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This Year’s Dancers of the Plains Focus on the Ponca

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Long before Nebraska statehood, the river valleys and Plains of the region supported tribes that both hunted buffalo and farmed for its livelihood. Since 2009, the Great Platte River Road Archway--a Nebraska-based cultural museum in Kearney, Neb.—has found a way not only to bring these tribes home but also to make them feel welcome with “Dancers of the Plains.”

“Our overall purpose of this event is to ask tribes to come and teach about their culture,” said Ronnie O’Brien, the museum’s director of cultural education. “Especially these first four years, it’s been bringing tribes back home to neutral ground where they can perform how they want to, according to their rules of dance. It’s really their event. They bring their artists, their food vendors, and they come back here to dance and perform on their home land.”

This year’s event, focusing on the Ponca people of both Nebraska and Oklahoma, will take place June 15-16 on the GPRRA’s museum grounds, 3060 East 1st in Kearney, Neb. This year’s Dancers of the Plains will take place prior to the National Congress of American Indians’ Mid Year Conference, June 17-20 in nearby Lincoln.

The annual event focuses on an alternating guest tribe, with the inaugural gathering’s invitation extended to the Pawnee Nation, who had been removed to Oklahoma in three phases in the years 1873-1875. The original event was originally meant for an exhibition of 16 dancers. However, in between the planning and the performance date, the event grew. 155 Pawnee made the trip, with tribes still remaining in Nebraska there to welcome them.

“As soon as it was over, people started asking, ‘What are you going to do next?’” said O’Brien. “We decided then to invite other tribes that were from Nebraska and no longer live in Nebraska. In 2010, we invited the Arikara Tribe down from North Dakota, which split from the Pawnee about 300-400 years ago. Those two tribes got together again for the event through grants and sponsorships again. Through the support of our community and grants, we’re able to put on this event and bring tribes here at no cost to them.”

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In the months prior to the Arikara’s homecoming, tribal members from both the Pawnee and the Arikara met to construct an earth lodge, the traditional home for both people. In 2011, the Otoe-Missouria Tribe, who had been removed to Oklahoma by 1881, was the invited guest. This year focuses on the Ponca, whose tribal homelands are now in both Nebraska and Oklahoma. Ponca removal to Oklahoma began in 1877. However, the Ponca leader Standing Bear, along with several other Ponca, made a trip to Nebraska in order to bury Standing Bear’s son. By winning the monumental court case Standing Bear v. Crook, those Ponca who traveled with Standing Bear were allowed to remain in Nebraska, thus eventually creating two federally recognized Ponca tribal governments.

According to Dawna Ourada with the museum’s education and programming, the Ponca homecoming will include games of shinny—a Ponca version of stickball—between the Oklahoma and Nebraska Ponca youth; handgame exhibitions; demonstrations of Ponca usage of traditional corn; and color sheets that feature Ponca appliqué ribbon designs and the matching of the colors using Ponca language.

Ourada also said that the Ponca dance exhibitions will take place from 1-3 p.m. on both Friday and Saturday. Friday’s dances will emphasize explanations of both the dances and the regalia worn by the dancers.

As to why people should attend Dancers of the Plains, O’ Brien said that it is welcoming to the invited tribal members and all who attend.

“They talk about their culture,” O’Brien said about each year’s invited tribes. “They explain their dances. They explain regalia. They explain about their history in Nebraska and who they are as a tribe today. It’s a tremendous learning experience. It’s more interactive. It’s very relaxed and very welcoming for the tribal members. Every year when it is over, I come away with a feeling that I know these people. I know these tribal members who came here. They come and want to do their absolute best to show their culture and to show their appreciation for what it is that we’re doing.”