“I am a man.”
That simple yet powerful declaration, spoken in U.S. District Court in Omaha in 1879 by Ponca Chief Standing Bear, echoes through the annals of U.S. history nearly 140 years later as a defining moment in our nation’s struggles for equality and civil rights.
To commemorate his life and landmark civil rights courtroom victory, a 10-foot bronze sculpture of Standing Bear, created by renowned sculptor Benjamin Victor, was unveiled Oct. 15 in a ceremony attended by 400 people on Centennial Mall. The sculpture captures the powerful image of Standing Bear as he stood in the courtroom with his right hand outstretched, fighting for the freedom to return to his homeland to bury his son.
“The dedication of this sculpture is the culmination of my long-held dream to honor the story of Standing Bear,” said Judi gaiashkibos, executive director of the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs.
Gaiashkibos said that her grandfather Otto Knudsen, the last chief of the Ponca tribe before its termination, lived up the river from Standing Bear in northeast Nebraska and was 30 years old when Standing Bear died in 1908.
“Today, my grandfather would be so pleased,” gaiashkibos said. “I can’t imagine a more beautiful place for Standing Bear’s sculpture. Today is a day to celebrate, not just for the Ponca tribe but for all of our tribal leaders and people.”
Standing Bear protested the federal government’s 1877 eviction of his tribe from its ancestral homeland, but the Ponca were forced to march 600 miles in 1878 to a reservation in Oklahoma. Many tribal members died during and shortly after the Ponca tribe’s Trail of Tears.
Before Standing Bear’s 16-year-old son died on the reservation from starvation, he told his father his last wish was to be buried at home in Nebraska. Standing Bear and a group of men set off to bury his son and were arrested for leaving the reservation. But before they were forced to return to Oklahoma, a journalist wrote about their story and found two attorneys to represent Standing Bear.
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Standing Bear’s 1879 trial determined that Native Americans are “persons within the meaning of the law,” and therefore entitled to the rights afforded to all others. The story faded from our nation’s consciousness and was largely untold and untaught until it experienced a recent revival in books, art, movies and commemorative events. Lincoln native Donald Miller Campbell, whose family had owned the Miller & Paine retail stores, is a Doane University trustee. While earning her master’s degree at Doane five years ago, gaiashkibos told Standing Bear’s story to Campbell. He was so moved that he commissioned the world-class bronze sculpture to honor the chief’s story and historic civil rights trial.
A partnership between Campbell, the City of Lincoln and the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs oversaw the project’s completion.
After being asked to create the sculpture, Victor set out to learn more about Standing Bear. Part of his research included assistance by Larry Wright, the Ponca tribal chairman, who took him to the tribal grounds around Niobrara, Nebraska, where Victor saw the land that Standing Bear had walked.
“Standing Bear held out his hand and touched people,” Victor said. “I’m trying to tell his story, like Joe Starita did in his book, ‘I Am a Man.’ The sculpture project has been very humbling because of the subject it represents. When we compare ourselves to Standing Bear, what do we do that is courageous and helpful to the human race?”
Wright announced that a replica of the Standing Bear sculpture will be placed on Ponca tribal land in Niobrara, “where Chief Standing Bear can forever watch over his homeland.”
In addition to gaiashkibos, Victor and Wright, other speakers at the sculpture dedication were Campbell, Mayor Chris Beutler, Native American State Sen. Tom Brewer and U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry. Lincoln Parks and Recreation Director Lynn Johnson was master of ceremonies.
About a dozen descendants of Standing Bear joined gaiashkibos, Campbell, Wright, Brewer and Victor in unveiling the sculpture.
New Breed Singers and Dancers performed traditional Native dances before and after the event.