Tag Archives: Ponca

Giving Shape to Standing Bear’s Enduring Voice

May 7, 2018 by
Photography by Sarah Lemke

In creating the larger-than-life likeness of Chief Standing Bear for the Nebraska state capitol’s Centennial Mall, sculptor Benjamin Victor felt communion with the late Native American icon. Victor was “captivated” by the principled ways of the Ponca leader, whose eloquent advocacy for his people led to a historic federal court ruling at Fort Omaha that declared the nation’s indigenous peoples to be legally “human” for the first time on May 12, 1879.

“He was a true servant-leader,” Victor says of his subject. “The things he wanted were very basic, inalienable human rights everyone should be afforded. He carried himself with dignity even through demeaning treatment. He had a higher moral code of ethics during a time when the laws were not moral. He had the courage to stand up for right through many injustices.”

Based in Idaho, the Boise State University professor and resident artist felt connected to Standing Bear through every stage of his artistic process—from preparatory research into the famous Nebraskan, through molding his clay form, to casting the Ponca leader in bronze.

“His story and spirit definitely were speaking to me,” Victor says. “As an artist, you try to get that voice through your artwork to speak to viewers who see it. I felt humbled to be working on it. In the sculpture itself, I tried to keep the spirit of Standing Bear alive as much as I tried for an accurate portrait. An accurate portrait is important, but to me a spiritual portrait is just as important. I hope it really inspires other people to study his life. If my work does that, then it’s a success.”

The Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs and Donald Miller Campbell Family Foundation commissioned the 11-foot-tall sculpture, unveiled Oct. 15, 2017. Then, over the winter, a pair of Nebraska state senators (including Sen. Burke Harr of Omaha) introduced a bill to replace the state’s two sculptures—of J. Sterling Morton and William Jennings Bryan—in the U.S. Capitol’s National Statuary Hall with those of Willa Cather and Standing Bear. A donor, Donald Miller Campbell, pledged funds for a copy to be made of Victor’s Standing Bear work.

“To have him as a towering icon in the U.S. Capitol would be important. His story should be on the national scale. He should be known in every school,” Victor says.

The artist already has two works in the Hall. One is of Northern Paiute activist Sarah Winnemucca on behalf of the state of Nevada. Anything Native holds profound meaning for Victor, as his late step-grandfather was a member of the Juaneño—a coastal California tribe engulfed by Spanish missions. “It’s always a big deal to me whenever I do a Native American piece that it’s done right and with purpose. I always think of my grandpa when I do them. He liked the images I created of Native Americans with a strong stance and with dignity. That really meant a lot to him. If he’s looking down, he’s really proud of this one.”

Victor’s second sculpture in the U.S. Capitol represents Iowa—Norman Borlaug, the father of modern agriculture’s “Green Revolution.”

Working from photos, Victor “modified” Standing Bear’s pose “to capture a hint of motion,” as if the chief were moving forward slightly. In an attempt to “capture every detail,” he created folds and the look of heaviness in the blanket draped about his subject. Ornamental details included intricate beadwork, a bear claw necklace, and peace medals. Victor symbolized the chief’s dual roles as warrior and ambassador by having him holding an ax-peace pipe.

The bronze is positioned in front of a wall carved with the eloquent words of Standing Bear on trial (as translated by Omaha Native Susette “Bright Eyes” LaFlesche): “That 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 the same color as yours. I am a man. The same God made us both.”

The project selection committee for the state capitol’s Centennial Mall learned about Victor from George Neubert (director of the Flatwater Folk Art Museum in Brownville, Nebraska), who befriended the artist when he did a commission for Peru State College, where his bronze of a hulking football player adorns the Oak Bowl.

Although Victor originally hails from California, he developed deep roots in the Great Plains while attending Northern State University in Aberdeen, South Dakota, where he discovered his love of sculpture.

“When I picked up clay the first time in college, the medium just clicked for me,” he says. “I felt like the concepts I was trying to get across were very readily expressed in sculpture. I really like the physicality of sculpture, how you move the clay with your hands and manipulate it. I like everything about it. I also work in marble—so I do the subtractive process of carving, the additive process of clay work, and the replacement process of bronze.”

