Chief Standing Bear always stood up for his homeland.
In 1877, he protested the federal government’s eviction of the Ponca from their northeastern Nebraska land, and he later returned to the state after setting out on a grueling journey on foot in the winter to bury his son.
The resulting landmark court case established that a Native American is a “person” under the law.
On Sunday Chief Standing Bear returned to Nebraska again. And this time, instead of fighting for his right to stay in the place he loved most, he was honored by politicians and a large crowd.
Following speeches and traditional dances, the nearly 10-foot-tall sculpture of Standing Bear was revealed outside the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s College of Journalism and Mass Communications on Centennial Mall.
The great-great-great granddaughter of Standing Bear, Rebecca Wright, helped uncover the bronze statue, joined by her young children.
Although Standing Bear died long before Wright was born, he was a constant presence in her life.
“My parents instilled a sense of leadership in us,” she said between tears. “It was always really important that we knew where we came from.”
The sculpture is an important step, she said, for Nebraska and Native American communities because it offers a formal recognition of the history and struggles of the Ponca.
Despite Standing Bear’s protest of the federal government’s 1877 eviction of the tribe from its ancestral homeland, the Ponca were forced to relocate. In the summer of 1878, they marched 600 miles to Indian Territory, a reservation in Oklahoma. Standing Bear’s daughter and many others died during the Ponca’s Trail of Tears.
Once there, it was too late to plant crops that summer and they had poor farmland, no farming equipment and nothing to eat. It was illegal for the tribe to leave the reservation’s borders.
Chief Standing Bear watched as his son and others in the tribe died from starvation or were ravaged by disease.
Before his 16-year-old son died, he told Standing Bear of his last wish: to be buried at home, in Nebraska, so his soul would not wander forever in an unknown land.
Stricken with grief, Standing Bear gathered a group of men and began the journey home to bury his son. The group was eventually arrested for leaving the reservation, but before they were forced to return to Oklahoma, a journalist wrote about their story in the Omaha Daily Herald and found two lawyers to assist the group.
The court case that followed in 1879 determined that Native Americans are people, therefore entitled to the rights afforded to all others.
When Wright looked up at the statue Sunday afternoon, she saw more than her family — she saw her tribe and all of the challenges they’ve overcome.
When Wright was born, the Ponca tribe wasn’t even officially in existence. (In the 1960s, the tribe’s status was terminated by the federal government.) They were federally recognized again in 1990.
Wright’s children were born as Ponca tribe members.
Their story isn’t something often taught in public schools, she said, which makes the sculpture even more powerful because it draws attention to the tribe’s history.
“Nebraska had really poor relationships with the indigenous community for almost as long as Nebraska’s been a state,” said Angel Geller of the Omaha tribe, a sister tribe to the Ponca. “To have a presence on the walkway up to the Capitol is very beautiful.”
Scott Chism (left) and Avery Quakenbush help guide Ben Victor’s bronze Chief Standing Bear statue onto its base on Centennial Mall Thursday morning. The piece will be officially dedicated in a ceremony Sunday.
Geller, a Nebraska Wesleyan University student, worked as an assistant to sculptor Ben Victor during the project.
For a week in March, Victor worked on the Standing Bear sculpture in the Jayne Snyder Trail Center and encouraged the public to watch and talk with him about the process.
Geller had the opportunity to help sculpt Standing Bear’s moccasins.
“Thinking about how he had to walk the Trail of Tears and after his son died having to walk to bury his son back in Nebraska and just thinking about all of that walking, it was amazing to be able to put beads on his moccasins,” she said.
Like Wright, Geller had three generations of her family present at Sunday’s dedication.
The project held special meaning for her family, especially her grandfather, and she was proud to help bring a piece of Nebraska’s native history to life.
But what really stood out about the project is something still to come.
A replica of the sculpture will be placed on Ponca tribal land, in Niobrara, so that Chief Standing Bear can forever watch over his homeland.
“The story itself is really emotional, but when they agreed to place him back in Niobrara, when I heard that it made me cry,” Geller said. “I don’t think he really intended everything that came out of this, he just wanted to go home.”