The Usni (Cold) Ponca Tribe of Nebraska are believed to have been part of the Omaha Tribe, having separated by the time Lewis and Clark came upon them in 1804. At that time, they were situated along Ponca Creek, in Knox County, near present-day Verdel. They lived in earth lodges and were primarily horticulturists, but also made seasonal hunting trips. They were on such a trip when Lewis and Clark came upon their village. Although the tribe’s exact origin is unknown, some scholars believed the Ponca migrated from an area along the Red River near Lake Winnipeg. However, by the early 1700s, the warring Sioux had forced them to relocate to the west bank of the Missouri River.
The Unsi Ponca Cultural Director states: “We lived in the Ohio River valley for years. We lived in Pipestone and Blood Run near Sioux Falls, South Dakota, from around 1200 to 1700. We lived in what is now known as Rapid City, near Big Horn Mountain, and a few other places in South Dakota, Iowa, and Nebraska. When we left the Sioux Falls area, we went to what is now known as Ponca, Nebraska, and then to Niobrara, Lynch, Verdel, etc.”
The Ponca were never a large tribe. The tribe’s probable size in 1780 was estimated at 800. By 1804, largely because of smallpox, their numbers dwindled to around 200. By 1829, their population had increased to 600 and by 1842, to about 800. In 1906, the Ponca in Oklahoma numbered 570 and those in Nebraska, 263. The census of 1910 listed 875 Poncas, including 619 in Oklahoma and 193 in Kansas. By 1937, the Ponca population reached 1,222 with 825 in Oklahoma and 397 in Nebraska. Today, the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska alone numbers close to 4,200.
Trial of Chief Standing Bear
A very significant moment in the Tribe’s history was the “Trial of Standing Bear” in 1879. It was at this time that the Ponca were forcibly removed from their homeland in northeastern Nebraska and marched to Indian Territory in Oklahoma. Many died along the way, including Standing Bear’s daughter, and, upon arrival, his son would also die. Promising to honor his son’s dying wish to be buried in his homeland, Standing Bear and a small band of his men began the arduous journey home to bury his son. They realized that they were doing so in defiance of orders not to leave the reservation. They were soon arrested and about to be returned to Indian Territory when their plight was publicized in the Omaha Daily Herald.
Standing Bear was held for trial at a fort near Omaha. The outcome was that the Indian was declared a “person” according to law and that Standing Bear and his followers were free to return to their homeland. However, as all of the Tribe’s land had been taken from them, they had no home to return to. Eventually, 26,000 acres in Knox County would be restored to them.
Today, a bust of Standing Bear sits in Nebraska’s State Capitol Hall of Fame, honoring him for his efforts on behalf of Native American Rights.
Ironically, as late as 1966, the Ponca would, yet again, be considered “persona non-grata” when the United States government, in its infinite wisdom, terminated the Tribe. The policy of terminating tribes began in 1945. This policy affected approximately 109 tribes and bands and almost 1.5 million acres of trust land. In 1962, Congress decided that the Northern Ponca would be one of the tribes terminated. Thus, by 1966, the tribe’s termination was complete. The termination removed 442 Poncas from tribal rolls. In effect, this meant that not only did the Ponca no longer exist but also that their remaining land and holdings were dissolved. It was not until 1990, almost a quarter of a century later, that the Ponca would, once again, gain federal recognition. However, in the interim, much of the Tribe’s cultural heritage would be forever lost.
The Ponca Tribe of Nebraska is structurally unlike any other Tribe in Nebraska. This uniqueness made the Tribe embark upon a vigorous program of educating and lobbying state and federal legislator officials to ensure that its members receive all the benefits and programs that the status as a federally recognized Tribe of Indians implies. The Ponca Tribe of Nebraska is one of the most successful Tribes in Indian Country when it comes to effective lobbying and passage of favorable legislation and administrative policies.
The Tribe’s Legislative prowess developed in the days before its actual restoration. Even though Congress recognized that termination was a failed policy, it required that each terminated tribe bear the burden of individually petitioning for the reversal of that status. Congress established six Administrative Criteria that all terminated Tribes had to satisfy for restoration. The Northern Ponca Restoration Committee was founded for this purpose in 1986-87. Nearly all of the terminated Tribes had been restored by this time, except the Northern Poncas. The experiences of restored tribes in Oregon suggested the value of securing state recognition from the Nebraska Unicameral before approaching the US Congress. In 1988, the Tribe successfully lobbied the Nebraska Unicameral to grant their “state recognition” and secured an endorsement to support a quest to become a federally recognized Tribe. Support was also sought, and granted, by various local and Tribal Governments, as well as Indian non-profit organizations.
By 1989, the Northern Ponca Restoration Committee drafted language for Federal Restoration of the Northern Ponca Tribe. The first challenge was to secure a member of the Nebraska Congressional delegation to sponsor the legislation. In 1989, Senator J. James Exon and Senator Bob Kerrey agreed to introduce and sponsor the “Ponca Restoration Act” in the United States Senate. Achieving this same support in the House of Representatives proved to be much more difficult. In fact, the original Ponca Restoration Act was opposed by the Tribe’s “home” district representative. There was a concern that the Poncas would one day choose to re-establish a reservation in northeastern Nebraska. Once language was added to the bill to specifically deny the Ponca Tribe the ability to establish a reservation, the bill passed unanimously. The process was completed on October 31, 1990, when then-President George Herbert Walker Bush signed the Ponca Restoration Act into law.
The Ponca Tribe of Nebraska is the name used to describe the Northern Ponca Tribe after the Tribe was officially restored in 1990.