Published On: Thu, Jun 15th, 2017

Freeman takes part in 12-day Ponca march

LAUREL — An unimaginable piece of American history was revisited recently.
In 1877, after many broken treaties and land swaps, the Ponca Sioux Tribe were forced to leave their land in Nebraska and moved to “Indian Territory” what is now known as Oklahoma.
The Ponca Tribe, known as a peaceful and friendly people were physically forced by the United States Army to leave their reservation by wagon and on foot. They marched over 280 miles, which took almost two months. The Ponca tribe dealt with horrific situations, which included bad weather, diseases that claimed many people, even innocent children.
The route the tribe was forced to march is also known as the “Ponca Trail of Tears.”
In late April and early May, the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska held the Ponca Remembrance Walk commemorating the route the Ponca Tribe took when they were forced from their land 140 years ago.
Dwayne Freeman, retired Laurel barber, found out about the walk, and thought it was something he wanted to take part in.
“I’m retired, I like to walk, I lived in Niobrara and I am very sympathetic to the Ponca Tribe, “said Freeman.
On April 29, with a few of his belongings, Freeman arrived in Niobrara for the start of the 12-day walk.
The walk started with a ceremony of Tribal Elders taking the first steps of the walk. The Ponca Tribe of Oklahoma, known as the Southern Poncas came and brought water from their land and put it in a jar and water was taken from the Niobrara River from the Northern Poncas and placed in a jar. These jars were carried in a bucket by women during the entire walk wearing a special skirt. At the end of the walk, the water from the north and south were combined to show connection of both tribes and poured in different rivers.
“This was a sign of life, water gives life and women give life,” said Freeman.
A traditional Native American Staff made from buffalo hide and eagle fathers was carried in front of the walkers. No one ever walked in front of the staff. People would take turns carrying the staff, it led the walk.
According to Freeman there were 275 people signed up for the walk. No one was required to walk the entire time. The walk was not designed to walk every step. It was to remember their ancestors and what they went through. People walked when they could. There were 15 people that walked the entire time. There was a trolley that followed behind for people when they got tired.
During the walk, they stopped in Verdigre, Neligh, Newman Grove, Genoa, Columbus, David City, Seward, Milford, Crete, De Witt, Beatrice and the final destination was Barneston.
Each night the walkers stayed in a different town. Some stayed in tents or campers, while some traveled back home. Communities provided shelter on five nights when the weather was not good by having them stay in community centers or vet’s clubs.
“On the second day we got rained on, then snowed on, it was a miserable day. The youngsters carried the staff that day, they ran with it, and we got their fast,” remembered Freeman.
Upon arrival to the town, they would set up a tepee and have a bucket of markers next to it for everyone in the town to sign the tepee.
Every town provided supper and breakfast meals for the walkers. After supper, Larry Wright, Jr would give the community a history talk about the Ponca Tribe and the walk and Randy Teboe also assisted in the talks for 12 nights.
“It was amazing to see how many people showed up to listen to the talks. The college in Crete really advertised and had a great turn out,” said Freeman.
Dwayne reminisced about how wonderful the people were and how they treated him. “The Poncas really welcomed me, I felt honored. I was the oldest walker and the only non-native that didn’t have a connection to the tribe, they told me I was one of the elders. I felt funny at first. At mealtime or gatherings, I was the first in line.”
Dwayne was even involved in smoking a peace pipe. The peace pipe was used on special occasions or at grave sites. They used tobacco in their peace pipes. “Their ancestors are part of their life. They would use this to honor them. I just puffed on it and blew it right out,” said Dwayne. “We also had a smudge pot. It was a big tin can with dried plants in it and it would smoke. We would walk up to it and direct the smoke in an area of pain and ask for strength.” This was done before the walk was started each day.
They stopped at grave sites along the walk of people that died in 1877. In Neligh, White Buffalo Girl is buried in the Laurel Hill Cemetery. This is the only grave site that is allowed to have flowers every day of the year. People also leave fruit on the grave and animals come and eat. The little girl was just one-and-a-half years old when she died.
In Milford, at Mount Pleasant Cemetery, Prairie Flower is buried. She was the daughter of Chief Standing Bear, who died from consumption (known in the 1800s as a wasting disease, later called tuberculosis).
Chief Standing Bear fought hard for the Ponca Tribe and was arrested for his beliefs. He fought in a court of law and was the first Native American to be recognized as a person in a federal court in Omaha.
At the Milford I-80 rest area they stopped and dedicated a Chief Standing Bear historical marker.
“This was a huge event. Three senators from Nebraska were in attendance including Senator Tom Brewer,” Freeman said.
The Pine Ridger reservation native is the only Native American Senator in Nebraska. He also is a recipient of the purple heart during his 36 years of service in the armed forces. He was very instrumental in the closing of four bars recently in Whiteclay on the Nebraska side of the Pine Ridge.
The Ponca Remembrance walk ended with a ceremonial dedication in Barneston. The Nebraska Trails Foundation and the Homestead Conservation and Trails Association deeded 20 miles of the Homestead Trail to the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska. The trail, which extends from Beatrice to Barneston, is now called Chief Standing Bear.
After a long 12 days of walking. Freeman said he enjoyed the trek.
“This is my first walk for a cause. It was special. The whole walk brought light to the struggles the Poncas went through. The people welcomed me.” He was impressed by the tribe’s reverence for the Earth.
“One of the things that gave me a good feeling was the ladies that carried the bucket of water. It was because water and women gave life and connecting the two tribes down in Oklahoma,” he said.
A lot has changed in the last 140 years. As late as 1966, the U.S. government terminated the Ponca Sioux Tribe along with 109 other tribes with 1.5 million acres of trust land.
It wasn’t until 1990 that the Ponca Tribe received federal recognition again. The Ponca Restoration Act was signed by President George Bush into law.
Today, the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska has its headquarters in Niobrara. Since 1990, the tribe has reacquired 413 acres of their lost land.
Freeman hopes his walk of rememberance will help people understand the plight of the Poncas.
“We should never forget what happened to the Ponca Tribe and never allow it to happen again,” Freeman said.