WASHINGTON — All of the dignitaries are here.
The speaker of the House and the minority leader of the Senate. Nebraska’s governor and senators and congressmen and the leader of the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska.
It’s the middle of the afternoon inside the U.S. Capitol.
The politicians and the Ponca people and their invited guests have gathered in Statuary Hall to honor a Ponca leader who long ago stood in an Omaha courtroom and held out his right hand.
“That hand is not the color of yours, but if I pierce it, I shall feel pain,” Chief Standing Bear said in the language of his people. “If you pierce your hand you also feel pain. The blood that will flow from mine will be of the same color as yours. I am a man. The same god made us both.”
Then the grieving father and tribal leader told the judge of his dream — of standing on the banks of a wide river with his wife and daughter, unable to get home. The waters are rising and, in desperation, he searches until he spots a steep and rocky path to safety. Then he sees a man barring his way.
He looks at the judge: You are that man.
Judge Elmer Dundy would rule in favor of the Ponca chief and his right to return to his home in that 1879 landmark civil rights case.
“An Indian is a person within the meaning of the law,” Dundy wrote. “And there is no law giving the Army authority to forcibly remove Indians from their lands.”
The grand hall grows quiet Wednesday.
Standing Bear is here draped in gold.
He is surrounded by history. Rosa Parks and Thomas Edison. Barry Goldwater and Marcus Whitman. Ethan Allen and Norman Borlaug and Sequoya.
The domed ceiling is painted pale pink and leafed with gold. Cleo, the muse of history, looks down.
Every seat is filled.
“We are deeply honored by your presence,” says House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, holding out her hand to the Ponca tribal members filling the front row and urging them to rise.
And then the sound of bells fill the room as the Native color guard appears.
* * *
The week before the ceremony in Washington, the owner of a foundry in Wyoming loaded Chief Standing Bear onto a trailer and drove him east.
He arrived at the capital last Thursday, and a Ponca woman in Lincoln thought about him there — so far away — and alone in the dark.
“I felt kind of sad, but I was happy, too,” said Judi gaiashkibos, executive director of the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs.
Happy because her daughter, Katie Brossy, an attorney in Washington, was there Friday when the 3,500-pound bronze statue entered Statuary Hall.
“She was the first Ponca to see him and greet him.”
Brossy stayed through the afternoon and into the early morning hours as the Capitol architect and curator worked to situate the 9-foot statue in the hall. Tipping him sideways through doorways, finding the perfect home for him inside the entrance.
Sculptor Ben Victor was there, too.
“They had to move some statues around so the sculpture would look the best in the room,” Victor said. “We called it musical statues.”
Standing Bear is Victor’s third commission in Statuary Hall — the only living artist to achieve that distinction.
And this is the third casting of the Ponca chief.
The first was dedicated in 2017 on Lincoln’s Centennial Mall; the second, dedicated last year, overlooks the chief’s grave in his homeland near Niobrara.
“I was just honored to be able to carry the torch,” Victor said. “For such a great man and such a great leader.”
The artist from Boise, Idaho, didn’t know Standing Bear’s story before he set to work on the first statue. But he listened and he learned.
How the Ponca people were forced from their already dwindling homelands in the Niobrara River valley in the spring of 1877.
How many fell ill and died along that desolate trek to Oklahoma — their Trail of Tears — including Standing Bear’s daughter, Prairie Flower.
How more sorrow befell them when they arrived at their desolate destination, and how more died — including Bear Shield, the chief’s only son.
A 14-year-old who asked one thing of his father as he neared his death from tuberculosis. Take me home to be buried.
Don Miller Campbell heard that story, too, and its power led him to offer to pay for that first sculpture and then for a second.
“It’s such a strong story and such a Nebraska story,” said Campbell, who grew up in Lincoln and now lives in San Francisco. “Things like a statue provide a way to introduce people to that story and keep it alive.”
