Ponca Chief Standing Bear was a man of compassion and courage. My goal was to create a representation worthy of the man who stood against injustice.
As the viewer stands in front of the bronze sculpture they are drawn in by the strong lines along the weighty blanket. As I worked on the blanket I thought about the arduous journey when the Ponca were forced at gunpoint to leave their home in Nebraska and march to Oklahoma through rain and storms. I thought of the suffering, and the tragic deaths that they saw along the way. Standing Bear’s composure throughout the horrific circumstances is moving beyond words.
I visited the grave site of White Buffalo Girl, the young girl who died along the Ponca trail of tears. When I stood in front of her grave I thought of Standing Bear’s warning to the Government agents that many would die if they were forced to take this journey. I stood silently as I was moved beyond words at the thought of the poor girl who perished because of the inhumane, forced journey.
The intricate beadwork is a reminder of the beautiful culture that was nearly destroyed by the broken promises and forceful actions of an unjust government. The peace pipe axe represents a brave man who wasn’t afraid to fight, but chose to act in peace. The breastplate and bear claw necklace communicate the concept of strength, both spiritual and physical, which Standing Bear epitomized. Finally, as the viewer looks at the face of Standing Bear, with its leathery, sun-worn skin; we see a man that is the very image of fortitude. His intense eyes captivate us as they lead us to his mighty, outstretched hand. His hand reaches out as a metaphor of the challenge that he faced in the groundbreaking court case.
When I think of what it must have been like for Standing Bear to lose his 16-year-old son, Bear Shield, who died in Oklahoma “Indian Territory” it moves me to tears. While I was creating the sculpture, my own son was about 16 years old. As a father, I can’t help but think of the strength it must have taken for Standing Bear to lead on as he mourned the tragedy of his son and so many others.
As Bear Shield was dying, he made a request to his father to be buried with his ancestors in their homeland in Nebraska. It is hard for any non-native person to truly understand the depth of this request. For the Ponca, the animal, plants and the land are an inseparable part of their spirit.
By being ripped away from their homeland, they were torn away from not only their land but their memories and their ancestors. But, the spirit of Standing Bear and the Ponca was strong. He kept his promise to his son and returned to his homeland. The media in Standing Bear’s day told his story. They railed against injustice and advocated for a grieving father’s freedom to return home. His story moved the public, and it is as powerful today as it was then.
We can’t help but sympathize with the man who kept a promise to his son and walked over 700 miles to honor his word. We can’t help but be moved as we read about Standing Bear reaching out his hand in that courtroom and saying, “I am a man”.
We all have the responsibility to stand up, reach out, and lead. The sculpture of Chief Standing Bear serves as a reminder that we must do what is right, no matter the cost. It is a testament to the triumph of his spirit. It is an expressive and meaningful monument for all people to experience. Standing Bear personifies the strength of the Native American people. When young Native children look up to him in the United States Capitol building, they will see a strong, moral, Native leader who stood fearlessly, led courageously, and walked victoriously. It will be a fitting testament to the legacy of Ponca Chief Standing Bear.