On their journey westward in 1804, Lewis and Clark came upon the Ponca Tribe. Lewis and Clark reported that the tribe, once a part of the Omaha Tribe, separated and lived along a branch of the Red River near- Lake Winnipeg. However, the Sioux forced the Poncas, as well as many of the smaller plains cultures, to relocate to the west bank of the Missouri River in the early 1700’s.
Official Tribal Name: Ponca Tribe of Nebraska
Address: Niobrara, Nebraska 68760
Official Website: Ponca Tribe of Nebraska
Recognition Status: Federally Recognized
Traditional Name / Traditional Meaning:
Common Name / Meaning of Common Name: Northern Ponca Tribe
Mahairi, Ppankka, Umanhan
Name in other languages:
Region: Plains Indians
Historically, the Ponca 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.
The Ponca Tribal homelands are located in portions of four noncontiguous counties located in the eastern third of the state of Nebraska and one county in central South Dakota. The counties are Knox and Madison, situated in the northeastern section of the state, Douglas and Lancaster, located in southeastern Nebraska and Charles Mix in south central South Dakota. The service area covers approximately 1,800 square miles.
The Ponca Tribe maintains the right and responsibility to provide environmental authority in compliance with Tribal and Federal law for protection of the land and resources within the exterior boundaries of the reservation through code development and regulatory mechanisms. This includes all rights-of-way, waterways, watercourses and streams running through any part of the reservation and to such others lands as may hereafter be added to the reservation under the laws of the United States.
The Ponca Tribe signed several treaties in 1817, 1825, 1858, and was originally designated reservation lands along the Missouri River recognized in a treaty with the United States signed in 1865.
The Treaty of 1817 was a treaty of “peace and friendship” between the two nations. In the Treaty of 1825 the Poncas acknowledged that they lived within the “territorial limits of the United States” thereby recognizing the supremacy of the government. The Poncas also authorized the government to regulate all trade and commerce-
The third treaty, signed in 1858, nullified the Poncas’ title to all their lands occupied and claimed by them “except for a small portion on which to colonize or domesticate them.” The fourth and final treaty signed in 1865 ceded an additional 30,000 acres of their reserved land. This final treaty provided for a reservation of 96,000 acres in the present day Nebraska counties of Knox and Boyd.
It was the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 that forever altered the course of Ponca history. Among other things, it established the boundaries of the Great Sioux Reservation, which mistakenly included 96,000 acres of land that was the Ponca Reservation. The Ponca became trespassers in their own aboriginal homeland.
Reservation: Ponca Trust Land (NE)
The Ponca Tribe of Nebraska does not have a reservation; instead they have 15 service counties located in Nebraska, South Dakota, and Iowa. They currently have 1,307 members residing in the Service Delivery Area, which covers about 1,800 square miles. The rest are located throughout the United States and Canada.
Land Area: About 500 acres purchased by the tribe.
Tribal Headquarters: The Tribal Headquarters is located in Niobrara, Nebraska. There are three field offices located within the service area in Lincoln, Norfolk, and Omaha, Nebraska, and one in Sioux City, Iowa.
Time Zone: Central
The border of the Ponca Flag consists of four colors: black, red, yellow, and white. The number four is sacred to the Ponca because it symbolizes the four winds (directions) and the four races of people. The center of the Ponca Flag shows a teepee surrounded by important symbols.The sun symbolizes the unity of all beings under Wakonda (the Creator). The pipe and crossed arrows represent peace and friendship. A spirit hoop with four eagle feathers circles everything.
Population at Contact:
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.
Registered Population Today:
In 2011, the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska had more than 3,190 enrolled members.
Tribal Enrollment Requirements:
You must trace your ancestry to an ancestor on the Ponca Base Rolls of 1934, 1935 or 1965. You must attach a State Certified birth certificate with a stamped or raised seal. (It will be returned).
If the Ponca parent is not listed on the birth certificate, a chain of custody DNA test must be done and the results of the test must be submitted directly to the Enrollment Office from the testing lab; the cost of the DNA test is the sole responsibility of the applicant or sponsor of the applicant. If the applicants name has been changed due to adoption, a copy of the court order showing the name change and the biological Ponca parents name must be submitted. Send completed Enrollment Application to:
Ponca Tribe of Nebraska Enrollment Department
P.O. Box 288
Niobrara, NE 68760
Ph: 402-857-3391 Ext: 403
Email: [email protected] or Katrina Key, Enrollment Specialist, Email: [email protected]
Charter: The Ponca Tribe operates under a constitution consistent with the Indian Reorganization Act of June 18, 1934.