And it’s why he said yes when gaiashkibos emailed him about funding a third statue last year.
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She’d read a story in her morning paper — state Sen. Burke Harr was introducing a bill to replace J. Sterling Morton with a statue honoring Red Cloud author Willa Cather at the U.S. Capitol.
Gaiashkibos thought: Why not Standing Bear, too? Each state is represented by two statues in the U.S. Capitol, and Morton and William Jennings Bryan had stood for Nebraska more than 80 years. In 2000, federal legislation was passed allowing states to choose new statues. Some states had started a changing of the guard.
The Indian Affairs Commission director called Sen. Tom Brewer — the state’s first and only Native senator — and asked for his help.
The senator from Gordon happily signed onto Harr’s bill, and an amended LB807 passed on a 47-1 vote, setting up Wednesday’s ceremony.
Standing Bear in the nation’s capital is the culmination of a remarkable journey, said Joe Starita, author of “I Am A Man: Chief Standing Bear’s Journey for Justice.”
A journey that started with a 550-mile sorrow-filled trek toward home in the depths of winter to bury his only son in their sacred homeland, Starita said.
The journey to a federal courtroom — after his arrest by federal agents as he neared his destination — paving the way for Native American citizenship 45 years later.
“He’ll walk into the U.S. Capitol as an enduring figure of freedom and justice,” Starita said. “A hero to Native children, an inspirational symbol of courage and humanity to Nebraskans and all Americans everywhere, his long journey finally over.”
But the battle for Native rights and recognition will continue, gaiashkibos said.
She praised Rep. Jeff Fortenberry and his bill for a Standing Bear National Historic Trail. And state Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks for cosponsoring a bill on missing and murdered indigenous women. And the importance of reinstating the Violence Against Women Act with strong protections for Native women.
“This is a call to action for everything that concerns First People,” gaiashkibos said.
“Be better in the spirit of Standing Bear.”
The long months of preparation to honor Standing Bear have been like planning for a wedding, she said. Like anticipating Christmas.
“When it gets closer you want to slow down and step out of it and look and watch and be in the moment.”
* * *
Gaiashkibos walks to the front of Statuary Hall.
She holds one end of a gold rope.
A young man with an eagle feather in his hair stands beside her, and one by one, the politicians line up to help.
They pull until the cloth covering Standing Bear falls to the floor.
His bear claw necklace gleams. He holds a peace pipe ax in his left hand. He wears beaded moccasins on his feet and an eagle feather in his hair.
In 1877, Standing Bear had traveled to the nation’s capital accompanied by his fellow Ponca chiefs. They met with President Rutherford Hayes — the Great Father — asking him to allow them to remain in their Niobrara homeland.
The Ponca were a small tribe, a peaceful tribe. The government had already taken much of their land, broken treaty after treaty.
They’d seen what Oklahoma had to offer and it wasn’t home.
On that day, Hayes heard their case, but when the chiefs returned to Nebraska, the soldiers came anyway.
Now Standing Bear is back, his right hand held aloft.
Speaker after speaker rise to pay him tribute. They repeat his words.
“Standing Bear didn’t seek to be a civil rights leader," Fortenberry says. “He just wanted to bury his son.”
America needs to know his story, Deb Fischer says.
“He will inspire millions of people who visit this hallowed theater every year," the U.S. senator says. “He is an American treasure and an American hero.”
Brewer gives the benediction, a bookend to the invocation of Ponca Tribal Chairman Larry Wright Jr.
And in the midst of it all, in the room where the Indian Removal Act of 1830 was passed and where two Native women, members of the 2019 House, are now sitting, a young man with beaded moccasins on his feet and an eagle feather in his hair rises to sing.
Steve Laravie Jr. is a descendant of Standing Bear — a grandson with many greats in front of his name.
He is beating on a drum. It is an honor song, a victory song.
His voice is strong.
Standing Bear made something good, he sings in the language of his ancestors. He made something good for all people ...