By CHRIS DUNKER, Lincoln Journal Star

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — For more than eight decades, “The Father of Arbor Day” and “The Great Commoner” have stood solid in the National Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol, representing Nebraska among some of the nation’s most revered citizens.

The castings of J. Sterling Morton and William Jennings Bryan, both donated to the collection by Nebraska in 1937, signify the state’s political history in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The statues were created by Rudulph Evans, the artist who also sculpted Thomas Jefferson for the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C.

But just because they are timeless doesn’t mean they will last forever.

Established by Congress in 1864, the National Statuary Hall allows states to contribute up to two statues to the collection. In 2000, Congress amended the law giving states the opportunity to request new sculptures in the hall.

A bill (LB807) introduced by Sen. Burke Harr of Omaha in the state Legislature would allow Nebraska to recall the statue of Morton, an early governor of the state and founder of Arbor Day and replace it with a likeness of Willa Cather, who he called the state’s “pre-eminent author,” the Lincoln Journal Star reported.

Sen. Tom Brewer of Gordon added an amendment to Harr’s bill, calling on the state to replace the statue of Bryan, a three-time presidential candidate, with a statue of Ponca Chief Standing Bear.

Both Harr and Brewer told the Legislature’s Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee that replacing the statues would better reflect Nebraska’s rich history and diversity.

“It’s not discounting what these other two white males did by any means — they’ve done great things for the state of Nebraska as well,” Harr said during Wednesday’s hearing.

“We are trying to say that we’re more than two elected officials. We are diverse, and there’s more ways to serve and represent the state,” he added.

Brewer, who grew up on the Pine Ridge Reservation as a member of the Oglala Sioux tribe, said the bill does nothing “to change the importance of the two statues” currently enshrined in the Statuary Hall, but gives Americans a better sense of Nebraska.

“To see diversity is critical to understand the history of our state,” said Brewer, who later added that the proposed statue of the Native luminary would be a replica of a 2017 sculpture by Benjamin Victor unveiled on Centennial Mall in downtown Lincoln.

Cather and Standing Bear were named the No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, most notable Nebraskans in the state’s 150-year history, according to the Journal Star.

A 1923 Pulitzer Prize winner, Cather was best known for her work chronicling the experience of German, Czech and Irish immigrants who eventually formed the bedrock of Nebraska’s culture and society.

It’s in those stories that demonstrate Cather’s distinct ability to recognize the “distinct differences of the pioneers without judgment” that put Nebraska on the literary map, according to Peg O’Dea Lippert, who testified in support of the bill.

She said it would also send a signal to the women of Nebraska — who represent more than half of the state’s population — to honor Cather in the U.S. Capitol.

Standing Bear, the Ponca chief who became the first Native American to be recognized as a person by the U.S. government in a landmark 1879 court case, would become the sixth Native American represented in the hall, said Judi gaiashkibos, executive director of the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs.

Honoring him among other great Americans would accomplish Brewer’s goal of reflecting the diversity of both the U.S. as well as Nebraska, gaiashkibos added.

Author Joe Starita, who has written and spoken extensively about the Ponca chief’s journey to bury his son in the tribe’s ancestral lands of northeast Nebraska, said Standing Bear’s story should resonate with all Nebraskans and Americans.

“If you take every value that we hold as virtuous and you compile a checklist — honor, courage, perseverance, hard work — every one of those values you can find in Standing Bear,” Starita said.

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor told the committee Standing Bear visited the U.S. Capitol in February 1880 to testify about the injustices perpetrated upon Native Americans such as himself.

“It would be altogether fitting and altogether appropriate if Standing Bear, some 140 years later, was allowed to return to the U.S. Capitol,” Starita said.


Information from: Lincoln Journal Star,

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