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This historical marker offers a short history of the Ponca Tribe and Native American leader Standing Bear. Standing Bear of the Ponca tribe was born along the Niobrara River circa 1829. His name in the Omaha-Ponca language was Maⁿchú-Naⁿzhíⁿ or Macunajin. The Ponca are a Native American tribe, indigenous to the lands along of the Niobrara River of what is today Northeast Nebraska. The Ponca were a small tribe and lead a sedentary lifestyle, in contrast with many of the Great Plains tribes. They lived in earth lodges, grew crops, and hunted small game and fish. They would also conduct seasonal bison hunts.

By the middle of the 19th century, the encroachment of European-American settlers and raids by the Lakota tribes necessitated the Ponce to twice sell their land and move. In 1865 the Ponca signed yet a third treaty with the United States government, ceding their land but ultimately reclaiming some of their old territory between the Niobrara River and Ponca Creek. Three years later the United States government negotiated the Treaty of Fort Laramie with the Lakota. The Ponca were not a part of these negotiations and the United States government falsely granted the Lakota control over the current territory of the Ponca. The Lakota soon began to harass the Ponca again who was now in “their” territory.  

A.J. Carrier, a federal employee authorized to interact with the Ponca on behalf of the government, believed that instead of rectifying the solution, the solution should be to relocate the Ponca to “Indian Territory” in Oklahoma. President Ulysses S. Grant agreed to Carrier’s plan, provided the Ponca were willing to move. In 1865 Carrier met with Chief Standing Bear and other Ponca leaders to discuss moving to a new reservation. A new treaty was signed stating that the Ponca would move to “Indian Territory” and a delegation of Chiefs would be sent ahead of time to choose a reservation. Standing Bear later claimed that the Treaty was signed under false pretenses due to a language misinterpretation. The Ponca language did not have a separate word for the Indian Territory and it was thus his belief they had agreed to move to the reservation of the Omaha tribe. The Omaha were closely related to the Ponca and their reservation was along the Missouri River in northeast Nebraska.   

Standing Bear was among the delegation that traveled to Oklahoma in February of 1877 to review the land tracts and chose one to be the new Ponca reservation. The Ponca were upset that the land was desolate and not what they had been promised by the treaty. They demanded to be returned home, yet the government agent they were with refused. In protest, Standing Bear and the other chiefs walked home.

The delegation returned in early April where A. J. Carrier was waiting with orders to remove the tribe by force. The Ponca who were willing to be relocated left immediately, but Standing Bear and many others resisted relocation. A month later, the military from Fort Omaha arrived, forcing Standing Bear and the others to begin the long march to Oklahoma. The over 500 miles journey was known as the Ponca Trail of Tears. Nine died during the journey, including Standing Bear’s daughter Prairie Flower.

When the Ponca arrived it was too late in the season to plants crops and the U.S. government failed to provide the food or equipment that had been promised in the treaty. By the spring of 1878, one-third of the tribe had died due to starvation, tuberculosis, malaria, and other causes. Nearly everyone alive was sick and suffering greatly. In early January of 1879 Standing Bear’s eldest son, Bear Shield passed away. Bear Shield’s final wish was to be buried in the land of his birth. Standing Bear gathered a group of mostly women and children and started the walk home to honor his son’s wishes. The trek through the bitter winter of the Great Plains was grueling, but Standing Bear arrived at the Omaha reservation in March, still carrying the bones of his son.  

The Ponca were greeted warmly by the Omaha, but the U.S. government soon realized they were there??  General of the Army, William Tecumseh Shreman, ordered the arrest of Standing Bear and the party because Native Americans were not allowed to leave their reservations without government permission, consequently making the group renegades.. This order reached General George R. Crook in Fort Omaha who ordered the men at fort to arrest them. Standing Bear’s party was detained on March 27th. They were very ill and the weak condition of them and their horses would make the journey to Oklahoma impossible. Standing Bear and the Ponca found an unlikely ally in General Crook, whom was recognized by many as the United States Army’s “Most Skilled Indian Fighter.”