Ponca Tribe gains ownership of Nebraska Homestead Trail

BARNESTON, Neb. (AP) — The Ponca Tribe of Nebraska renamed the state’s Homestead Trail to Chief Standing Bear Trail after gaining ownership of the sliver of land the tribe refers to as the “Ponca Trail of Tears.”

Nearly 200 people were at a ceremony Thursday for the signing of the deed to the nearly 20-mile trail stretching from Beatrice to Barneston. The celebration consisted of a drum circle, traditional dancers and victory songs.

In 1877, U.S. soldiers forced over 700 Ponca members to march nearly 280 miles from their homeland along the Niobrara River to a reservation in Oklahoma.

“That’s where our people suffered and died,” Ponca Tribe chairman Larry Wright Jr. said. “And every step that they took south was a step further from home — for many, a place they would never see again.”

The Nebraska Trails Foundation’s transfer of ownership also concluded a walk to commemorate the 140th anniversary of the Ponca’s removal from the state. More than 100 people, mostly indigenous, left Niobrara in late April and walked 285 miles to Barneston.

Ponca cultural affairs director Randy Teboe said that spending the last two weeks “walking in the footsteps of our ancestors was very powerful, very emotional.”

The trail has been renamed after Chief Standing Bear, who was arrested for leaving the reservation while trying to bury his son on Ponca land. Moved by Standing Bear’s testimony, a judge ruled in 1879 that Native Americans are people and can’t be forced onto a reservation.

“We talk about 140 years ago like it’s a long time,” Wright said. “That’s our connection to this country. For a while, our relatives in Oklahoma would bury their dead and face them north so they could face the home country. That’s our connection to this land. This trail symbolizes that and will forever be remembered as the Standing Bear Trail.”