Archive for the ‘History’ Category

399. Gobby’s People

As we stood beneath the imposing statue of a dignified Native American, an ancient and heart-rending cry broke the stillness.  The statue – erected only a week earlier – was of the Ponca Indian chief Standing Bear, a man who overcame incredible adversity to return the body of his dead son to his homeland in northern Knox County.  The cries, arising from a contemporary Ponca mourning the death of a loved one in a nearby cemetery, were probably very much like the ones Standing Bear uttered when mourning his son.  This is, after all, how these people have mourned since time began.

Sculpted by Benjamin Victor and donated by Don Campbell, the statue is identical to one that stands on the Centennial Mall in Lincoln.  This new one resides near the top of a hill on land owned by the descendants of Standing Bear and a handful of other men who accompanied him on his long sojourn back to Nebraska.  Forcibly exiled to the Oklahoma Territory not long before, these men were so connected to this place that they braved all manner of adversity to carry the young man’s body back for burial.

They almost made it, but were apprehended near Omaha just days from their destination, ragged and starving.  There they were imprisoned and preparations were made to send them back to Oklahoma.

But after word of their plight spread the people of Omaha intervened.  Though held by the military, a civilian trial was arranged (many believe with behind-the-scenes help from the army commander, General Crook).  This trial resulted in the landmark legal decision that though not citizens of the United States, Indians were people in the eyes of the law and thereby entitled to full legal rights.

In the end these Ponca succeeded in burying Standing Bear’s son with his ancestors, and the men who brought him were allowed to stay along the Niobrara (splitting the tribe into northern and southern branches).

My family and I had been accompanied to the statue by Gobby (sp?), a young Ponca man who’s about to start his third year at Stanford University.  Upon hearing the mourning cries Gobby explained that there are untold numbers of ancient burials on the surrounding hilltops.

Gobby went on to explain that because so many of his ancestors were buried around us, the plants and trees growing from the soil where they lie are Ponca, too.  Thus his ancestors still live, not only in spirit but in the material world as well.  He then uttered a phrase in his native tongue, explaining that it means ‘we are all related.’  Not just people, but the plants and even the buffalo grazing nearby on those plants.

It really put into perspective why Standing Bear had fought so hard to return.

I’ve always felt a strong connection to this land, a connection that’s done much to keep me here over the years.  But my family has only been here since the 1870s and lie buried in local cemeteries.  As I stood there listening to this ancient cry of mourning erupting from across the bison pasture, I realized how much stronger Gobby’s people’s connection to the land is – even today.

Economic cycles periodically ‘cull the herd’ of white farmers – those of us who have taken the place of people like Gobby’s – dispossessing many who also feel a deep connection with this land.  But I now understand that none of us can match the depth of connection Native Americans have to this place, and it helps explain why losing it still reverberates so strongly among them today.

396. Character And Courage

I want to thank the Albion News for running articles by Gabby Christensen about Manderson Lehr and the times he lived in.  Manderson was well-known a century ago, but has largely been forgotten over the intervening years.

I remember hearing about Manderson from my grandfather Russ.  Russ lived just down the street from Manderson.  The neighborhood boys did a lot of things together so even though he was a few years younger, Russ knew Manderson and would speak of him with a mixture of awe and envy.

Decades after I first learned of Manderson, his great-niece, Mary Lehr Makin, complied the letters Manderson had sent his family and friends into a book. Reading those letters gives a person a great feel for who Manderson was.  So much so, in fact, that Albion WWII veteran Norman Smith suggested to me that Manderson’s story would make a good stage play.

Last year, with the 100th anniversary of Manderson’s death approaching, I discussed Norm’s idea with the board of the Boone County Historical Society.  We decided to set up a display about him in the museum and produce a video about Manderson and the war. We also decided to take Norm’s suggestion and present a one-man play.

The play consists of excerpts from letters and news articles that give insight into Manderson and his experiences arranged in narrative form.  My youngest son Thomas, with a year of extensive theater experience at Nebraska Wesleyan under his belt, volunteered to tell Manderson’s story on stage.

And what a story it is – when Manderson learned that France needed ambulance drivers, he ‘couldn’t not go.’  Once there he realized he could do more to help the war effort so he volunteered for the air corps.

Manderson bared his soul in his letters (though he didn’t tell his parents everything, like when he was wounded or about the two times the other man in the plane with him was killed).  In his first aerial combat encounter, Manderson ran out of ammunition.  But, as he said in a letter, it wouldn’t have been right to run away, so even with no hope of winning, he flew back at the other plane, which retreated.  But he soon learned sometimes you have to run, noting that no one chased you farther or faster than the Germans.

Manderson soon realized that war is madness and he writes of hearing French anti-aircraft fire and wondering if one of his German counterparts had been killed.  Manderson said he’d always do his duty, but he was only killing Germans because otherwise they’d kill him and his companions.  In early 1918 Manderson was asked to become an instructor but he declined because it wouldn’t have been right to leave his friends behind.

In July of 1918 Manderson, along with four other Americans, was ordered to leave the front to train new pilots.  But his captain couldn’t spare all of them at once, so he kept Manderson behind.  On what would likely have been his last combat mission, Manderson was killed and his body was buried in an unmarked grave.

The Albion News published excerpts of his letters, calling him “our boy in France.”  He wasn’t the only person from this area to serve with distinction or to die.  But his high profile made him a great example of honor and dedication and he deserves to be remembered.  Manderson was one of us and his story tells us something about who we were, who we are, and who we can be so long as we never forget that character and courage are what ultimately matter most…