LINCOLN — The Ponca Tribe of Nebraska will soon take ownership of a ribbon of land that is tightly braided into the tribe’s ancestral and cultural identity.
During a ceremony Sunday at their offices in Lincoln, tribal leaders signed an agreement to accept 19½ miles of a former railroad right of way between Beatrice and the Kansas border in southeast Nebraska. The land holds special significance because it traces part of the path walked by the Ponca in 1877, when the U.S. Army forced 500 men, women and children to march 500 miles to a reservation in Oklahoma.
The right of way will be operated as a segment of the Homestead Trail, a public pathway for hikers, bicyclists and, now, students of history. It was donated to the tribe by the Nebraska Trails Foundation.
“This is just a really special opportunity for the public in general to share in our history. Ultimately, it’s all of our history,” Larry Wright Jr., tribal chairman, said in anticipation of Sunday’s ceremony.
Ross Greathouse, vice president of the foundation, said transferring the segment to the Ponca marked an especially meaningful way to cap a long effort to complete the trail between Lincoln and the Kansas state line. The foundation acquired the 59-mile former Union Pacific Railroad right of way in 2002 and has raised close to $1 million for its purchase, conversion and future maintenance.
“It makes me feel pretty good that instead of taking land away from them, we’re giving land back,” Greathouse said.
The trail will be maintained by the Homestead Conservation and Trail Association, a nonprofit group dedicated to trail development in Gage County. Representatives of the tribe, the foundation and the association all signed off on the agreement Sunday.
The tribe will officially assume ownership sometime this fall, after decking work on bridges is completed and the trail is surfaced with crushed limestone.
The Ponca segment will be known as the Chief Standing Bear Trail, in honor of the tribe’s leader. Standing Bear’s arrest upon his return to Nebraska led to a landmark court decision declaring Indians people within the meaning of the law.
Meanwhile, advocates have been working to persuade Congress to designate the Chief Standing Bear National Historic Trail along a nearly 500-mile path in Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma. The House has passed a bill authorizing a feasibility study on the historic designation; similar legislation is pending in the Senate.
The Ponca ancestral homeland is along the Niobrara River in northern Nebraska. Historians believe the trail closely marks where the Ponca would have marched in the spring of 1877, because military journals from the time describe the path as lying along the Big Blue River north of the Kansas border.
Plans call for plaques or kiosks with information about the march, which the Ponca refer to as their “Trail of Tears.” Wright recently walked part of the meandering trail with other officials and said he couldn’t help but think about the suffering and heartache his ancestors endured nearly 140 years ago.
Nine Ponca died on the journey. Within a year of their arrival in Oklahoma, one-third of the people had perished, mostly from disease. The forced relocation left a geographic split in the tribe, with some members joining Standing Bear in his return to Nebraska.
The ribbon of land represents both darkness and light, Wright said, because the trail runs two ways.
“That was a very dark time for us, a very sad time, trying to get us out of our homeland,” he said. “But here we are, back in Nebraska. We celebrate that.”
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