NELIGH, Neb. — The gifts arrive each week, carefully placed at the base of a worn gravestone, just as they have appeared every week since Rutherford B. Hayes was president, since the State of Nebraska itself seemed more idea than place.
On a scorching summer noon, a retired farmer and I stand in the potter’s field corner of Laurel Hill Cemetery. We shield our eyes and squint south to the valley where the government marched Standing Bear’s people away at gunpoint. Then we train our gazes on the worn gravestone of a tiny 18-month-old girl and the most recent gifts — the tokens of friendship and kindness — that this town’s residents have been placing around it for the past 140 years.
We stand and stare and try to reconcile the bird’s-eye view of that murderous march now known as the Trail of Tears with the laser focus on this one hopeful spot in this one cemetery in this tiny town.
We have no answers, so instead we begin to count.
Thirteen bouquets of plastic flowers, pink and purple, red, white and blue, clustered tight around the grave today. Eight coins scattered on its top. Two teddy bears dirtied by a recent rain. Two pinwheels that spin when the wind gusts.
One pink heart necklace hung over the granite cross atop White Buffalo Girl’s final resting place. It’s the sort of necklace a young girl would love.
“I think the children leave many of these things,” says Levern Hauptmann, struggling to explain this outpouring of love for the toddler that Neligh refuses to forget. “I think they just … understand.”
The story of White Buffalo Girl ended, or should have, on May 23, 1877. One week earlier, U.S. government agents had drawn their weapons and marched the Poncas off their home near the Niobrara River — the land where the tribe had hunted and foraged, lived and died for centuries.
The Ponca were headed on a disastrous 600-mile journey to an Oklahoma reservation where disease, mostly malaria, would kill a third of the Ponca people. Those who would die included Chief Standing Bear’s only son — a death that eventually led to Standing Bear’s arrest, acquittal and national fame as the man who won Native Americans the legal right to be seen as human beings.
But the Poncas knew none of that yet. For days in May they marched, slogging through the near-constant rain and thick mud of an unseasonably cold, wet spring. On May 22, they reached the then-new town of Neligh and camped in the Elkhorn Valley. There it drizzled. Then it rained. Then it poured, all night and into May 23, sheets of water lashing the camp so hard that the Poncas and their government minders hunkered down all day.
That is the day White Buffalo Girl died. Maybe it was a cold that turned into pneumonia. Maybe it was the struggle through the rain and mud, a death march already taking its toll on young and old. No one knows, but we do know this, according to Ponca and Antelope Valley histories:
When White Buffalo Girl died, her mother, Moon Hawk, and father, Black Elk (a member of the Ponca tribe, not the famed Lakota holy man with the same name), asked the government agent for help.
Either Black Elk or the government agent went into Neligh and requested the aid of a local carpenter, who obliged by taking two fence posts and nailing together a wood cross.
On May 24, members of the Ponca Tribe and Neligh townspeople climbed the hill to the town cemetery, where a local minister presided, his words translated into Ponca.
Then Black Elk stepped forward and began to speak.
“I want the whites to respect the grave of my child just as they do the graves of their own dead,” he said. “The Indians do not like to leave the graves of their ancestors, but we had to move and hope it will be for the best. I leave the grave in your care. I may never see it again. Care for it for me.”
His short speech, translated into English at the graveside, so struck the residents of Neligh that the pioneers who attended the burial that day remembered it for the rest of their lives. They wrote it down. They passed it on to local historians. And they did something else, too, locals say. They listened.
“It was important to them,” says Pat Kenaston, curator of the Antelope County Museum, “so it became important to us.”
No one in Neligh knows when the flowers started appearing at the grave. They know of no organized effort to decorate it. It has just always … happened, as ever-present as a spring thunderstorm, the scorching summer sun or the crisp autumn days when you sense winter’s approach.
In 1913, a local monument company replaced the wood cross with a proper stone. In 1960, volunteers poured a new foundation, so that the worn gravestone wouldn’t fall and crack.
