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130 years after trial

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OMAHA, Neb. – The state of Nebraska dedicated May 15 as Standing Bear Day amid a week of memorials. Commemorations celebrated the 130th anniversary of the Ponca chief’s landmark court case, which declared American Indians were legally human.

Nebraska’s tumultuous spring weather carried the days between gloomy storms and sunny skies. Nothing could’ve been more appropriate. After all, as Nebraskans remember the Ponca chief’s human rights achievement, they are simultaneously taken back to a dark moment in American history, a time when Natives suffered gross injustice. Sunshine and gloom; then and now, said Judi Gaiashkibos, the Ponca executive director of the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs.

“We can’t have too many Standing Bear events, as far as I’m concerned.” She said many Americans remain unaware of Native sovereignty.

In the 1870s, after the federal government forcibly removed the Ponca to Indian territory (present day Oklahoma), Standing Bear secretly journeyed north to bury his son in their homeland. There, prison awaited the chief. Then, a publicity campaign and the unlikely assistance of a U.S. general helped Standing Bear and the Ponca to obtain freedom. The government granted the tribe permission to live in the 12-year-old state of Nebraska, which covered the tribe’s traditional and sacred homeland.

On May 12, at a modern Omaha federal courthouse, judges paid respect to the Ponca chief. Actors performed a play about Standing Bear written by Mary Kathryn Nagle, a law clerk of Cherokee descent.

Like the real chief, an actor playing Standing Bear spoke to a crowded courtroom. He quoted the chief’s recorded testimony: “This 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. The same God made us both.”

At one point in the performance, Omaha’s Baptist, Presbyterian and Congregational churches vocalized support of Standing Bear. The pastors/actors spoke in sequence as thunder crashed outside, unscripted. The booming noise reverberated in the court as if God were declaring agreement. Gaiashkibos looked to the tribal leaders seated in the front row. “We kind of looked at each other like, ‘Hmmm, the spirits are listening.’”

The week of memorials resulted from the combined efforts of the NCIA, Roman L. Hruska U.S. Courthouse, the Douglas County Historical Society, the Lied Center and numerous sponsors.

The Ponca tribal council designated the first Standing Bear Day May 12, 1999. Gaiashkibos helped arrange a state capital dedication in 2004. Interest grew steadily. By 2009, she said the commemorations had become a week “modeled after the Martin Luther King week and events that many cities and states have.”

Along with the performance in Omaha, the Lied Performing Arts Center in Lincoln hosted a play directed by Christopher Cartmill.

Because the state capital celebrations have taken place on Fridays, the statewide Standing Bear Day hasn’t coincided with the tribal holiday. Next year, Gaiashkibos anticipates even more events during the week.

Rain fell during the May 15 dedications in Lincoln. The mayor and Nebraska’s lieutenant governor issued proclamations, and the tribe awarded scholarships and recognitions.

Ponca Chairman Larry Wright Jr. provided historical context to Standing Bear’s struggles. “Our elders have gone through a similar situation, when they were no longer Poncas, in the ’60s when the tribe was terminated.”

Wright was born during the termination era. He addressed a crowd that included Ponca elders (who fought to reinstate the tribe in 1990) and youngsters who will carry on their name.

At least 15 Standing Bear descendants attended the event. Three generations separated from the chief, sixth-grader Jaylene Webster performed with the Umonhon Nation Junior-Senior High Band at the state capital. “It makes me happy to be here to represent my great, great grandfather.”

On May 17, the Douglas County Historical Society featured additional memorials at Fort Omaha. A descendant of Standing Bear’s lawyer introduced himself to descendants of the chief. The family of Thomas Henry Tibbles – the newspaper editor who first publicized Standing Bear’s plight – joined them.

“Often times, it’s hard to find things that unite us as people, but this story is one that does that,” Gaiashkibos said.

After a prayer, the audience dispersed. Sun shined bright from a blue sky. The Tibbles 5K commemorated the editor’s run from Fort Omaha to downtown churches where he spread news of Standing Bear’s unjust imprisonment. Many of the modern runners didn’t know the story of Standing Bear before they arrived.