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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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. In addition, the Poncas announced
plans for a new Ponca City casino in early 2005.
Following many hardships and overcoming false promises, the
resilient Ponca Tribe of American Indians stands poised for a bright