He was still in school when he landed his first big commission—for the Aberdeen airport.

“I had a family to support,” he says. “I worked at the YMCA part-time, took odd jobs, and went to school full time. I was on food stamps and rental assistance. We had nothing. To get the commission was really amazing because you can struggle your whole life as an artist and never get a commission like that.”

Soon thereafter came the Winnemucca project. Demand for his work has never ceased.

“I never thought I’d get the opportunity to make it on my own in my dream field and career,” he says. “It’s a true American success story. I still don’t take it for granted. Every day I get to do this, I feel very blessed. And then to do something inspiring like Standing Bear. What a dream commission to commemorate him and everything he stood for.”

Upon graduating, Victor was a Northern State teacher and resident artist before Boise State courted him.

“They gave me a beautiful studio space and gallery. It’s been a great home,” he says, adding that he maintains close ties with his former colleagues in South Dakota. “I’ve got so many friends there that are just like family.”

Back at his Boise studio, his studio life intersects with students, patrons, and his three children. Meanwhile, he continues to always keep his ears open to the spirits of his subjects.


Visit benjaminvictor.com for more information.

This article was printed in the May/June 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine.

Standing Bear Pointe

February 5, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Sprawling and quiet in northwestern Omaha, Standing Bear Pointe is tucked a stone’s throw away from the intersection of 144th and Fort streets. Commuters undoubtedly pass by the neighborhood each day, likely giving little thought to the homes, the people, and the stories that live just beyond the stately stone entrance and large trees that open Standing Bear Pointe to the outside world.

It’s possible that many find their way to Standing Bear Pointe quite literally by accident, looking instead for the neighboring Saddlebrook or Hillsborough neighborhoods. That’s exactly how Shelley Callahan found her future home, nestled in a neighborhood that, some 10 years later, she says she and her husband could reside in forever.

“Even if we won the lottery, we probably wouldn’t leave the neighborhood,” she says.

As an image consultant, Callahan had traveled all around Omaha meeting with clients. A wrong turn one day brought her unexpectedly to Standing Bear Pointe. At the time, she and her husband, Ty, had been shopping for a new home; but even after a two-year search, nothing had felt quite right.
Until Standing Bear Pointe.

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“I was drawn in by the size,” she recalls. “They were all custom-built homes, but with a uniqueness.”

The neighborhood’s approximately 125 completed homes (and its more than 480 residents) have easy access to the Standing Bear Lake Recreation Area: the water, the green space, the mature trees, and all that Mother Nature and her four seasons could offer within the boundaries of a suburban setting.

The couple returned to the neighborhood soon after their first visit, spending a mere 15 minutes walking through one of the homes for sale. It didn’t take long for them to decide that it would be the home where they would raise their future children.

“It was this feeling!” she says excitedly of their home. Something about the house itself and the nearby residences were all the confirmation they needed to stay for good.

In the 10 years since, the Callahans have welcomed two young sons—Montgomery and Marshall—and a 10-year-old fox terrier named Sam. But more than that, the family has developed deep connections with their fellow Standing Bear Pointe neighbors. Many of the residents moved into the neighborhood, raised their children, retired—and never left.

She cites the mixing of generations that has created such a strong sense of community among her neighbors. Unlike the stereotype of today’s subdivisions, where residents pull into their garages each night without paying much mind to their neighbors, Standing Bear Pointe, Callahan says, feels a lot like family.

The older families have bonded over the years, rearing children, retiring, and welcoming grandchildren—even great-grandchildren. The younger families also raise children together, often developing relationships through carpooling to school, walking the streets on Halloween, and visiting each other’s homes throughout the week simply to say hello. They have bonded during the annual block party and neighborhood garage sale, the impromptu backyard picnics that occur with little planning yet leave behind deepened friendships and fond memories.

“It takes time to develop that kind of neighborhood,” she says. “There is a culture of Standing Bear Pointe. It’s safe with a small-town feel.”

