The story of Ponca Chief Standing Bear is, in many ways, the story of a father’s love for his son.He began his 1879 journey home from Oklahoma, where is people had been forced to move two years earlier, because he wanted to fulfill a promise he had made to his dying son. His son Bear Shield — dying of malaria — had asked his father to bury him in their ancestral homelands along the chalk bluffs of the Niobrara River Valley in northeast Nebraska.How could Standing Bear say no?By leaving Oklahoma in January 1879, he violated a government order to remain on his tribe’s reservation. His journey home sparked a national debate about the legal rights of America’s first peoples, a debate that culminated with a federal judge’s decision that Standing Bear was a human being entitled to freedom from unlawful detention, a decision now considered a remarkable civil rights victory for Native Americans.Standing Bear’s journey home has since been recounted in novels, an opera, a play, countless children’s essays, a documentary and even a cantata — a musical piece for voices with instrumental accompaniment.Add to that list a 10-foot, bronze sculpture.
Judi gaiashkibos, the executive director of the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs, has worked to share the story of Ponca Chief Standing Bear for more than a decade. In 1879, Standing Bear convinced a federal judge to allow him to return to his homelands in northeast Nebraska, a decision that is today considered an important civil rights victory for Native Americans. Photo by Kevin Abourezk
The sculpture was unveiled October 15 outside the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s journalism school onCentennial Mall, a plaza that leads to the State Capitol.“This has been a long journey, like Standing Bear’s journey,” said Judi gaiashkibos, executive director of the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs, which commissioned the statue from sculptor Ben Victor.The commission began sharing the story of Standing Bear more than a decade ago, hosting a breakfast in his honor that continues today. About three years ago, a Lincoln man, Don Campbell, contacted the commission to express an interest in funding a sculpture of the chief.Campbell wanted to see Standing Bear’s likeness every time he visited downtown Lincoln.“Now he’s on Centennial Mall,” gaiashkibos said. “An Indian man is on the mall.”
THAT 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.
— PONCA CHIEF STANDING BEAR
The sculpture depicts Standing Bear as he may have appeared standing before the 1879 courtroom where he won his freedom. His right hand is outstretched, a motion meant to evoke the chief’s powerful statement to the judge during his trial.That 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.The commission is now selling miniature versions of the sculpture to raise money for a scholarship that it provides to Native American students each year. Gaiashkibos commended Victor’s work on the sculpture.“He captured the essence of Standing Bear,” she said. “It’s the best likeness in America.”Ponca Chief Standing Bear Statue – Centennial Mall – Lincoln, Nebraska