Name of Governing Body: Tribal Council
Number of Council members: 7
Dates of Constitutional amendments:
Number of Executive Officers: The Tribal Council consists of a Chairman, Vice-Chairman, Secretary, Treasurer and three additional Councilmen all of whom are elected by the tribal membership. The Tribal Council Chairman serves as the administrative head of the Tribe.
The Tribal Chairman, Officers and Council serve a term of three years at-large without regard to residence in a particular district of the reservation.
Language Classification: Siouan -> Siouan Proper -> Central ->Mississippi Valley ->Dhegiha -> Omaha-Ponca
Omaha and Ponca. Ponca and Omaha are completely mutually inherently intelligible. Similar to Osage, Quapaw, and Kansa.
Number of fluent Speakers:
Omaha and Ponca combined: 85 (1986 SIL). 60 Omaha speakers (1993 V. Zeps): 25 fluent speakers over 60; a few semi-fluent speakers of Ponca. Omaha Journal Star (Aug 25, 2004) reported 70.
Although the Ponca 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 Sioux had forced them to relocate to the west bank of the Missouri River.
Bands, Gens, and Clans
Traditional Allies: Omaha
Traditional Enemies: Sioux
Ceremonies / Dances:
Modern Day Events & Tourism:
Annual Northern Ponca Powwow – 2nd weekend in August
Ponca Tribal Museum and Library – Open Monday-Friday, 8-4 in Niobrara, Nebraska
The Ponca Museum and Library houses artifacts, historical archives, a Tribal library, and a community learning center. It also serves as the offices for the Ponca Tribal Culture and Enrollment Departments.
Legends / Oral Stories:
Art & Crafts:
Traditionally, the Ponca lived in earth lodges. Today, most of the tribal members own their own homes or rent privately. The Ponca Tribe’s Housing activities are managed by the Northern Ponca Housing Authority, located in Norfolk, Nebraska. Currently, there are housing development activities occurring In Lincoln, Omaha, Niobrara, and Norfolk. In each area, housing is either being developed by new construction or acquired for members use (provided that the housing unit is less than 10 years old).
The Ponca were primarily horticulturists, but went on seasonal hunting trips.As was true with most of the Missouri Valley Tribes, the economic base of the Ponca rested upon a combination of hunting, fishing, gathering, and horticulture. Hunting, being the most exciting of these activities, was accorded the highest prestige in Ponca culture.
From the Ponca village sites, the Tribe would go on Wah-ni-sa (buffalo hunt) up the Missouri River as far as the Rocky Mountains. There were two tribal hunts annually, one in the late spring or early summer, the other in the fall. These hunts were sacred to the Ponca because they depended upon the buffalo for the winter supply of dried meat. The Ponca also depended on the bison for clothing, shelter, tools, medicine, spiritual, and religious purposes.
The Ponca Tribe of Nebraska has been reintroducing bison to the native homelands since the Tribe was restored in 1990. With assistance from the Intertribal Bison Cooperative (ITBC), the Ponca Tribe now has a herd of nearly 100 animals. The Ponca Tannery near Niobrara provides tribal members with employment, as well as offering an outlet for bison hide.
The tribe also operates Ponca Smoke Signals – smoke shops in Crofton and Carter Lake, Iowa, and Ponca House Services, which offers janitorial and administrative services in Omaha, Lincoln, Norfolk, Niobrara and Sioux City, and White Eagle Express, a drive thru convenience store and smoke shop in Lincoln, NE.
Religion & Spiritual Beliefs:
Wakonda (the Creator)
Tribal College: Nebraska Indian Community College located on the Omaha Reservation at Macy, on the Santee Sioux Reservation at Santee, and in South Sioux City, was a group project of all the Indian tribes of Nebraska.
Ponca Chiefs and Famous People:
The principle chiefs of the Ponca Tribe were White Eagle and Standing Bear.