And while Callahan and her neighbors are a mere two minutes away from a Baker’s Grocery Store, Target, and the other modern conveniences that come with living in an urban environment, they find themselves routinely visited by wild turkeys, foxes, and even deer.

“Seeing the animals never gets old,” she says with a grin.

Homes in Standing Bear Pointe often sell fast, Callahan says. (Omaha annexed the area in 2015.)

New neighbors are routinely welcomed and join the family this community has created. Callahan points to a young man, a bachelor, who used to lived next door. He and the Callahans quickly became friends with a story to share: Shelley and Ty introduced their neighbor to his future wife. The couple eventually married.

“We truly feel blessed to have found this neighborhood,” she says.”

Visit standingbearpointe.org for more information.

standingbear3The Ponca Chief and the Area’s Name

Standing Bear Pointe and neighboring Standing Bear Lake are named for the Ponca leader Chief Standing Bear.

In Omaha in 1879, Standing Bear successfully argued that Native Americans are “persons within the meaning of the law.” The court decision came after Standing Bear and followers escaped from forced relocation to Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma).

Standing Bear had sought to bury his late 16-year-old son on their ancestral land, near Ponca Creek and the Niobrara River. The federal government’s removal of the Ponca (also known as “The Ponca Trail of Tears”) took place in 1877.

The 1879 case, Standing Bear v. Crook, lasted just 12 days. Judge Elmer S. Dundy in the U.S. District Court in Omaha ruled that Standing Bear and other Native people were lawfully allowed to enjoy the rights of other Americans. OmahaHome

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Glenna Slater

August 25, 2016 by and
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

When a language dies, its culture suffers a tragic loss. The indigenous Omaha people—the Umoⁿhoⁿ—are thus in a precarious position. Although there are about 6,000 living members of the tribe, its language is in danger of passing into history.  According to Glenna Slater, member of the Omaha Tribe, fewer than 12 tribal members are considered fluent in the language—and many who know the language are unable to teach it.

Slater is one of those rare fluent speakers alive today.

“We’re right here at the edge,” she says. “We lost one teacher in January.”

The Umoⁿhoⁿ settled the Great Plains during the 17th century before losing much of their territory to the U.S. government in the early 1800s, including where the city of Omaha sits today. The Omaha Reservation was established in 1854 and is seated in Macy, Nebraska.

Slater, now in her 70s, grew up on the reservation speaking Omaha as her first language, though she was never taught formally. She did not speak English until she began attending school. Slater eventually attended the University of Nebraska and began a lifelong career in social work, but the compulsion to educate runs through her bloodline. Her mother taught on the reservation as well. “I could never walk in her footsteps,” says the ever-humble Slater.

GlennaSlaterThese days, she gives a weekly course at the UNO Community Engagement Center, teaching the Omaha language to learners young and old. She began teaching around 15 years ago, helping her older sister Winona (now in her 90s) give lessons on
the reservation.

Many of Slater’s students are older—in their 40s and 50s—but a new batch of younger people have also taken up the mantle. Some of her students are as young as 10 years old. They practice with primers on vocabulary and grammar. They read narratives and traditional stories. “The students want to learn everything. When young ones want to go home and ask their parents, their parents are unable to help, because they were never taught formally or they aren’t fluent.”

Slater tells her students to keep their handouts and everything they acquire, for they may be called upon in the future to pass on the language. Her older students are already teaching their own grandkids, she says.

In tandem with classes at UNO, Slater is also involved in Umoⁿhoⁿ language instruction at Nebraska Indian Community College (NICC) in Macy. Established in 1973, NICC is an accredited land-grant institution providing two-year degrees to residents of the Omaha and Isanti (Santee Sioux) reservations.  She has also taught in South Sioux City, and at Metropolitan Community College in Omaha.

Slater speaks of the language with great respect and deference. “There would be something missing if I didn’t know the language,” she says, regarding her relationship with the Omaha Tribe and her ancestors.

