Remembering the past

ARTIFACTS AT THE Ponca Tribal Museum in Niobrara include the headdress of Chief Standing Bear, who successfully argued that American Indians were people under the law.

NIOBRARA — The Ponca Tribe is growing and expanding — rapidly and impressively.

The tribe, which has its headquarters here, has come a long way since 1964, when it was existence was officially terminated by the federal government, along with 109 other Native American tribes.

Since then, the Poncas created a restoration committee, became a recognized tribe once again and purchased a historical site here in 2011 for a tribal museum and educational center.

The Poncas went from a mere 500 members prior to the Trail of Tears when they were relocated to Oklahoma, to almost 4,000 enrolled in the tribe today.

Although requests for establishment of a reservation were rejected, the tribe is working to restore its history, culture and language through its museum just outside of this Knox County community.

The museum — although a little off the beaten path from the town of Niobrara — is inside of a building constructed by Ponca men in 1936.

Artifacts such as Chief Standing Bear's headdress, drums, a long pipe, weaponry and many others sit in a room of the historical building.

Randy Teboe, a tribal historic preservation officer, said the tribe is always looking for more artifacts to preserve the tribe’s history.

"There are artifacts that are out there. It's just about locating them and bringing them home," Teboe said. "The hard part is that they've become part of private collections."

The museum has been the holding site for artifacts and tribal powwows for the past three years. But now, the directors of the museum are looking to expand its educational and recreational activities.

"We're trying to improve the tribal members' learning by making things more available," said Gloria Hamilton, director of cultural affairs.

By August, the museum will have a one-mile trail established. The trail will include educational kiosks where old stories can be told as well as plays or performances at the new amphitheater.

The Poncas will also add an Earth lodge as a historical remnant of the old tribe.

Teboe and Hamilton said the most important aspect of the museum is keeping the culture of the Poncas alive — something that has been difficult with the passing of elders and the previous termination of the tribe.

"We did lose a lot," Teboe said. "Right now, we're losing a lot of those elders who had the stories. It is a concern for the tribe. But one of the things we're fighting to do is restore the language."

The tribe has begun doing this by creating Nintendo DSI chips for young learners to get to know the language through a video game.

Teboe said that not having a reservation often hinders the tribe in restoring Ponca traditions, such as the language. But, he added, that not having a reservation can also be a benefit.

"We're out in mainstream society making our way," Teboe said. "There's things we can do since we don't have land and there's things we can't do. It's a double-edged sword."

Teboe said the addition of the trail, amphitheater and earth lodge will help resurrect the Ponca culture and remind people of its history. These new attractions will open in August and maintain the current weekday hours of 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

"The stories are there, they're just sleeping," he said. "It's not lost. People just have to remember."

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