By: U.S. Senator Deb Fischer

Native Americans are an important part of our state’s rich cultural heritage. For thousands of years, several different tribes – descendants of the Plains Indians—inhabited the land that is now within our state boundaries.

One of Nebraska’s most famous Native Americans was Chief Standing Bear, a 19th century leader of the Ponca Tribe.

In 1877, Standing Bear and the Poncas were forced to relocate from their land in northeast Nebraska to Indian Territory in Oklahoma. A third of the Ponca nation perished during the treacherous journey. Among the dead was Standing Bear’s son, whose dying wish was to be buried with his ancestors near Omaha. To honor his son’s request, Standing Bear and other members of the Ponca Tribe returned to Omaha to bury the body on ancestral land.

Because they left Indian Territory without permission, Standing Bear and his fellow Poncas were arrested. Standing Bear found a lawyer and argued that Native Americans had legal rights, including the right of habeas corpus, a constitutional right preventing anyone from being held without a trial. In a historic ruling, a federal judge found that Native Americans also possessed the inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

By attempting to fulfill his dying son’s last wish, Chief Standing Bear set upon a path to recognize the dignity inherent with his people, and established himself as a major figure in the American struggle for civil rights.

To honor this legacy, Senator Johanns and I introduced legislation to require the Department of the Interior to explore the possibility of creating a Chief Standing Bear National Historic Trail. The legislation is similar to a bill Congressman Jeff Fortenberry introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives.

As a member of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, I also have the opportunity to work on other unique issues facing the Native American community. I have enjoyed working with Senator Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), another member of the committee, to identify solutions to address the challenges facing Native American children in Nebraska and across the country. I believe the limited access to opportunity for children in these communities is simply unacceptable.

That’s why I’m cosponsoring Heitkamp’s legislation, the Alyce Spotted Bear and Walter Soboleff Commission on Native Children Act. This bill uses existing funding to create a national Commission on Native American Children. The commission would be tasked with conducting a comprehensive study of current federal, state, and local programs and support for Native American children, who are disproportionately impacted by poverty, child abuse, crime, substance abuse, suicide, and lack of economic opportunity. Its goals are to more precisely and efficiently target limited resources, enhance knowledge growth capabilities, and expand private partnerships in Native communities.

Many Nebraskans do important work every day to improve the lives of their neighbors on and off Indian reservations. I’ve had the chance to visit directly with many of these leaders, including Judi gaiashkibos, Executive Director of the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs, as well as representatives from Nebraska Indian Community College and the Little Priest Tribal College. I’ve also met with representatives from Ho-Chuck Inc., an economic development corporation that is owned by the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska. I’m grateful for the good work and leadership of each of these groups in Nebraska.

I was also pleased to learn that one of my former interns, Alexander Mallory, was named a National Child Awareness Month Youth Ambassador. Alex will receive funding and training to lead an initiative to educate native youth leaders on suicide prevention – a significant problem in Indian Country.

While Nebraska’s Native Americans are part of our history, they are also a key part of our state’s future. As your U.S. senator, I look forward to continuing my work to strengthen all Nebraska communities. Thank you for taking part in the democratic process and I look forward to visiting with you again next week.

Read more at Deb Fischer: United States Senator for Nebraska