Teachers teach students the story of White Buffalo Girl. Parents tell their children, who tell theirs.
Untold numbers of locals, generation after generation of Neligh residents, have stared down at it, squinting in the sunlight, and then, before they walked away, stooped down and left a coin, or a flower, or a necklace .
This year, in mid-May, several mothers and daughters visited the grave of White Buffalo Girl together, Levern says. The number of gifts on the gravestone multiplied like wildflowers.
That happens every May, on Mother’s Day.
“It always has been the most decorated grave in the cemetery. Always,” says George Strassler, a longtime dentist who moved to Neligh in 1968.
When the flowers become too many, and the teddy bears grow old and tattered, a local Boy Scout troop cleans the gravestone. Then the process begins again, as sure as the sunrise, as certain as the seasons.
Two years ago, members of the Ponca and Omaha Tribes retraced the 600-mile Trail of Tears, the march to Oklahoma that the U.S. government forced on their Ponca ancestors after giving the tribe’s homeland to the Lakota.
They stopped in Neligh. They put up a tepee in the city park. They cooked a traditional meal of corn soup and fry bread. They invited the locals to lunch. Hundreds showed.
They had a traditional ceremony in the park. They gave gifts of a shawl and a blanket to the town elders. They set out a spirit plate for White Buffalo Girl. Together, they acknowledged her and each other.
“There needs to be healing,” says Dwight Howe, the cultural director of the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska, who organized the event. “And that can start with a thank you, to the town of Neligh, for doing something on a handshake promise.
“So that’s what we did. We went and said thank you.”
Back at the cemetery on a sweltering summer noon, the 84-year-old Hauptmann is still staring at the grave and then the valley where they marched the Poncas away, trying to make sense of it.
How can both stories exist? How does the inhumanity of the Trail of Tears square with the promise that the town of Neligh has kept to a heartbroken Ponca father for the past 140 years?
Levern’s grandfather was born in Neligh in 1881, among the first of the settler’s children born here. His family has lived here ever since.
He remembers his fourth grade teacher bringing him to White Buffalo Girl’s grave for the first time, sometime during World War II.
Levern grew up and got married. He and his wife had four children. The second child did not cry the day she was born.
“Diane,” he says. “Stillborn.”
He looks south again toward the Elkhorn Valley.
“It doesn’t matter if you are white or Native American or purple,” he says softly. “Any person who has lost a child understands.”
But that is only part of it, Levern says. He sits down under a tree because he’s tired from the heat, and thinks longer about what the story of White Buffalo Girl means in 2017, or if it means anything at all.
In America we build monuments to leaders, to mostly white and mostly male titans who lived and died so big that we know them by their first name or initials. George. Abe. JFK. MLK.
But this is a different type of monument, Levern thinks.
In the tiny town of Neligh, Nebraska, without use of a single tax dollar, regular people built a monument to the most powerless member of a tribe once powerless to resist American military might.
They did it because her father asked them to. They did it because it was the right thing to do.
It’s a monument that tries to capture the good inside all that bad. It’s a memorial to remind us: We are the Trail of Tears and the gifts gathered around White Buffalo Girl. We are the best of ourselves and the worst, the best of Nebraska and the worst, all at once.
Levern sits near the grave of White Buffalo Girl, daughter of Moon Hawk and Black Elk, who died on May 23, 1877, at the age of 1 year and 6 months.
The hot breeze blows through the pine trees. It rustles the plastic flowers. It spins the pinwheels jutting from the dying grass in front of the toddler that Neligh refuses to forget.
“We care. We do,” Levern says. “And that’s why, as long as people live here, as long as this is a town, we will remember. We will.”
* * *
Food critic Sarah Baker Hansen is from Omaha. Columnist Matthew Hansen grew up in Red Cloud. As a married couple, they travel Nebraska to share with each other little-known people, unexpected stops and memorable foods. Come along and discover more of what the state has to offer in "The Better Half," an occasional series prepared with support from the Nebraska Community Foundation.