- Big Snake – Brother to Standing Bear
- Black Crow
- Big Elk – Son of Lone Chief
- White Eagle – Son of Iron Whip – Grandson to Little Bear
- Standing Buffalo
- Hairy Bear
White Swan – Frank LaFlesche – Brother to Joseph LaFlesche, Omaha Chief
Smoke Maker – Son of Two Bulls – Grandson of Little Bear
Lone Chief – Antoine Primeaux
- Wash – Com-moni – Mitchell Cerre
- Standing Bear – Son of Drum. Standing Bear will always be remembered for his trial in the Standing Bear vs. Crook case, which he won, and which set a precedent ruling that established that an Indian is a “person” in the eyes of the law.
Smallpox epidemics between 1780-1804 reduced the Ponca tribal population by 75%.
In the 1868 US-Sioux Treaty of Fort Laramie, the US mistakenly included all Ponca lands in the Great Sioux Reservation. Conflict between the Ponca and the Sioux/Lakota, who now claimed the land as their own by US law, forced the US to remove the Ponca from their own ancestral lands.
1877 – Ponca Trail of Tears. When governmental officials came in early 1877 to move the Ponca to their new land in Indian Territory, the chiefs refused, citing their earlier treaty. Most of the tribe refused and had to be moved by force. One third of the tribe died on the march. In their new location, the Ponca struggled with malaria, a shortage of food and the hot climate. One in four remaining members died within the first year.
Because of the Ponca’s limited population, they were subject to both the Sioux and the advancing wave of white settlers.
The Ponca’s did not engage in any wars or other armed conflict after 1825. Nor do records exist showing that any member of the Ponca Tribe ever killed white settlers or soldiers.
In 1876, the government formulated a policy to consolidate as many tribes as possible in Indian Territory in Oklahoma. The Ponca Tribe was approached by a government agent who offered to take the Ponca chiefs to Oklahoma to look over several alternative reservation sites. Prior to their departure, the agent promised the chiefs that if they didn’t like the land they saw they could return to their Nebraska homeland.
The Ponca chiefs made the journey to Indian Territory, visiting many different land reserves which were equally barren and unsuitable for agriculture.The chiefs agreed not to exchange their land but instead return home.
Upon informing the agent of their decision, the agent threatened to withdraw all money and support, including the interpreter. The chiefs stubbornly refused to relinquish their Nebraska homeland so the agent departed without the Ponca chiefs. The chiefs, some of whom were advanced in years and ill, were forced to make the journey in the middle of winter without money, food, horses, or an interpreter.
Fifty days later, near starvation, the Ponca chiefs reached the Oto Reservation along the Kansas-Nebraska border. The Otos provided them with enough food and ponies to make their way back to Niobrara.
When the chiefs returned home, they found their people already preparing for the move. Federal troops were called in to enforce the removal orders. The long march took a heavy toll on the tribe, over half of which were women and children. Storms, poor roads and dangerous traveling conditions greatly impeded their journey, causing much suffering and death. Standing Bear’s daughter was among those who died along the way.
In the summer of 1878, the Ponca arrived in Indian Territory. The Ponca were quartered in tents they had brought with them. No other provisions had been made by the government for their accommodation. Discouraged, homesick, and homeless, the Ponca found themselves in the land of strangers, in the middle of a hot summer, on barren lands with no crops nor prospects for any.
Having been on the move through the summer of 1877 and 1878, the Ponca had been unable to cultivate the soil for two years. In 1878 they suffered greatly from malaria. As the Ponca had come from their northern home where such ills were little known, the disease was particularly fatal to them, and many died of it after they reached the Indian Territory.
In fact since the tribe had left Nebraska, one-third had died and nearly all the survivors were sick or disabled. Talk around the campfire was continually of the “old home” in the north.
Finally, the death of Chief Standing Bear’s eldest son set in motion events which were to bring a measure of justice and worldwide fame to the chief and his tribe. Unwilling to bury his child in the strange country, Standing Bear gathered a few members of his tribe and started for the Ponca burial ground in the North.
