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NEAR WYMORE -- The days must have been hotter, longer than anyone on this pleasant spring morning could begin to imagine.

Ryan Christensen knows he could never fully understand what the Poncas experienced on that long march south to Oklahoma from northeastern Nebraska, so he doesn’t try.

But he’s glad to be walking on this graveled former rail line near the path Chief Standing Bear once traveled.

“It’s more just like an educational experience for me,” the 19-year-old English student said. “It kind of gives you a different perspective.”

Nearly a dozen Peru State College students walked along the Chief Standing Bear Trail south of Wymore on Thursday, a field trip for a class that has spent much of the spring semester learning about Standing Bear’s quest for home and justice.

In 1877, Standing Bear led his people on a forced march to Oklahoma from their home in northeast Nebraska. Later, he would return to Nebraska with some members of his tribe. He was captured by the Army but was allowed to fight for his freedom in court.

Standing Bear's trial in 1879 led to him becoming the first Native to be legally recognized as a person.

For Peru State professor Sara Crook, Judge Elmer Dundy’s decision was monumental, marking one of the first times a Native received justice in a court.

“He had his day in court, for the first time ever,” she said. “That happened in Nebraska.”

Crook has taught the History of Nebraska course at the college since she started working there in 1984. About two years ago, she began requiring students to read “I Am a Man,” a book by Lincoln author Joe Starita.

Crook has hosted the Trails and Tales tour of historic sites for teachers for several years and decided it was time to give her undergraduate students an opportunity to directly experience what they were learning about in the classroom. A grant from Peru State helped her pay the students’ costs for the two-day trip, which began Thursday.

The group started in Barneston, at the southern end of the Poncas’ journey through eastern Nebraska, and headed north along the Standing Bear Trail with stops planned at Genoa, Neligh and Niobrara.

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They planned to visit the burial site of White Buffalo Girl, Standing Bear’s daughter, who died in 1877 on the journey south to Oklahoma. Her body rests in a cemetery in Neligh.

The students also planned to visit the Ponca Tribal Museum and Library in Niobrara and the General Crook House Museum in Omaha and have dinner Friday night with historical re-enactors portraying Standing Bear and Gen. George Crook, the Army officer who captured him and later became one of his chief advocates.

Peru State student Halsey Volkmer, 19, said she was surprised to learn the general actually wanted Standing Bear to name him as the defendant in Standing Bear's petition for freedom.

“That was just really fascinating,” she said.

The Thursday morning leg of the students’ journey involved walking part of the former Homestead Trail that runs from Lincoln south to Marysville, Kansas.

About a month ago, the Nebraska Trails Foundation changed the name of a section of the trail from south of Beatrice to the Kansas border to the Chief Standing Bear Trail, said foundation vice president Ross Greathouse.

Efforts to honor Standing Bear's achievements are advancing on the national front as well.

On Thursday, a congressional committee advanced a bill that directs federal officials to study the possibility of designating the Chief Standing Bear National Historic Trail. U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry introduced the Standing Bear Trail bill, which still must be approved by the full House.

Sen. Deb Fischer has introduced similar legislation.

As he walked the old rail line Thursday, Christensen expressed admiration for Standing Bear and his courage in fighting the U.S. government to gain his freedom. He said it must have been difficult for someone from a tribal culture to navigate a judicial proceeding.

“He was a person of both worlds,” he said.

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7225 or kabourezk@journalstar.com. On Twitter @LJS_Abourezk.

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I'm a Journal Star night editor and father of five.

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