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Oklahoman: Ponca chief’s statue joins greats in Statuary Hall

September 23, 2019
News Stories

Oklahoman - Sarah Beth Guevara

A new statue of a legendary chief of the Ponca Tribe has joined the silent sentinels in Statuary Hall of the U.S. Capitol.

The statue, submitted by the State of Nebraska from which Chief Standing Bear hailed and in which he is buried, is 12 statues down from the statue of Sequoyah, the creator of the Cherokee syllabary.

Chief Standing Bear replaces a statue of William Jennings Bryan, a former congressman, presidential candidate and Secretary of State under Woodrow Wilson.

Each of Oklahoma’s two statues at the U.S. Capitol have indigenous roots, but Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole, R-Moore, said that it is important for Native Americans everywhere to have that representation.

“It is almost unthinkable to us today that it wasn't until 1879 after Standing Bear’s trial that Native Americans were declared to be persons for consideration of the law,” said Nebraska Republican Rep. Jeff Fortenberry.

“Chief Standing Bear didn’t seek to be a civil rights leader,” Fortenberry said. “He simply wanted to bury his dead on their ancestral homeland.”

One-third of his tribe died along the way from their ancestral homelands by the Great Lakes by way of South Dakota and Nebraska to Indian territory and what became Ponca City. Among them was the Native American leader’s 16-year-old son.

His son Shielding Bear’s last wish was to be buried along the Niobrara River in Nebraska. Standing Bear returned to the state to bury his son and was arrested by the U.S. Army for having left the reservation, according to the National Park Service.

His case was brought to Federal court where he made a famous speech that was cited by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

According to the National Library of Medicine, Chief Standing Bear held out his hand to the judge and said, "This 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 of the same color as yours. I am a man. The same God made us both.”

Pelosi and other leaders said this speech was one of the key turning points that gave Native Americans more rights and made Standing Bear one of the nation’s first civil rights leaders.

Cole said the statue, which he labeled the largest and most impressive in the room, represents a long struggle for Native Americans.

“The dominating force of the statue, it is beautiful, and tells a very powerful story most Americans don't know very much about,” Cole said. “Most Americans and even Oklahomans don't know that most Indians didn’t have the right to vote until 1924. And the last Indians to get the right to vote were actually in New Mexico in 1962.”

One of the attorneys who organized Standing Bear’s statue dedication, Katie Brossy, brought her 6-year-old son with her to see the dedication.

“I just can't tell you how much that means to me.” She said Native Americans are often thought of as an “invisible race,” but she hopes that the statue can help change that mindset.

A movement starting in the late 1990s encouraged states to review their status in hopes of getting more diverse representation in the statues at the Capitol. Each state is allowed to have two statues placed in the Capitol. One of the first signs of change showed in Rosa Parks’ statue in 2013, although the plans for the installation began before 2006, according to the U.S. Government Printing Office.

Online: Oklahoman