A 500-mile forced march from northeast Nebraska to Oklahoma by Ponca tribal members more than 125 years ago could soon be etched into the national consciousness.
Congressman Jeff Fortenberry plans to introduce a resolution that would designate the trail Chief Standing Bear and his people took on their way to Oklahoma in 1877. The trail also would commemorate the chief’s return to Nebraska and subsequent trial in 1879, when he became the first Native to be recognized as a person in a federal court decision.
“I think this story needs to be told and retold to America,” Fortenberry said. “Chief Standing Bear is one of the most important civil rights leaders in our history.”
He said efforts in recent years to increase awareness of Standing Bear’s legal victory and his people’s plight have created momentum that should help gain House approval for the federal trail designation.
A resolution passed by the Nebraska Legislature in June expressed support for the Chief Standing Bear Trail, which would run from the Niobrara River in Nebraska to near what now is Ponca City, Oklahoma, and back to the site of the trial of the chief in Omaha.
The Kansas Legislature passed a similar resolution in February.
Fortenberry said he doesn’t yet know when he’ll introduce a resolution in Congress designating the Standing Bear Trail.
“It might be an extensive process here, but it’s certainly a positive idea,” he said.
He's not sure what kind of federal designation he'll seek, but at least two other national trails that commemorate similar historical events could provide some guidance.
The Cherokee Trail of Tears commemorates the forced removal of the Cherokee from their homelands in Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee to Oklahoma from 1838 to 1839. The Nez Perce trail honors the flight of the Nez Perce from their homelands while pursued by the U.S. Army in 1877.
Both are national historic trails.
The Standing Bear Trail would differ from those trails because it is circular and charts the chief’s return to Nebraska and subsequent trial, said Judi M. gaiashkibos, executive director of the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs and a Ponca tribal member.
“Standing Bear got to come back, and we’re here,” she said.