Celebrate Native American Month...November 2008

  • Published
  • By MSgt Phil Wendzillo
  • 185th Air Refueling Wing
November is Native American Month. For me personally, it is a time to celebrate my heritage. Growing up, the terms have changed but, the people have remained the same. Names of my cultural identity have included: Indians, American Indians, Native Americans, First Americans, and Indigenous people of the Americas. Even within these identities, the full picture of the culture is not conveyed. Today, including tribes in Alaska, Hawaii, and the contiguous 48 states, there are approximately 2 million Native Americans representing 562 separate tribal nations.

Many Tribal nations are known throughout the country such as Navajo or Cherokee. However, there are many smaller tribes that are less well known but are as significant and in some instances more important than these larger tribes. One of those tribes is my tribe, The Ponca.

Our official name today is the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska. We have over 3000 members nation-wide. Over the years, the tribe has had a rich and sometime tumultuous past. Originally, the group was simply known as the Ponca Tribe but events 130 years ago changed all that and today, there is also a Ponca Nation of Oklahoma.

Historically, the Ponca Tribe migrated from the Ohio River Valley in the year 1500 and settled at the confluence of the Niobrara and Missouri River area approximately 100 miles west of here in Northeast Nebraska. At the time, they were part of a larger part of the Dhegiha-speaking group that consisted of five tribes. The combined population of the tribe was nearly 100,000.

As the tribes migrated west, they drifted apart and settled as five separate civilizations. The Ponca was among the smallest. At its' peak in 1799, it counted about 800 men, women, and children that lived in the Niobrara River Valley. The tribe was generally considered a peaceful tribe and farming and hunting game were their main source of subsistence.

In 1800-1801, a small pox epidemic swept through many of the tribes in the Midwest. The Ponca was very hard hit. Over 600 tribal citizens died, leaving the tribe near extinction. Less than 200 lived through the sickness. Over the next few years, the tribe nursed itself back to health.

By the time, Lewis and Clark passed through the Ponca Villages of Gray Blanket and Fish Smell on September 3, 1804, the tribal population had regained its strength and the now 250-strong were out on a fall buffalo hunt.

For the next several decades, the tribe continued to grow and prosper and trading with the merchants on the Missouri River brought in new kinds of tools and technology to improve their farming.

However, things were about to change for the worse for many Native American Tribes across the Nation. As Westward expansion blossomed, the United States formulated a plan to deal with the "Indian Problem." They created an Indian Territory in the present-day state of Oklahoma. The plan was to remove the Indians from their established reservations and locate them all in one confined area where they could be controlled and cared for. During this time, many Native Americans perished during their arduous journey on foot to the "hot lands."

The Ponca Tribe was ordered to vacate its homeland in January of 1877. By April, the order had taken affect and 533 Ponca Tribal members began a journey on foot that would take over a year to complete and would claim the lives of 168 people including many children.

Only 50 miles into the journey, the first causality was an 18-month old baby named White Buffalo Girl. She was buried in the cemetery by her parents, a small ceremony was held, and the town of Neligh, NE took on the responsibility of caring for this grave. Today, it continues to be the most decorated grave in the town's cemetery.

Also, on the journey, Prairie Flower, the infant daughter of Chief Standing Bear died and was buried in Milford, NE. The following day, after the journey had resumed, a freak tornado struck the camp of the Ponca and another small child was killed. The group returned to Milford and buried the small boy in the grave next to Prairie Flower.

By the end of the year, the tribe had reached Baxter Springs, KS. It was their final stop before proceeding to their "new" reservation near present-day White Eagle, OK. By the time they reached White Eagle, many had died and many more were continuing to perish in the unfamiliar climate.

One of the last to succumb was a 14-year old boy named Bear Shield. He was the son of Ponca Chief Standing Bear (who had also lost his daughter about 1 year earlier). Before Bear Shield died, he had one request for his father. "Please do not bury me her in this strange land. Take me home to the Niobrara and bury me where my grandfathers before me have been put to rest." Standing Bear promised him that he would take him back to the homeland. A short time later, in January 1879, Bear Shield died.

True to his word, Standing Bear and about 30 others began the 500-mile walk back to Nebraska in the dead of winter. For 40 days, they walked and walked. None of them were dressed to fight off the elements.

In April, this small group, freezing and near starvation was arrested near Fort Omaha, NE by the United States Army. Their crime - they had "illegally" left their reservation. However, a local newspaper reporter, Thomas Tibbles of the Omaha Daily Herald began to write articles that were picked up by some major Eastern newspaper. The story captivated the attention of the nation. Many people felt sorry for the Ponca and their sad plight. Two local lawyers took up their case. John Webster and AJ Poppleton offered their services for free to the Indians.

