Excerpt: Walks on the Ground

The following is an excerpt from Walks on the Ground: A Tribal History of the Ponca Nation, a record of Ponca elder Louis V. Headman’s personal study of the Southern Ponca people, spanning seven decades.


History tells us the influx of many white Europeans seeking shelter and refuge from tyranny in their countries crowded into the American East Coast. It further tells us the Indian Removal Act of 1830 caused the Native peoples to be relocated west of the Mississippi River. This was done many times by force, and many people died en route to Indian Territory. Oral history tells us the Đégihà people had moved before this period from their former lands—the Smoky Mountains to the Atlantic Coast.

After traveling to many places into the north central plains, the Ponca established their territory in what is now Nebraska and South Dakota. Eventually being forcefully moved to Indian Territory in 1876–77, the elders stated they were “captives” of the United States. Although Chief Standing Bear won a landmark civil rights case (1879) in Nebraska, it did not immediately affect other Native peoples including the Southern Ponca. In 1924 the Ponca officially became citizens and had the right to vote in national elections.

It is not clear where the Ponca people were when various federal acts were passed. Such acts as the Dawes Act of 1887 and the Indian Reorganization Act had a direct effect on the tribe. It seemed like a good plan for individual tribal members to have their own plot of land; however, the plan was short- lived once the government allowed white farmers to purchase “Indian lands.” (RDH said purchase of Indian lands was allowed primarily owing to the “ward of the government” idea.) This caused the loss of thousands of acres of land for the tribe.

As the tribe moved into mainstream American, the elders said, President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s brought some employment for the Ponca. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) paid one dollar a day wage to workers from 1933 to 1942. The program employed young men to perform work (then called “common labor”) on the reservation lands and highways passing through the reservation. KH stated the crew he worked with built ponds on Indian lands. But he said some workers did some projects that seemed meaningless. The elders said they camped out where the projects were being done.

In 1933 the Tennessee Valley Authority, a federally owned corporation, under the supervision of the U.S. Army initiated a separate program for Native Americans. It provided some employment for tribal members. Tribal member Louis McDonald assisted in record keeping for that Ponca program. In 1935 the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a national labor program, created construction work. The current Ponca powwow ground’s bleachers were built under this program. (However, in the beginning, the bleachers were built as seating for baseball games.) Although the Department of Labor had programs during the Great Depression, they lasted only a short time on reservations. It is surprising that as the nation was undergoing economic depression, the Ponca economy went up because for the first time employment was available to the people.

The ill-fated relationship of the Ponca with the dominant society is an undeniable reality. Before and during the years of Native American protests, the condition of our socioeconomic status became apparent to all of America. The Ponca people were one of several, if not all, Native peoples who suffered economic depression for decades. Following years of struggle to get a better education, the Ponca became noticeably strong with the younger generations that there was more to living as we had in the old traditional ways. Interestingly, we never knew we were economically deprived.

Following the passing of Public Law 93-638, the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975, federal funding became available. The enactment brought many challenges to the tribe. Under the leadership of Dana Knight, Leonard Biggoose, Ed Pensoneau, Thurman Rhodd, and others, new programs were begun to benefit the tribe. The first and foremost of the tribal programs is difficult to name. Every program or project available was important. Many of the men and women in and around the Ponca Reservation had no formal skills for employment. However, programs that provided employment seemed to be the main objective for the tribe. Under the Department of Labor, the Ponca acquired the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) program, which provided work for low-income families and summer jobs for students. The jobs lasted for a period of twelve to twenty-four months on the reservation and in some places in the general public. The program was supposed to help individuals to move into the mainstream workforce. The program was part of the Works Progress Administration program from the 1930s. A project under the BIA was the Indian Action Team, which also provided work on the reservation. A project called the Jobs Bill, under the auspices of the BIA employment/training program, was a disaster for the Ponca.