“The language is very sacred: if you question the rules and reasoning behind it, you’ll be told it comes from up there,” Slater says, pointing to the sky. “And you won’t get more of an answer than that.” Slater’s respect for the language and Omaha tradition is mirrored in the class, too: “You can only tell the legends during the winter months. If you don’t respect this, strange things will happen.”

Preserving the language has been a difficult process. In addition to the generational challenges, a dictionary was completed only in the last decade, owing much to the contributions of Professor Mark Awakuni Swetland of UNL, who passed in 2015 yet remains a controversial figure among tribal leaders (due to concerns that a non-Omaha person might be profiting from the Omaha language).

Written documentation of the language is limited, and much of the knowledge is still fragmented across the recollections of surviving fluent speakers. Slater herself must defer to the wisdom of her siblings and peers in some cases. “You might know the language,” she says, “but you don’t know it all.”

Her goal with the classes is to continue enthusiasm for the language, and to ensure its survival for generations to come. “I just hope it can go on after me,” Slater remarks, “and I would be happy if I can get even two or three students to become conversational in it.”

Despite the challenges ahead, Slater remains optimistic. Several language revitalization initiatives are underway with the collaborative involvement of elders residing throughout the state. That’s in addition to lessons taught in Head Start, primary and secondary schools, community colleges, and in homes across Macy.

Slater hopes her teaching will expose more people to Omaha culture. “This has been the most fulfilling thing for me,” she says. “When students leave, they want to be hugged. Life is so hard, they need this extra something. And I learn from them, too.”

Visit omahaponca.unl.edu for more information.

Cover story by James Vnuk

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Sidebars by Doug Meigs

BillLynnA LANGUAGE FAMILY: WILLIAM LYNN

The mission statement of the Dhegiha Preservation Society states: “the Osage, Omaha, Quapaw, Kaw, Ponca, and Northern Ponca peoples are bound to one another through a shared history, ancient social, political, and cultural relationships, and a common language, the latter of which is in jeopardy of extinction.”

Once a year, Dhegiha speakers and educators gather for a language conference. The sixth annual Dhegiha Language Conference took place in Omaha at UNO’s Community Engagement Center on July 21 and 22.

“Our main goal is to create fluent Dhegiha speakers,” says William Lynn, chairman of the Dhegiha Preservation Society and an enrolled member of the Osage Nation.

The Omaha language is an offshoot of the Dhegiha-speaking branch of the Proto-Siouan language family. In comparison to European languages, it’s a bit like Danish, an offshoot of Scandinavian (North Germanic), which is a branch of the Proto-Germanic language family. The Ponca-Omaha languages are mutually intelligible, and linguists generally group them together.

“It was great that the Ponca and Omaha hosted this year,” says Lynn (Osage). “We’ve had it in Oklahoma for five years. Last year, the Omaha sent a couple of vans down to Oklahoma with 12
fluent speakers.”

VidaStablerON THE HOMELAND: VIDA STABLER

Umoⁿhoⁿ language documentation dates to James Owen Dorsey, Alice Fletcher, and Francis La Flesche (the first Omaha-Ponca anthropologist). “But many others have documented our language since then,” says Vida Stabler, Title VII Indian Education Director of Umoⁿhoⁿ Nation Public Schools.

The Omaha Reservation schools currently employ two full-time and two part-time Umoⁿhoⁿ language instructors to teach across roughly 20 K-12 classrooms each week. “We do not have enough teachers to meet demand on the reservation,” says Stabler, who has taught at the schools for 18 years. She recently helped to organize a new teaching group, ToUL (Teachers of Umoⁿhoⁿ Language), and says developing immersion programs will be crucial to language revitalization.

Three years ago, the Omaha Public Schools and the Umoⁿhoⁿ Language Cultural Center produced a language app called “Omaha Basic.” Over the past decade, Umoⁿhoⁿ Nation Public Schools and UNL partnered to complete the first Omaha language textbook (to be released in 2018). The projects relied on crucial contributions by the late Marcella Woodhull Cayou, Donna Morris Parker, and Susan Fremont. In 2017, Umoⁿhoⁿ Nation Public Schools is partnering with the Language Conservancy to produce an Umoⁿhoⁿ textbook for instructors and students.