After some discussion, it was decided that the Ponca leader would sue for a writ of habeas corpus. In other words, the Ponca would sue the government because they were being held in custody for no reason and had not committed a crime.

The defense of the government was that the Ponca had no right to sue. They were not people, they were only Indians. Therefore, they had no rights in a United States Court. So, the battle lines had been drawn. Standing Bear vs. Crook would take place. (General George Cook was the Commander of the Army Garrison at Fort Omaha)

On May 5-6, a two day trial ensued. After testimony from both sides, there did not seem to be a clear cut decision for the judge. Before the trial adjourned, Standing Bear asked if he could speak. The lawyers had no idea that Standing Bear wanted to make a statement. Judge Elmer Dundee, who presided over the case, granted the request. Standing Bear stood up and spoke these words:

My hand is not the color of yours, but if I pierce it, I shall feel pain. 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."

Ultimately, on May 12th, the judge ruled in favor of Standing Bear. For the first time in history, Indians or Native Americans were recognized as people in the eyes of the law. Although they had been here for centuries, it has only been for 129 years that the United States recognized them as people.

The tribe was given the option of returning to their homeland in Nebraska. Some did and some were just too tired and remained in Oklahoma. So, in 1879 the United States officially recognized the Ponca Tribe of the Dakotas (Northern Ponca) and the Ponca Tribe of Oklahoma (Southern Ponca).

For the next several decades, the Ponca Tribe continued to grow in both Nebraska and in Oklahoma. However, a new obstacle to their identity occurred in 1962. The federal government began the Native American termination era in 1945 right after World War II ended.
For the next 2 decades, numerous tribes were terminated and no longer extended federal recognition and any of the applicable services and benefits available to Native Americans at the time. For example, Native Americans were authorized free or reduced health services at all Indian Health Service (IHS) clinics and hospitals.

The termination process for the Ponca began in 1962 and was completed in 1966. In 1966, the Ponca Tribe ceased to exist as a federally recognized tribe. The assets of the tribe were calculated, added up, and dispersed. Each tribal member received a one-time payment of $842 to relinquish their identity.

Now, when a Ponca attempted to utilize and IHS facility, they were turned away. "I'm sorry, you are not an Indian," they were told. Ironically, 90 years after they were forced into court to prove they were people, not just Indians, they are now informed they are not Indians, just regular people.

After nearly 25 years of battle in courts, they were finally restored as a federally recognized tribe on October 31, 1990. On this date, President George H.W. Bush signed Public Law 101-484, the Ponca restoration act into law. The Ponca Tribe of Nebraska was now and forever a federally recognized tribe and had the rights of both citizens of the United States and Native Americans as well.

So why do I celebrate Native American Month? For me, it is a reminder of the struggles that my ancestors went through to make sure I had an identity. It is a reminder of the strong and proud heritage of the warriors that have fought and died for their families and their countries.

The 185th uses a Native American silhouette in their organizational patch. In an excerpt from the original submission for approval, it stated the following:

The other symbol often associated with the 185th has been the Indian Chief that is part of the unit patch as well as part of the paint work on the aircraft. The Indian Chieftain is symbolic of the brave Indian warriors, who once lived in the Siouxland area. The pride, courage and determination found in these "First Americans" are traits emulated by the members of the 185th.

The Native Americans have a rich and proud heritage in our area. Many times we all take freedom for granted. But, for some, it was a difficult journey to achieve. The Ponca Tribe today has over 3000 tribal members. It has offices in Omaha, Lincoln, Niobrara, Norfolk and one in Sioux City, Iowa.

Phillip Wendzillo currently serves as a member of the Ponca Tribal Council, representing District One, which includes all of Northern Iowa and approximately 900 tribal members. He will be sworn in to a second 4-year term in January, 2009. He is also a Master Sergeant and full-time employee at the 185th Air Refueling Wing in Sioux City, IA. He received the Iowa Governor's Volunteer Award for his work in the Native American Community. 

The appearance of hyperlinks does not constitute endorsement by the 185th Air Refueling Wing, the Iowa Air National Guard, the United States Air Force or the Department of Defense of the external website, or information, products, or services contained therein. For other than authorized activities such as military exchanges and Services/Morale Welfare and Recreation (MWR) sites, the United States Air Force does not exercise editorial control over the information users may find at these locations. Such links are provided consistent with the stated purpose of the website.