NIOBRARA, Neb. — Before the trial, there was the trail.
The story of Chief Standing Bear detoured through an Omaha courtroom more than 130 years ago. It started when the U.S. government uprooted the peaceful Ponca Tribe and forced it to move to Indian Territory.
Nine Ponca perished during the 1877 exodus across eastern Nebraska and Kansas. More than 100 others died of hunger and disease in their new homeland in present-day Oklahoma.
Now plans are in the works to mark this invisible trail of tears by the end of the decade in hopes of boosting awareness of the historic episode. The proposal calls for establishing and designating a nationally recognized Chief Standing Bear Trail that would span the Great Plains from Nebraska to Oklahoma.
The trail would join the ranks of the widely known Lewis and Clark, Pony Express, Oregon and Mormon Trails across Nebraska.
The Ponca story is one of family, fairness and equality that all Americans can appreciate, said Judi gaiashkibos, executive director of the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs in Lincoln.
“The greatest thing about this story is that we came back,'' gaiashkibos said. “The trail was circular.''
A nonprofit friends organization would be created to develop the Standing Bear Trail. Markers would highlight existing geographical landmarks of historical significance for travelers. Informational brochures and maps would be printed and a website developed. Communities along the trail would be encouraged to create events and activities to attract visitors.
The virtual trail — no roads would be developed or private property taken — would start in the northeast Nebraska community of Niobrara and pass near or through Neligh, Columbus, Seward, Milford, DeWitt and Beatrice before crossing into Kansas at Marysville.
The trail story is relevant beyond Nebraska and to non-Indians everywhere, said gaiashkibos, who is a registered member of the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska and also has Santee Sioux ancestry.
“You can't know your history until you know our history,'' she said.
The removal of the Ponca from their ancestral homeland is one of the dark chapters in the history of the treatment of American Indians on the nation's frontier, historians say.
Never a large tribe, the Ponca had been friendly to white people despite broken U.S. government promises and treaties in 1858 and 1865 that greatly reduced the size of their homeland and reservation in northeast Nebraska. Then an error in the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 ceded Ponca lands to their enemy, the Lakota. The Ponca became prey to eight years of Sioux raids.
The U.S. government's solution was the forced removal of the tribe to a new reservation nearly 500 miles south in Indian Territory.
“They gave our land to the Sioux,'' said Larry Wright Sr., who manages the Ponca bison herds near Niobrara and whose grandfather, Wa jinga Pa, made the journeys to Indian Territory and back with Standing Bear. “We had 96,000 acres. In order to keep peace with the Sioux, they took Ponca land and moved the Poncas to Oklahoma.''
White Eagle, the head chief, and Standing Bear, a chief of the Bear Clan, resisted the move but eventually complied.
Historians have long known the general locations of the roughly 20 Ponca campsites along the trail in Nebraska because of meticulous records kept by Indian Agent Edwin A. Howard during the journey.
What's been missing are the personal stories of tragedy and hope and the attitudes of the white settlers and townspeople who watched the Ponca pass by, said historian Kaci Nash of Lincoln, who is researching the trek for the trail planners.
She has gleaned many details from Nebraska and Kansas newspapers and local histories. Her biggest voids are first-person and family stories from Ponca who were part of the march.
“I've found only a few references in their own words,'' she said.
Still, Howard's journal depicts suffering and sadness.
May 23 — “The morning opened with light rain, but at 8 o'clock a terrific thunderstorm occurred of 2 hours' duration, which was followed by steady rain throughout the day; in consequence of which we remained in camp. During the day a child died and several women and children were reported sick, and medical attention and medicine were obtained for them.''
May 24 — “Buried the child yesterday in the Cemetery at Neligh, giving it a Christian burial. Broke camp at 10 o'clock and marched about 8 miles crossing the Elkhorn River about 2 miles below the Oakdale Village.''
The child was 18-month-old White Buffalo Girl, the daughter of Black Elk and Moon Hawk. She died of pneumonia. Black Elk asked townspeople to respect his daughter's grave just as they did for their own dead.
“I leave the grave in your care,'' he said. “I may never see it again. Care for it for me.''
They did. It's common for people decorating a family plot in Neligh's Laurel Hill Cemetery to also bring flowers, beads or stuffed toys for White Buffalo Girl's grave, said Ruth Strassler of the Antelope County Historical Society.
“There's always something here,'' she said.
George Strassler, president of the historical society, said the grave was marked by an oak cross before a local monument maker donated a stone marker in 1913. A Tilden, Neb., monument company provided a new foundation in 1960.
Thirteen days after White Buffalo Girl's death, the Ponca were camped near Milford and Standing Bear's daughter, Prairie Flower, died of consumption. Three days later, his granddaughter was killed in a tornado. Both were buried in a country cemetery north of Milford.
