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Classroom leader also heads Ponca Tribe

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By Kevin Abourezk -- Lincoln Journal Star

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - He stands before a class of ninth-graders at Lincoln High School in Nebraska.

Some listen. Some whisper and tease each other as he tries to explain the role of cultural diffusion in defining geographic places.

It's 1 p.m. on a Tuesday.

Good luck.

''Unless you're an American Indian, you came from someplace else,'' said teacher Larry Wright Jr., capturing their attention, if only briefly.

''Even American Indians didn't stay in one place forever. There was movement.''

Talk about a lesson from the expert.

In November Wright was elected chairman of the Ponca Tribe, one of Nebraska's four federally recognized tribes. It is a leadership change that one state Indian leader hails as a sign of good things to come for the Ponca.

Judi Morgan gaiashkibos, director of the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs, said Wright's background in education will serve his tribe well during his four-year term.

''I think it's an exciting opportunity for the Ponca Tribe to have the leadership Larry will bring,'' she said.

Wright, 35, has been a teacher for six years, having earned his bachelor's in social studies from the University of Nebraska at Kearney. He is working on a master's degree in historical studies from Nebraska Wesleyan University.

His tribe helped him, financially, complete his bachelor's degree, he said.

So five years ago, he decided to repay the tribe by seeking and winning a seat on the Ponca Tribal Council.

When the chairman's seat opened up last year, he ran for it.

''I thought there was opportunity to do things a little different,'' he said. ''I took that opportunity.''

He replaces Mark Peniska, who was forced from the seat as a result of term limits. Ponca tribal chairmen can serve two consecutive terms.

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Wright won 67 percent of the Nov. 7 vote against two other candidates.

He is the third person to hold the position of chairman since the Ponca gained federal recognition as a tribe in 1990.

He likened being tribal chairman to being head of a country's legislative and executive branches.

It is a fitting description, considering the tribe is a sovereign nation.

''You seem like you're everything to everybody at times,'' he said.

He serves with an eight-member tribal council and oversees tribal programs and the 62 full-time tribal employees who serve the tribe's 2,600 members.

He also works with state leaders to develop policies and laws that benefit the Ponca.

As director of the Commission on Indian Affairs and a Ponca tribal member, gaiashkibos said, she will work with Wright and state leaders to develop sound legislation that affects the Ponca.

''As a leader of the Ponca Tribe, Larry is going to face many challenges,'' she said.

Like trying to convince state leaders the Ponca - the only tribe in Nebraska without a reservation - are entitled to everything other tribes have, she said.

To that end, Wright will lean on his experience as an educator, he said. But he has other goals that he hopes to accomplish as chairman.

He wants to develop a program to preserve the Ponca language, which few tribal members can speak. He also plans to create jobs.

''We're not looking for handouts,'' he said. ''We want to use our resources to pursue economic development opportunities to put our tribal members to work.''

At Lincoln High School, Wright's new role means a social studies teacher who lectures on civics, government and politics now will get the chance to provide his students with plenty of real-life examples.

Patience Johnson, 14, who said her father was part Sioux, said Wright has taught her a lot about what it means to be an Indian by incorporating Indian issues into his daily lessons.

And she'll never forget the look on her teacher's face the day he came back with the news he had won his tribe's highest position.

''I think it was one of the happiest times I've ever seen him,'' she said.