Ponca City Information
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The history of Ponca City is tied to the history of local American Indian communities, particularly its namesake, the Ponca Tribe of American Indians. Since coming to the area in 1877 from their traditional homelands in Nebraska and South Dakota, the Ponca Tribe has made an imprint on the region, the community that adopted its name, and the nation.
According to anthropologist James H. Howard, who studied the Poncas in the 1950s and 1960s, Ponca culture is a combination of Middle Mississippi Woodlands and Plains cultures. The Poncas were part of a group of Siouan-speakers known as the Dhegiha that included the Omaha, Osage, Kansa and Quapaw.
By the early 19th century, the small and peaceful Poncas were involved in trade with non-Indians on the Missouri River. They interacted with Meriwether Lewis and William Clark’s Corps of Discovery in 1804 and hosted Mormon travelers in 1846.
Relationship with United States
After 1850, the life of the Poncas on the Great Plains changed dramatically due to increased hostility from Euro-American and American Indian neighbors and dwindling bison herds.
Continuing a tradition of treaty making that began in 1817, the federal government intervened to resolve the conflict between the Poncas and their neighbors in 1858. Signed by a Ponca delegation in Washington, D.C., this treaty instigated a series of events that led to Ponca removal to Indian Territory.
In the treaty, the Poncas transferred most of their traditional homelands to the federal government in exchange for a reservation, protection, annuities, and other payments. In the final treaty with the Poncas, signed in March 1865, the tribe relinquished an additional 30,000 acres and received a small payment and a reservation of about 96,000 acres on the Missouri River, north of the Niobrara River.
The Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, between the U.S. and the Sioux, ceded Ponca land without authorization. This action increased warfare between the Poncas and Teton Sioux, which had government-supplied weapons. Although the federal government acknowledged fault, the U.S. refused to return the territory.
To resolve the disputed lands, the federal government planned the removal of the Poncas to Indian Territory. Ignoring Ponca opposition, the government used military guards to move the Poncas in May 1877. After weathering floods and a tornado, approximately 700 hundred Poncas arrived at a temporary home at the Quapaw Agency in July 1877.
Eventually the Poncas settled on nearly 100,000 acres on the Arkansas River in present-day north central Oklahoma. By July 1878, when the Poncas officially reached their new home, an estimated one-third of the tribe had died.
Attract National Attention
The experience of the Poncas reached a national audience in 1879 when Chief Standing Bear and 66 followers returned to Nebraska to bury his son. In the landmark decision Standing Bear v. Crook, Judge Elmer S. Dundy ruled that Indians were entitled to the rights guaranteed to citizens by the Constitution. This case had important repercussions because it opened the judicial system to Native Americans. (Howard, 37; Prucha, 567-68)
A Nation Divided
In addition to attracting the attention of reformers in the East, the Standing Bear case divided the Poncas into two nations, the Oklahoma community and the followers of Standing Bear in Nebraska. Two separate Ponca nations coexisted until the northern band was terminated in the 1960s.
Making a Home
Following a shaky start in Indian Territory, the Poncas developed a strong community that continues today. By 1879, there were more than 500 Poncas living on the reservation and 70 permanent houses. In December 1879, a post office was established at the agency and the school was built in 1883. Known as Ponca until 1896, the community became White Eagle, in honor of Chief White Eagle, a great Ponca leader.
In 1893, the pressures and policies of the dominant society disrupted the lives of the Poncas once again.
Opening the Strip
Dissatisfied with the reservation system established after the Civil War, reformers and politicians decided to assimilate American Indians by forcing private ownership of land. Allotment in severalty robbed the Poncas and other Indians of additional land and made way for statehood.
The Poncas, who were allotted in 1890, saw their land go to non-Indian settlers through a September 1893 land run, an event that its Euro-American participants and their descendants celebrated. Despite the “protection” of a trust period, graft and corruption continued to rob the Ponca of additional land in the twentieth century.
World War I
Although it was not required, thirty members of the Ponca Tribe served in the military during World War I, beginning a strong tradition of service that thrives today.
In 1927, Ponca veterans established the All Indian American Legion Post 38 or Buffalo American Legion Post that was named for Alfred Little Standing Buffalo, a Ponca veteran who died shortly after the war. The post has served an important role in the Ponca community by preserving elements of the traditional culture through dances and other activities.
The Indian New Deal
A study of Native American communities in the 1920s instigated sweeping reforms in the Bureau of Indian Affairs under the administration of John Collier, Commissioner of Indian Affairs from 1933 to 1945. Through the efforts of his administration, the Poncas and other Native Americans experienced cultural renewal and greater self-government.
Opposition in Oklahoma exempted the Poncas and other state tribes from the Indian Reorganization Act, the cornerstone of the reform effort. Later, the Oklahoma Indian Welfare Act allowed all Oklahoma Indians, except the Osages, to participate in self-government by authorizing new tribal constitutions and forming corporations. These changes led to increased sovereignty and provided business opportunities that the Poncas benefit from today.
Termination replaced the reform-oriented policies of the New Deal era. This policy dissolved select tribal governments and divided commonly held lands among individual members of the tribe. The Oklahoma community escaped this fate. However, Congress terminated the Northern Ponca and divided tribal assets among individual members in the mid-1960s. Recognition was not restored until 1990 following decades of activism.
Settling Ponca Claims
An important legacy of the Collier administration was the founding of the Indian Claims Commission in 1946. Along with over 170 others, the Poncas petitioned the ICC for settlement of claims against the government.
The Poncas filed their claims with the commission on August 10, 1951. Two decades later the ICC awarded $1.8 million dollars for Docket 322, which addressed land lost in the Dakotas and Nebraska in the 1858 treaty. Docket 323, which called for compensation for land lost in 1877 and after allotment, was settled for nearly $1 million; however, the commission did not rule on privately owned land. The ruling on Docket 324 provided the Poncas with over $2,000 to settle accounting irregularities and charges of mismanagement by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Struggle for Civil Rights
Since the Standing Bear case, members of the Ponca Tribe of American Indians have been at the forefront in the struggle for equality and justice for the American Indian. Extending from local to international activism, individual Poncas have been active in all of the major organizations and demonstrations of the last century, including the National Indian Youth Council, the National Congress of American Indians, the Poor People’s Campaign, and the American Indian Movement.
Known for their drumming, dances and songs, the Poncas have a rich cultural tradition. For more than a century, the Poncas have held an annual celebration, formerly powwow, which serves as an important tool for the preservation of traditional language, dance, and song. Since the 1920s, the celebration has been home to the World Champion Fancy Dancer competition. The Poncas received this privilege when Augustus Hurley “Gus” McDonald (1898-1974) won both the straight and fancy dance titles in a 1926 contest held at Haskell Institute in Lawrence, Kan.
Into the Future
Today, the Ponca Tribe of American Indians continues to pursue opportunities for its people in business, education, government, and the arts. While there have been struggles over sovereignty with non-Indians and internal disagreements on government, the nation has persevered.
Improvements in the White Eagle community include new roads, a health center, and plans for a multi-purpose center. Furthermore, the efforts of the Ponca Tribe to improve the community extend beyond White Eagle and benefit non-Indians, too. The Poncas worked with local county governments to replace the dilapidated Arkansas River Bridge in 2004 and 2005.
Following many hardships and overcoming false promises, the resilient Ponca Tribe of American Indians stands poised for a bright future.
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