The Ponca caravan, plagued by muddy roads and floods, attracted widespread attention. About 500 Indians were part of the procession. Horses and oxen pulled nearly 150 wagons. Dogs, mules and oxen walked along. Twenty-five soldiers accompanied the Indians as far as Columbus.
“It may have looked similar to an Oregon Trail sight, a big wagon train of supplies, people and animals,'' Nash said.
Standing Bear's assemblage of more resistant migrants was the second Ponca party to move south. The first group made the trip a month earlier.
Many contemporary newspaper accounts of the journey reflected the notion of white settlers conquering the continent, expanding from coast to coast and removing Indians from the path, Nash said.
“But then you also find a sense of nostalgia and the romantic notion of Indians as being Old America,'' she said. “People thought they needed to come watch them go by before they disappeared. They were a curiosity.''
Debbie Robinette of Niobrara, a member of the Tribal Council, said she hopes the proposed trail will encourage people to learn what happened to Indians, especially tribes that were marched long distances to new homelands.
Robinette said she mourns lost Ponca culture. She visits the Oklahoma Ponca to learn traditions, spirituality and language to share with Nebraska Ponca.
Standing Bear's return to Nebraska led to a split in the tribe — the Southern Ponca who remained in Oklahoma and the Northern Ponca who followed Standing Bear back to their ancestral home.
Robinette said the Ponca of Nebraska and Oklahoma are one people, although separated by hundreds of miles of prairie and farmland.
“We're one tribe,'' she said. “The federal government split us. We didn't split us.''
Judy Allen of Council Bluffs, a Ponca Tribal Council member, said that after her ancestors returned to their Niobrara homeland, their difficulties continued. The Ponca lost their reservation when the tribe dwindled to such small numbers that it asked to be dissolved and its assets split among its members in 1962. The Ponca rebounded and Congress recognized the tribe in 1990.
After leaving their Niobrara homeland, nearly one-third of the tribe died in Oklahoma, many from malaria.
In January 1879, Standing Bear's 16-year-old son, Bear Shield, died. Standing Bear and 29 others left Indian Territory without permission from the federal government to bury the boy with his ancestors along the Niobrara.
The party arrived at the Omaha Reservation in early March.
Standing Bear's subsequent arrest and trial made civil rights history when a judge ruled that Indians were people within the meaning of the law.
Scott Shafer, who is coordinating the trail project for the State Commission on Indian Affairs, said establishing the trail in context with the Standing Bear court case would be a natural way to engage people in a variety of historical lessons, including the displacement of the Ponca Tribe to Oklahoma, legal and ethical issues of equality and tribal sovereignty.
The trail initiative has the support of Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb.
To raise public awareness of the project, preliminary plans include hosting a 2015 Great Plains Symposium in Lincoln centered on the Standing Bear Trail. A trail book is a possibility. Planners hope to have many elements of the trail complete, including signs and brochures, by the 150th anniversary of Nebraska statehood in 2017, said gaiashkibos.
Ultimately, the trail's friends group could organize bicycle tours along the route or a motorcycle rally like the annual gathering at Sturgis, S.D., she said.
“What it (trail activities) will look like, we don't know,'' gaiashkibos said. “Local communities along the trail can develop their own events as economic development projects.''
Standing Bear's story inspires her daily, gaiashkibos said, especially as she works to raise money for the project.
“Whenever I think something's too hard to accomplish, I realize it's not hard at all,'' she said. “If he can walk back here in the dead of winter to bury his son, I can face any challenge.''
A sampling of Standing Bear and Ponca places and names
» Bronze busts of Chief Standing Bear. Displayed in Nebraska Hall of Fame at the State Capitol and Roman L. Hruska U.S. Courthouse, 111 S. 18th Plaza.
» Standing Bear Memorial Bridge, spans the Missouri River between Nebraska and South Dakota near Niobrara, Neb. Dedicated 1998.
» Standing Bear Lake, near 132nd Street and Fort Streets. The site includes a 135-acre lake, nearly 400-acre park and recreation area and 131-acre wildlife area. Opened in 1977.
» Standing Bear Elementary School, 15860 Taylor St. The Omaha district school for kindergarten through fourth grade opened in 2005.
» Standing Bear Park, Museum and Education Center, Ponca City, Okla., the site of the annual Standing Bear Powwow.
» Ponca, Neb. The Dixon County community is state's fourth-oldest. Established 1856, incorporated 1871. Population 961. Gateway to Ponca State Park.
» Ponca State Park. Nebraska's first state park. Its 2,400 acres are on the heavily forested high bluffs and steep hills along the Nebraska bank of the Missouri River. Established in 1934.