Because Indians were not allowed to leave their reservation without permission, Standing Bear and his followers were labeled as a renegade band. The Army advanced and took them into custody and were preparing to escort them back to their reservation in Indian Territory. The Omaha Daily Herald publicized the plight of the Ponca and two prominent attorneys decided that a writ of habeas corpus could prevent the Ponca from being forcibly returned to their reservation in Indian Territory. The government disputed the right of Standing Bear to obtain a writ of habeas corpus on the grounds that an Indian was not a “person” under the meaning of the law.
The case of Standing Bear vs. Crook was brought before Judge Elmer S, Dundy in U. S. District Court on April 30, 1879. On May 12, 1879, the judge filed in favor of Standing Bear. The government appealed Dundy’s decision, but on June 5, 1880 the Supreme Court of the United States dismissed the case leaving Standing Bear and his followers free and clear in the eyes of the law. Although Standing Bear and his followers were free, they had no home to return to. It wasn’t until August of 1881 that 26,236 acres of Knox County, Nebraska were returned to the Ponca.
Although a portion of their Nebraska homeland was reinstated, only half of the tribe returned to their previous home. Poverty and disease would continue to take their toll over the years. In 1945 the government formulated a policy which called for termination of Indian Tribes. This policy affected some 109 tribes and bands, which included 13,263 Native Americans and 1,365,801 acres of trust land.
In 1962, the Congress of the United States decided that the Northern Ponca Tribe should be terminated. In 1966 the Northern Poncas were completely terminated and all of their land and tribal holdings were dissolved. This termination removed 442 Ponca from the tribal rolls, dispossessing them of 834 acres and began the process of total decline.
During the 1970’s members of the Ponca Tribe, unwilling to accept their status as a terminated tribe, initiated the process of restoration to federal recognition. In 1986 representatives from the Native American Community Development Corporation of Omaha, Inc., Lincoln Indian Center, Sequoyah Inc., National Indian Lutheran Board and Ponca Tribe met to discuss what they needed to do to once again become a federally recognized tribe.
In the spring of 1987, the Northern Ponca Restoration Committee Inc. was incorporated as a non-profit organization in Nebraska and was the base for the federal recognition effort.
In April of 1988,Nebraska passed Legislative Resolution #128 giving state recognition to the Ponca Tribe and their members. This was an important step in the restoration efforts. The Ponca Restoration Bill was introduced in the United States Senate on October 11, 1989 by Senators James J. Exon and J. Robert Kerry. The Senate passed the Ponca Restoration Act by unanimous consent on July 18, 1990. The bill was signed into law on October 31, 1990 by President Bush.
Today, the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska headquarters is located in Niobrara, Nebraska. The Ponca are now rebuilding their land base, on their aboriginal homeland.
Since the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska was terminated in 1962 by an act of Congress, many of the cultural aspects of the Ponca people have disappeared. The Department of Cultural Affairs organizes programs to reintroduce the culture and language of the Ponca People to tribal members.
The Department of Cultural Affairs is in place to help tribal members research their families and tribal history, provide language restoration, and help tribal members become involved in the Ponca culture.
The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) of 1990 enabled the Ponca Tribe to once again have in their possession artifacts that were housed in museums across the country. The return of these artifacts added a wealth of information to the history and culture of the Tribe.
Information on tribal history is contained in books that have been purchased for the tribal library as well as copies of articles that have been written and published about the Ponca are being collected and organized for the tribal archives. This historical information is available for tribal members to utilize.
Regaining the Ponca language is a responsibility of the Department of Cultural Affairs. The reintroduction of the language to Ponca members will be a major step towards the Ponca people regaining their culture.
The Department of Cultural Affairs assists in planning the annual Pow-Wow which includes the reintroduction of Ponca songs, Ponca drum groups, and Ponca dancers.
Oral histories of the Elders and history as it unfolds today are being recorded.
The Homeland of the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska is located around Niobrara, Nebraska and has sites that are of significant importance to the history of the Tribe. The Department of Cultural Affairs is documenting these sites and is in the process of locating related research materials from various universities and governmental departments. This information is being added to the tribal library.
The Department of Cultural Affairs is responsible for working with all cultural-related committees including the Cultural Committee, Pow-Wow Committee, and Cemetery Committee; administering the restoration of the Old Ponca Agency Building and gaining its designation in the National Register of Historical Places; grants for the enhancement of Ponca culture; administering the tribal museum and working with other museums in the area to create exhibits relating to the Ponca people.
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