AubreyStreitKrugAN OUTSIDER’S VIEW: AUBREY STREIT KRUG

Aubrey Streit Krug began studying the Omaha language as part of her ongoing Ph.D. in English at UNL. Her adviser suggested that she learn a Native American language, so she started taking classes with the late Mark Awakuni-Swetland, Ph.D., an anthropology professor of Euro-American descent (who had been adopted by Omaha elders).

Streit Krug says she was a minority in the class as a non-Native person. After Awakuni-Swetland’s passing in 2015, she remained among the 10-15 people working on a collaborative textbook. The textbook’s copyright is owned by the Umoⁿhoⁿ Language Cultural Center and Umoⁿhoⁿ Nations Public Schools. The upcoming textbook and the Omaha-Ponca Digital Dictionary are the legacy of her mentor’s lifework.

“Studying Umoⁿhoⁿ is important because this is the land where we are situated. My ancestors were German immigrants in the late-19th century, and I grew up in rural Kansas,” she says, noting that the Omaha language helped her to understand the root meaning of the Waconda Lake near her hometown (a Siouan word for “holy” or “sacred”). “What I knew of the Great Plains was the history of Euro-American settlement. But there is this beautiful, ongoing tradition of Native communities.”

Visual Dialogue

July 8, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The work of multimedia artist Sarah Rowe is often described as having a “sense of playfulness and a hint of sarcasm,” and Rowe herself says that art sometimes speaks in a way that is provocative and challenging more than serving as a thing of beauty.

“I’m just a firm believer in not questioning what it is that you’re called to do. I’m not trying to please anyone, not even myself necessarily,” she says.

SarahRowe3Native American themes from symbology to history are prevalent in many of Rowe’s works; she is of Lakota and Ponca descent and is an enrolled member of the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska. “I was brought up with Lakota ceremony and tradition,” she says. “I identify with both, but I would say my spiritual ties are definitely Lakota.” Through her art, she has confronted issues from self-identity to the history of exploitation of Native Americans as well as honored the traditions of her ancestors.

“It’s been an interesting journey, certainly, as an urban Native. And there’s been a lot of discouragement there, but in a way it’s inspired me to carry on and use that part of me and that voice. I almost feel like I have a responsibility,” she says. “Using art as a platform is such a great way to raise awareness and have a dialogue…I want people to feel comfortable to approach me, and share my ideas and history, and connect as human beings that way.”

Her calling has led her to explore a wide spectrum of media, from metal to photography to performance art including traditional flute and dance.

“I went to art school as a sculptor but I was so interested in learning all of these new techniques that I left with a studio degree,” she explains. Rowe received a bachelor’s degree in studio art from Webster University after studying in both St. Louis, Missouri, and Vienna, Austria. “I kind of just gave everything a try.”

SarahRowe2Rowe is not only a visual and performing artist, but also a practitioner of the healing arts, or as she succinctly puts it: “Very hands-on.” She works as a licensed esthetician at Curb Appeal Salon and Spa in the Old Market, where she’s been able to integrate her heritage by practicing holistic, multisensory body treatments with aspects of Lakota healing ceremonies. Rowe says she believes sharing knowledge of these healing ceremonies “enriches connections to ourselves and the earth, promoting well-being and balance of mind and body.” She also enjoys connecting to nature through hiking and exploring with her 11-year-old daughter, who’s already showing her own artistic talents as a writer and illustrator.

Rowe has exhibited through numerous galleries and arts organizations including the four-year project Sweatshop Gallery in Benson (which she co-founded), RNG Gallery in Council Bluffs, The Union for Contemporary Art, and Joslyn Art Museum’s Art Seen. She is currently represented by Darger HQ Gallery, an international artist collective based in Omaha. Some of her pieces are commercially available at Hutch, a furniture and home accents retailer in Midtown Crossing, and samples of her artworks can also be seen on her website, saroart.net (the name winks at her lifelong experience of people running her first and last name together as “Saro”).

“You can never learn it all, and I think that’s part of the fun,” Rowe says. Encounter

Visit saroart.net for more information.

Sister, Sister

November 12, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Sitting across from Cami and Maci Schott, you might find it hard to fathom when they tell you they are Native American, two of some 3,000 members of the Ponca tribe.

“Oh yeah, we get that all the time,” laughs Maci as she tucks away a strand of dirty blonde hair. “People don’t believe us.”

PoncaGirls2The sisters get their Ponca heritage from their mother, Candy, who works for the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska. Her husband, John, is Polish, German, and French. Over the generations, the native gets “washed out,” explains Candy.

Even though their Native American heritage isn’t outwardly obvious, both sisters show their Ponca pride by staying deeply involved in their tribe. Neither has ever missed a powwow, where they can be found dancing to the beat of drums at the Ponca’s annual gathering in Niobrara, Nebraska.

Cami, a senior at Roncalli High School, adorns herself in “jingle dancer” attire, a dress fitted with cones that create rhythmic music as she bounces and moves. Legend has it that this “healing dress” was constructed for a father’s sickly daughter. As the daughter danced and jingled, she grew stronger, healthier, brighter.

Maci, a sophomore at the same school, is a “fancy shawl” dancer, so named for the voluminous garb with frayed edges that evoke images of a butterfly or eagle. Fancy dancers stretch their arms to a T as they twirl, showcasing the intricate, bold design of the fabric.

“We’ve always done it since we were…I don’t even remember how old we were when we started,” says Maci. “We still have little fancy shawls that are so tiny.”

Both girls are active in their tribe far beyond the annual powwow. The Schott sisters, along with 10 other tribal youths, accepted the Gen-I Challenge in hopes of being accepted to attend the White House’s first-ever Tribal Youth Gathering in Washington, D.C. earlier this summer.

PoncaGirls3The Tribal Youth Gathering built on President Obama’s Generation Indigenous (Gen-I) initiative. The purpose of the effort is to fund and expand education, health, and employment opportunities for tribal youth across the country.

Along with other area Ponca youth, the sisters launched Ponca Pantry, a food drive designed for tribal elders in need. The program collected 150 cans of food in a single day at a Ponca health fair.

“Our Ponca Pantry,” starts Cami, “allows people who are blessed enough to have certain things to give to people who really need them.”

During the winter the youths intend to expand the program to collect clothing items. The group also plans to pull younger kids into the program to secure its place in the tribe for years to come.

It would have been a happy day if only one of the Ponca Pantry team was selected to attend the gathering in D.C. Instead, all 12 were invited to represent the Ponca Nation.

Attendees of the Tribal Youth Gathering listened to various speakers, but all eyes were on the highlight of the program, an appearance by the First Lady. The sisters will remember Michelle Obama’s message as one that will inspire them to continue to dream big when it comes to community leadership.

“We’re not just Native American leaders,” says Maci. “We’re the youth,” of America. “We’re going to be the future leaders in households, in government, in society.”

They even managed to squeeze through the crowd and grab a quick hug from the First Lady. Even though Obama was hobbled by crutches at the time, the sisters report that she was still looking fabulous, per usual. Michelle Obama’s brains, beauty, and keen fashion sense, the girls add, now place her at the very top of their list of inspiring women.

As if Ponca Pantry and tribal activities don’t keep the girls busy enough, both also play volleyball and basketball in addition to being student ambassadors.

Cami coaches a girls’ basketball team, while Maci is active in student government as co-president of her grade. On top of all their extracurriculars, Cami and Maci are honor students and both earn top-tier grades.

The Schott sisters are looking forward to the future with a gusto fueled by unyielding determination and overwhelming support from their family, friends, and tribe.

“We try to give our helping hand to our tribe,” says Maci as Cami nods in agreement. “And we’re grateful for everything they do for us as well.”

Visit poncatribe-ne.org to learn more.

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