Ponca tribe travels to Neligh to say 'Thank you'

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May 26, 2011 - 7:00pm



This is a story about a town's promise made to the grieving and aggrieved parents of a Ponca child named White Buffalo Girl. It's the story of how that promise was kept - for 134 years - and of the gratitude it inspired.

Omaha tribe member Dwight Howe put it this way.


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Photo by Jerry Johnston

Volunteers serve fry bread and soup, a gift from the Omaha and Ponca tribes to residents of Neligh.

"In a time when you have to have a legal document to have even the smallest agreement, we are here to thank you for simply keeping your word."

The Ponca Trail of Tears

A long series of events led to a government order in 1877 that the Ponca Tribe be forcibly relocated to Indian Territory, now Oklahoma. In May of that year, about 600 Poncas were marched south from their homeland near present day Niobrara, Nebraska. Black Elk and Moon Hawk and their 18-month-old daughter White Buffalo Girl were among them.

The march had reached the banks of the Elkhorn River when White Buffalo Girl became sick and died. Knowing that there was no time for the customary Ponca burial, Black Elk implored the townspeople to bury his daughter, and care for her as if one of their own. LeVern Hauptmann of the Antelope County Historical Society said the people of Neligh were presented his petition through an interpreter, and they agreed.

White Buffalo Girl was buried in the pauper section of Laurel Cemetery in a grave marked by a simple wooden cross. In 1913, the cross was replaced by a headstone donated by a local monument company. The inscription notes the parents' names, the dates and a translation of Black Elk's request.

Keeping the promise

Decorating the grave of White Buffalo Girl became a matter of town pride for Neligh. The Antelope County Historical Society keeps a notebook of letters, copies of some of the legal documents about the headstone donation, pictures of community groups at the grave. Levern Hauptmann of the Historical Society and Neligh Mayor Jeri Anderson both said the grave is decorated year round with beads, flowers, flags, and crosses. They agreed that it's mostly an unorganized volunteer effort, but some school and community groups also participate. A Nebraska State Historical Marker stands at the edge of the cemetery to tell the story of White Buffalo Girl. Her grave is now surrounded by the graves of other Neligh residents.

It stands apart, though - by being perpetually decorated.

A ceremonial return

The events that lead to the eviction of the Ponca in 1877 are complicated, and so are the modern day tribal relationships. Historical circumstances led to a current day situation where three tribal groups now exist - the Southern Ponca, the Northern Ponca and the Omaha - all of which were closely related at one time.


Photo by Jerry Johnston

Beads and shells decorate the gravestone of White Buffalo Girl near the northeastern Nebraska town of Neligh.

When Omaha member Dwight Howe read Joe Starita's book on Ponca Chief Standing Bear, he was reminded of the grave of White Buffalo Girl. He talked with representatives of the Northern and Southern Poncas, and they agreed to thank the town of Neligh for a long-kept promise. They also agreed that it was time White Buffalo Girl got the customary burial ritual.

The Omaha members supplied ingredients for a traditional Plains Indian feast: hominy, beans, and meat for soup, and fry bread. They invited the whole town to lunch, and to share in the ceremonies for White Buffalo Girl.

Showing gratitude

On a sunny and breezy Sunday morning in the campsite at Riverside park in Neligh, four huge stockpots weighed down a grate over a log fire. As the community feast cooked, Dan Jones talked about why he came from Ponca, Oklahoma to Neligh for the event. He is past chairman of the Southern Ponca Tribe, and Indian Commissioner from Oklahoma. He is a writer, journalist, and filmmaker.

"We believe that our removal is the way that people shouldn't treat other people - and what happened here 134 years ago is probably the greatest example of how people should treat people," he said. "We're here to say to these people we see what happened, we remember it, and we're heartfelt."


Photo by Jerry Johnston

The historical marker at Laurel Cemetery tells the tale of White Buffalo Girl, whose grave has been tended by residents of Neligh, Nebraska for more than 130 years.

About 400 Neligh and area residents gathered in a rustic auditorium/shelter in the park. Tribal members blessed the food, and took a portion to White Buffalo Girl's grave. Cedar smoke and a feather transmitted blessings to the cemetery board, Neligh Mayor Henderson, and Levern Hauptmann of the Historical Society. A communal drum at the center of the room was the focus of ceremonial songs. The oldest Neligh women and man were given a shawl and blanket as a symbol of honoring the elders of the Neligh community.

Then the lines forms, volunteers helped serve, and the Omaha and Ponca circulated in the room with words of thanks to the people there.

Dwight Howe, an Omaha member and one of the event organizers, had this to say.

"You and all your descendants. Taking care of that grave all these years. Of one of our relatives," he said. "I get emotional. I get choked up thinking about it. It's something very meaningful to us. We want to take this time to say thank you to you - Weblaho - thank you to all of you - Weblaho - thank you to all of you, very very much."

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