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.

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