On Wednesday, the likeness of a Native American from Nebraska who arguably is one of our nation’s first civil rights advocates will be unveiled in Statuary Hall in the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C.
Nebraskans should take pride that the statue of Ponca Chief Standing Bear will be joining the other statues of patriots, visionaries and leaders that are displayed in the magnificent hall beneath the Capitol’s dome.
Each state has an opportunity to select two statues for permanent display in the U.S. Capitol.
Standing in Statuary Hall since 1937 were statues honoring Nebraskans William Jennings Bryan and J. Sterling Morton.
Bryan was a well-known orator and, as a politician, he campaigned three times as the Democratic nominee for president.
Morton was a Nebraska newspaper editor who served as secretary of Agriculture and founded Arbor Day.
In 2000, Congress enacted legislation inviting states to request replacement of their chosen statues in the Statuary Hall collection. Nebraska state senators in 2018 decided to replace the statues of Bryan and Morton with statues of author Willa Cather and Chief Standing Bear.
Cather’s poignant writing told Americans about the people who settled the prairies.
Standing Bear’s story is about the people who originally inhabited our state and who, in 1877, were forced off their tribal lands to reservations in Oklahoma. The Poncas were among the dozens of tribes who followed the Trail of Tears to an unfamiliar and unforgiving place where sickness and starvation claimed many of their lives.
Standing Bear’s son was among the Poncas who died in Oklahoma. The chief promised his son he would be buried on their tribal land near the Niobrara and Missouri rivers. He and a small band of Poncas set off on foot to fulfill Standing Bear’s promise to his son. The U.S. Army detained the Poncas in Omaha. A trial ensued in which Standing Bear proclaimed, “I am a man,” and he was declared as human as the white people conducting the trial.
The monumental case — a strike against the ignorance and racism that colored the treatment of Native Americans — inspired Nebraska’s state motto, “Equality Before the Law,” which is carved on the wall of the State Capitol.
As the Standing Bear statue is unveiled on Wednesday, let’s recall as Nebraskans the courage and humanity represented in the statue and the man who inspired it, and ponder what it means to be equal as U.S. citizens. Having journeyed from a place of disease, starvation, neglect and humiliation, Standing Bear proved in a Nebraska courtroom he was as deserving of liberty as any American and is an inspirational addition to Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol.