at only 200. This number, however, may not include those who had taken refuge with the Omaha. Lewis and Clark (Orig. Jour. Lewis and Clark, y1, 88, 1905) say that they formerly resided on a branch of Red river of the North, but as this statement is at variance with all other authorities, and as the wording of the sentence is almost identical with that relating to the Cheyenne (ibid., 100), there is probably a confusion of tribes. They increased rapidly, however, reaching about 600 in 1829 and some 800 in 1842; in 1871, when they were first visited by Dorsey, they numbered 747. Up to this time the Ponca and Sioux were amicable, but a dispute grew out of the cession of lands, and the Sioux made annual raids on the Ponca until the enforced removal of the tribe to Indian Territory took place in   1877.[1]

When Congress decided to remove several northern tribes to Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma) in 1876, the Ponca were on the list. After inspecting the lands the US government offered for their new reservation and finding it unsuitable for agriculture, the Ponca chiefs decided against a move to the Indian Territory. Hence, when governmental officials came in early 1877 to move the Ponca to their new land, the chiefs refused, citing their earlier treaty. Most of the tribe refused and had to be moved by force. In their new location, the Ponca struggled with malaria, a shortage of food and the hot climate. One in four members died within the first year.[2]

Chief Standing Bear was among those who had most vehemently protested the tribe's removal. When his eldest son, Bear Shield, lay on his deathbed, Standing Bear promised to have him buried on the tribe's ancestral lands. In order to carry out his promise, Standing Bear left the reservation in Oklahoma and traveled back toward the Ponca homelands. He was arrested for doing so without US government permission. In the "Standing Bear Trial", held in Omaha, Nebraska, the US court established for the first time that native Americans are "persons within the meaning of the law" of the United States and that they have certain rights as a result. This was an important civil rights case.[2]

A very significant moment in the Tribe’s history was the “Trial of Standing Bear” in 1879.  It was at this time that the Ponca were forcibly removed from their homeland in northeastern Nebraska and marched to Indian Territory in Oklahoma.  Many died along the way, including Standing Bear’s daughter, and, upon arrival, his son would also die.  Promising to honor his son’s dying wish to be buried in his homeland, Standing Bear and a small band of his men began the arduous journey home to bury his son. They realized that they were doing so in defiance of orders not to leave the reservation.  They were soon arrested and about to be returned to Indian Territory when their plight was publicized in the Omaha Daily Herald.[3]

At the trial, Chief Standing Bear spoke the following: "That hand is not the color of yours, but if I 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. God made us both."[3]

Standing Bear was held for trial at a fort near Omaha.  The outcome was that the Indian was declared a “person” according to law, and that Standing Bear and his followers were free to return to their homeland.  However, as all of the Tribe’s land had been taken from them, they had no home to return to.  Eventually, 26,000 acres in Knox County would be restored to them.[3] 

Standing Bear and about thirty others defiantly, but peacefully, returned to Nebraska, a trip which took ten weeks. They were detained at the Omaha Reservation on orders from the Secretary of the Interior in Washington, DC. The Ponca were detained at Fort Omaha by soldiers serving under General George Crook. The Ponca were ordered to return to Oklahoma territory, but convinced the authorities to allow them time to regain their strength after the long trip. When General Crook heard of the detainment he was infuriated at the mistreatment of the Poncas.[4]

During the delay, Thomas Tibbles, who was a reporter for the Omaha World-Herald reported about the plight of the Ponca, with encouragement from General Crook. Tibbles sent the story to major newspapers and garnered their support, and thereby the support of the general public. As a result, attorneys John L. Webster and A.J. Poppleton, helped Standing Bear petition the court with a writ of habeas corpus. He asked for 14th amendment protection. (The Fourteenth Amendment states that no state shall deprive anyone of life, liberty or property without due process of law.) It was their contention that Standing Bear and the other Poncas had committed no crime and should not have been arrested.[4]

G.M. Lambertson represented the government as they appeared before Judge Elmer Dundy. The ultimate decision to be made was whether the Ponca were even humans and citizens, and thus eligible for rights under the United States law. The government opined that an Indian was neither a person nor a citizen and therefore had no rights even to bring a suit before a United States court, but Judge Dundy ruled against the government.[4]

On April 30, 1879 Judge Dundy declared that an Indian is a person within the law and that the Ponca were being held illegally. He set Standing Bear and the Ponca free. President Rutherford B. Hayes assigned a commission to investigate and found that the Ponca were being unjustly treated. The land along the Niobrara was returned to the Ponca. Some Ponca then returned to their native land, while others remained in Ponca, where their descendants are still settled.[4]

In 1881, the US returned 26,236 acres (106 km²) of Knox County, Nebraska to the Ponca, and about half the tribe moved back north from Indian Territory. The tribe continued to decline.[2]

After the 1877 forced relocation onto the Quapaw Reservation in Indian Territory, the tribe moved west to their own lands along the Arkansas and Salt Fork Rivers. The full-bloods formed a tipi village, while the mixed-bloods settled about Chikaskia River. During opposition by Ponca leadership, the US government began dismantling tribal government under the Curtis Act. In an attempt to encourage assimilation (and to allow Oklahoma to become a state), they allotted reservation lands to individual members under the Dawes Act in 1891 and 1892. Any land remaining after allotment was made available for sale to non-natives.[2]

After Oklahoma achieved statehood, some remaining Ponca land was leased or sold to the 101 Ranch, where many Ponca people found employment. The 1911 discovery of oil on Ponca lands provided revenues but had mixed results. There were environmental disasters as oil refineries dumped waste directly into the Arkansas River.[2]

After World War II, the US government began a policy of terminating its relationship with tribes. In 1966, the US federal government terminated the tribe (then called the Northern Ponca). It distributed its land by allotment to members, and sold off what it called surplus. Many individuals sold off their separate allotments over the decades, sometimes being tricked by speculators.[2]

In the 1970s, the tribe started efforts to reorganize politically. Members wanted to revive the cultural identity of its people and improve their welfare. First they sought state recognition, and then allied with their Congressional representatives to seek legislation for federal recognition. On October 31, 1990, the Ponca Restoration Bill was signed into law, and they were recognized as the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska. They are now trying to rebuild a land base on their ancestral lands. They are the only federally recognized tribe in Nebraska without a reservation.[2]

Today the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska has over 2500 enrolled members and is headquartered in Niobrara, Nebraska.[2]

Through this warfare more than a quarter of the Ponca lost their lives. The displacement of this tribe from lands owned by them in fee simple attracted attention, and a commission was appointed by President Hayes in 1880 to inquire   into the matter; the commission visited the Ponca settlements in Indian Territory and on the Niobrara, and effected a satisfactory arrangement of the affairs of the tribe, through which the greater portion (some 600) remained in Indian Territory, while some 225 kept their reservation in Nebraska. The two bands now (1906) number, respectively, 570 and 263; total, 833. Their lands have been allotted to them in severalty.[1]

Ironically, as late as 1966, the Ponca would, yet again, be considered “persona non-grata” when the United States government, in its infinite wisdom, terminated   the Tribe.  The policy of terminating tribes began in 1945.  This policy affected approximately 109 tribes and bands and almost 1.5 million acres of trust land.  In 1962, Congress decided that the Northern Ponca would be one of the tribes terminated.  Thus, by 1966, the tribe’s termination was complete.  The termination removed 442 Poncas from tribal rolls.  In effect, this meant that not only did the Ponca no longer exist but also that their remaining land and holdings were dissolved.  It was not until 1990, almost a quarter of a century later, that the Ponca would, once again, gain federal recognition.[3]

A twenty two foot statue of Standing Bear was erected on the southern edge of Ponca City, Oklahoma to honor the Ponca and their tribe's role in forcing the United States government to treat them as full citizens.[4]



© Lord Gazmuth 2012