BARNESTON, Neb. — The students stepped along a forgotten rail bed in southeast Nebraska and tried to imagine 500 people on a journey of sadness more than a century ago.
They came to this strip of soil and granite along the Big Blue River to seek out an unmarked path walked by members of the Ponca Tribe in 1877. In that long-ago summer, a community of first Nebraskans was forced to leave home for Indian Territory in Oklahoma.
“For me, it puts a place with the history,” said Frank Wolff, a senior history major at Peru State College.
He and 10 fellow students embarked Thursday on a two-day tour that will span the state from Kansas to South Dakota, visiting key places along the Ponca trail. They have been studying the tribe and its famed leader, Chief Standing Bear, who won a landmark civil rights decision 136 years ago in an Omaha courtroom.
It’s exactly the journey of discovery envisioned by those who’ve been trying to persuade Congress to extend national recognition to the Ponca trail. Designating the Chief Standing Bear National Historic Trail would help preserve and promote history along a nearly 500-mile path in Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma.
The effort took an important step forward Wednesday when a bill authorizing a feasibility study on the historic designation advanced out of committee and onto the House floor. The bill is co-sponsored by Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., and Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., one of two Native Americans in Congress.
In February, Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., introduced companion legislation in the Senate. It has been referred to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
The House passed a similar bill last year, but the Senate did not address the legislation before Congress adjourned.
Judi gaiashkibos, director of the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs, said she is hopeful Congress will approve the feasibility study this year. The commission has been a major driving force behind the historic designation effort, but it also has strong support in Kansas and Oklahoma.
“Twenty years ago I didn’t think this could happen, so I’m thrilled it’s moving forward,” said gaiashkibos, a member of the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska.
Support for the trail stems largely from the compelling story of the people who walked it.
The Ponca, a tribe always at peace with the United States government, nonetheless were forced to march from their ancestral homeland along the Niobrara River in northern Nebraska. A caravan of men, women, children and livestock made the difficult trek through eastern Nebraska, passing through Neligh, Columbus, Seward, Milford, DeWitt and Beatrice before crossing into Kansas.
They endured flooding rains, tornadoes and blistering heat on a journey in which nine members perished. Three Ponca children are buried in cemeteries in Milford and Neligh.
In January 1879, Standing Bear’s 16-year-old son, Bear Shield, died in Oklahoma. The boy’s dying request was to be buried in his Nebraska homeland.
Standing Bear and 29 others left Indian Territory with the boy’s remains. The father’s subsequent arrest and trial made civil rights history when a judge ruled that Indians were people within the meaning of the law.
“Just to bury his son up here,” said Ben Watkins, a Peru State junior from Omaha. “I think that’s really honorable. It’s something I really respect.”
Sara Crook, professor of history at Peru State, has for several years assigned her students to read “I Am a Man,” a historical account of the Ponca exodus and the Standing Bear trial by Nebraska author Joe Starita.
This year she wanted them to retrace the trail, as closely as possible, to help them better appreciate one of the remarkable stories of their state.
Crook — no relation to the Army general who played a key role in the events of 1879 — obtained a grant from the college to cover the trip’s costs.
The itinerary included stops at White Buffalo Girl’s grave in Neligh cemetery and the Ponca Tribal Museum and Library in Niobrara. They also planned to visit the General Crook House Museum in Omaha, where the students were to dine with re-enactors depicting the general and Standing Bear.
For Hannah Earnhardt, a 19-year-old freshman at Peru State who grew up in Omaha, the tour offered a chance to see places she has never visited.
Studying the Ponca and Standing Bear also showed her that history is much more than dates, names and faraway places of supposed greater significance.
“It’s a story about family and wanting to go back home,” she said. “That’s a story everyone can understand.”
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