University of Nebraska-Lincoln journalism professor Joe Starita spoke March 16 at the native American night at the MRB Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center.
Starita is author of the Chief Standing Bear story "I Am A Man," which depicts the chief and the Ponca's people deportation from their homeland in northern Nebraska to the Indian Territory later known as Oklahoma.
He said the Ponca had lived over 200 years in the region where the Niobrara and Missouri rivers meet and the the land had become an inseparable part of their culture.
The Ponca "sunk very deep and vibrant cultural tap root into the soil of the Niobrara River valley and it began to define them," he said.
He said the Ponca had signed two treaties with the United States, confirming their legal right to the land.
By 1879, the United States had signed 371 treaties with the native people, but violated them all.
When asked "where are your lands? The Lakota Sioux Chief Crazy Horse answered, "my lands are where my fathers are buried," Starita said.
"Ponca culture was interwoven to the land and it was their religion. Their religion was their way of life. The two were inseparable," he said.
In 1877, the 750 people of the tribe were ordered to take a 55-day, 550-mile march in the snow, rain and heat to the Indian Territory.
Many died on the trip and a third died from malaria within a year of arriving. Standing Bear's only son died at the age of 16.
The chief promised to bury his son in the native land and left the reservation without government permission.
Starita's novel depicts the Ponca life, the exodus from the land, Chief Standing Bear's attempt to bury his son and a historical moment when the first Native American sat at the plaintiff's table in a U.S. court.