Before the passing of the Self-Determination Act, some established federal programs were implemented in other cities and communities. As tribal leaders became of aware of such projects and programs, they began to make applications for federal assistance. Under the federal Housing and Urban Development program, Delphine Cerre Rhodd initiated the Ponca housing project. Genevieve Pollak and Bill Stabler did a survey for an elderly meals program, which provides meals for the elderly. Maynard Hinman wrote the proposal for the food distribution program, which in its first years also served the Osage Nation. The tribe contracted the BIA higher education program in late 1970s, and I wrote the proposal for the tribe. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act provided means to repatriate human remains and tribal artifacts. That project was funded under the National Park Service. The Indian Child Welfare program too serves the people. Each of these programs and projects still serve their purposes.

In the early 1980s tribal chairman Dr. Sherman Warrior initiated a high-stakes gambling operation. With the help of RDH, who was well-versed in federal and Indian law, the tribal council began a bingo operation that ultimately developed into a casino. It is believed to be the first Indian casino in the nation, except for the casino of the Seminole Tribe of Florida. Casino-type gambling brought all sorts of problems for the federal and state governments. They scrambled to establish a stance to take on high-stakes gambling on Indian reservations in Oklahoma. Somehow the state wedged itself between the tribes and the federal government and got its share of economic gain.

Cultural Changes

During a period of cultural change, the Ponca’s economic status shifted toward a more stable condition for the people. It may be that many Ponca recognized the federal programs were the right thing for the government to do in terms of the economic needs of the people. The concern here, however, is that the Native cultural standards began to change. The term neo-Indianism is applicable to today’s nativistic practices. The ongoing perpetuation of Native culture is fraught with vast changes.

Native Ponca culture, like other cultures, has a system that integrates knowledge, beliefs, and practices into the human experience of life. There are simple but genuine religious patterns in the Ponca’s social and material world. These values, attitudes, and conventional practices characterize the Ponca world. This concept of culture was typical for the first and second generations of Ponca in Indian Territory. But as the people entered the white-dominated world, drastic changes began to appear on the reservation as well as in cities where they lived. Even though some have made progress in the modern world, the ever-changing cultural condition on the reservation leaves one thinking that the stability of the old standard Ponca cultural ways has been lost to the past.

One of the things that is obvious in cultural changes is the adoption of “the white man’s ways.” This begins with the loss of our language. Our language embodies and embraces all cultural practices—rituals and ceremonies. This means when our language was still use, we were able to address our human situation according to our cultural standards. Take, for example, the Wá’waą̀ ceremony. Question: Why did the previous generations use the plume of the eagle in this ceremony? As described earlier, the Hįxpé’ is the down feather or plume placed on the Wá’waą̀ celebrant. Why not use a tail or wing feather of a crow or a meadowlark? The answer is, first, they chose the most magnificent bird of prey that builds its nest in a place unreachable by other predators. The following description was given by the elders: At a high precipice, large limbs are built around the base of the nest followed by smaller branches. With the small branches, thorny limbs and rocks were also included. This was covered with coarse weeds and grass. Then the downy feathers of the mother were laid atop the nest. There the mother eagle laid her two eggs. The down or plume is warm and light so as to hide the mother eagle’s eggs when she is away. The elders said, “Wét’a ugđè ke edì hįxp’éte itéđe ną́i. Xiđá mà, gią́ ađé nądì wét’atè ánąxđè egą̀ gáxe ną́i” (The eggs are placed upon the plum-age in the nest. It looks like the eagle hides the eggs [in the plumage] when it flies off ). It also trapped warm air to help protect the eaglets. It also served as a camouflage for the eggs and chicks once hatched. When the eaglets matured, the mother began to remove the down feathers and rocks from the nest, allowing the thorns to emerge. This caused the eaglets to move away from the comfort of the nest forcing them to learn to fly.

So the elders of an earlier period selected the plume of the eagle. This ornament was representative of the characteristic trait of the eagle caring for its young. The recipient of this honor was to live a life of being helpful, aiding the needy, healing the sick, ministering to the downhearted, or whatever the need may have been in the village. Consequently, the individual who wore the Wá’waą̀ eagle plume represented that kind of protection from the elements of hardship and sickness. It gave a signal to others that there was help available from those who wore the ornament. It told others that the one who wore the plume would provide aid when there was a need. This means that the individual had been trained and dedicated to perform those duties as one who was set aside for that purpose.

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