Nebraska Ponca Tribe Retracing the Steps of Their Ancestors

May 10, 2017, 6:45 a.m. ·

Traditional Nebraska Ponca Indian staff carried on Remembrance Walk. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)

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It happened 140 years ago this year. The Ponca Tribe was forcibly removed from its ancestral land in northeastern Nebraska and marched south at gunpoint. More than 800 men, women and children made the journey, encountering snow, rough terrain and sickness along the way. Tomorrow, their Ponca ancestors will complete a similar journey, but this one done out of respect and remembrance.

In a city park in Milford, Nebraska, Ponca Tribal Chairman Larry Wright Jr. is ready to get started for the day. He’s leading a 285-mile, 13-day Remembrance Walk from Niobrara to Barneston. It’s a route that closely follows the one their ancestors took in 1877.

This is a labor of love for Wright and about two dozen others who have signed up for the journey. A few will ride bikes. Others will run and walk about 20 miles to the next camping spot. Earlier in the trip, Poncas walked through snow and sleet.

Nebraska Ponca Tribal Chairman Larry Wright Jr.. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)

“Our sacrifice is minimal compared to theirs,” Wright said. “Ours is one done out of pride and respect. They walked with a gun to their back, having to move. We don’t have to do that, but we do that to commemorate their sacrifice.”

The Ponca’s plight began in 1868 with the signing of the Treaty of Fort Laramie, which gave Ponca ancestral land in Nebraska to the Sioux nation as part of a deal with the government. The Ponca were given land in Oklahoma, but didn’t want to leave their homes. In 1877, they were forced to by soldiers. They left everything they owned behind. It’s an ordeal Wright doesn’t want to forget.

“By telling the stories of our ancestors, we help them live forever and we help our story live forever,” Wright said.

Rose Birdhead, 63, is one of a half-dozen Ponca elders making the trip. She’s wrapped her ankles in bandages and is ready to start walking again. She takes time every day to think about the sacrifice her ancestors made 140 years ago.

Ponca Tribe elder Rose Birdhead. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)

“We want to know what they felt like. How hard it was for them and it’s just this pride in our heart, a sense of pride that we were doing this for them, to remember them,” Birdhead said.

With water, ice, RV’s, support vehicles and plenty of food, today’s Ponca realize their journey is nothing compared to what their ancestors went through. Randy Teboe is the tribe’s director of cultural affairs.

“We only get a glimpse of what they went through. We have nice tennis shoes on to protect our feet, while back then, they only had buckskin moccasins or things like that,” Teboe said. “At some point they say they were walking and you could tell where they were walking in the snow because the snow was bloody from their feet.”

Poncas aren’t the only ones making the trip. So is Dwayne Freeman, 73, of Laurel, Nebraska. He’s retired and isn’t Native American. But he’s walked every step so far.

“It’s been something in the back of my mind that people were really treated pretty badly. Then this thing came up, I thought, I’m a walker, I’m retired,” Freeman said. “I didn’t know that much about Indian culture, but I’m sure learning now.”

Ponca Tribe members near Milford, Nebraska. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)

As the group gets ready to head out for the day, Tribal Chairman Wright prays for safety and guidance along the way. He stands next to a traditional Native American staff Poncas have carried along the walk. Not far from here, two Poncas who died on the journey in 1877, are buried.

“Many of our Poncas that live in all these different areas that came for this specific event had never seen the burial sites of White Buffalo Girl and Prairie Flower,” Wright said. “As we held ceremonies at those sites when we went through those towns, you could see it in the faces of everybody there, that they were touched, they were moved. Here was a piece of their history that they may not have had a connection to before.”

The Ponca Remembrance Walk officially ends with a ceremony in Barneston, where a nearly 20-mile section of Standing Bear Trail between Beatrice and Barneston will be officially deeded to the Ponca Tribe. It’s a fitting end to what has been a 140-year journey for the Ponca nation.

Watch a piece on White Buffalo Girl from NET's Nebraska Stories in 2009.