WHITE EAGLE, Okla. – Elders of the Ponca Tribe of Oklahoma have been searching for a way to preserve their declining culture for future generations.
“The now-living generations of Ponca above the age of 50 are the only remaining witnesses to the last of the old ways,” explained Dan Jones, Ponca tribal chairman.
In order to accomplish this task, the tribe has undertaken a most unusual project that will assure that the Ponca people and their culture will become a living part of history. They plan to bury a time capsule, filled with many items of cultural significance. The capsule won’t be opened for 130 years.
Jones said the capsule will be filled with more than 2,000 Ponca songs and stories, dried foods, photos, illustrations of traditional homes, old-style implements and tools, articles of clothing, tribal and family stories, personal remembrances and various artifacts, including a large ceremonial drum and an entire dance regalia outfit. The vault will also contain maps of the original Ponca jurisdiction and documents of Ponca language and history, as well as tribal government and enrollment documents.
The capsule, which is eight feet long, six feet wide and four feet deep, is constructed of stainless steel. “When sealed, the air is removed and replaced with inert gas.” Jones said. “The design is approved by the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian and is capable of lasting 500 years under water.”
The capsule is scheduled to be buried on the grounds of the tribe’s new Clyde Warrior Memorial Building during a formal ceremony on Aug. 26. The event, a highlight of the annual Ponca pow wow celebration, will be attended by many dignitaries, including former Oklahoma Sen. Kelly Haney, now chief of the Seminole Nation, and Barbara Warner, executive director of the Oklahoma Indian Affairs Commission.
NMAI representatives have declared these events to be of major importance, and will be on hand to film and record the activities and to provide technical assistance with the time capsule. “We’d like to thank the NMAI for their support, advice and assistance,” Jones said.
Interestingly, several neighboring tribes, longtime allies of the Ponca, have also been invited to deposit items in the capsule and to send representatives to the ceremonial burial as well. “For instance, the Cherokee Nation will be donating something to the vault, in honor of the long-standing friendship between our people. The Ponca bought their land from the Cherokee,” Jones pointed out.
According to Cherokee Nation Deputy Principal Chief Joe Grayson Jr., who will be attending the burial, the Cherokees have offered three items for inclusion: a hymnal written in Cherokee syllabary, a compact disc of the Cherokee National Youth Choir, and a print and DVD of the Cherokee Nation Report to the People.
“We are excited and honored about the invitation,” said Grayson. This shows the good faith and unity that exists among tribes. “The time capsule project will allow people living 100 years in the future to view how tribes live today, and will give tribes a chance to measure our progress,” he added.
In preparation, Jones said Ponca tribal organizations and societies, the elders, the Wa Hun Thing Ga, tribal veterans, War Mothers, the Hethushka Society, churches, family organizations and all other tribal members were contacted and asked to make a contribution to the capsule. “What will you leave?” they were asked.
“Those of us over 50 were witness to the days when Ponca people dressed in their traditional clothing on a daily basis and spoke Ponca as their first and only language. We have the right and responsibility to pass on these gifts to the future – not those things that you might hand down to a direct descendant – but the things that will teach and enlighten, create wonderment and amuse,” Jones said. “We have an obligation to carry the best of our old ways, which were left to us in trust by our elders, to future generations.”
The Southwest Museum in Los Angeles, home of the fifth-largest American Indian collection in the country, has also notified the Ponca Tribe of its intent to attend the ceremonies. The museum recently announced its intent to spend more than $1 million to create an exhibit that will prominently feature Ponca Chief Standing Bear.
Standing Bear was among those who had most vehemently protested the Ponca tribe’s removal from its traditional homelands to Indian territory in 1876. He was consequently arrested and tried for leaving the reservation and traveling back home without government permission. During his trial in 1879, he successfully argued in U.S. District Court that American Indians are “persons within the meaning of the law” and therefore have the rights of citizenship. He was a tireless advocate of American Indian rights until his death in 1908.
“Aside from providing a window into our culture for future generations, we are sending a strong environmental statement,” Jones said. “The earth does not belong to us. We belong to the earth, and the earth belongs to the future.”
The capsule, which will be sealed about one week before the burial ceremony, is not scheduled to be opened until the year 2136.