Before I immigrated to Canada, I helped a University of Nebraska journalism professor research a book about Standing Bear, the Ponca chief who sued the U.S. federal government in 1879. Argued pro bono by Union Pacific’s chief attorney, his was a landmark court case — the one that finally recognized American Indians as “persons within the meaning of the law.”
Standing Bear’s story revolves around the government’s order, in 1877, to forcibly remove the relatively small and politically inconsequential Ponca Nation from its homeland, at the confluence of the Niobrara and Missouri Rivers, to Indian Territory, in what is now Oklahoma. The move, bureaucrats believed, would make it easier to transport treaty provisions to the Great Sioux Nation. And so the Ponca Nation came to find itself in oil-rich lands, more than 700 kilometres to the south, which are today criss-crossed by pipelines and dotted with refineries. While some chiefs were content to stay in this new place, others yearned for home. Then Standing Bear’s young son died, with a wish to be buried on the banks of the Niobrara.
It was in the middle the night — the mercury frozen solid in nearby thermometers — that Standing Bear started his long walk north, with the bones of his son on his back. He had almost made it when his small party was arrested by the army outside of Omaha. A sympathetic Union Pacific lawyer filed a writ of habeas corpus with a federal judge who, ultimately, recognized Standing Bear as an actual human being. On the condition that he stop acting like an Indian once and for all, he was set free. And that’s how the Ponca Nation was geographically split between those who returned to Nebraska and those who stayed in Indian Territory.
Researching this historical moment was so compelling because it was also so immediate: I spent hour after hour in the archives, but I also spent hour after hour with elders just one or two generations removed from the events. The professor, Joe Starita, and I made multiple trips in his old RAV4 to visit the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska. We drove to Ponca City, too, to learn from the Ponca Tribe of Oklahoma. And in 2008, he published “I Am a Man”: Chief Standing Bear’s Journey for Justice, which is worth reading.
I made one research trip, an early one, alone. I headed to the annual powwow in Niobrara to interview Rosetta Le Clair, whose maternal grandfather experienced the Ponca Trail of Tears and lived to share the stories. I had talked with Rosetta many times on the phone, but we had not yet met in person. Still, I arrived expecting a straightforward, almost perfunctory conversation — confirm a few details, get a few quotes, and get back on the road.
I sat with Rosetta watching the dancers. We walked around the powwow grounds. We looked at beadwork. We ate some bison jerky. But she kept brushing aside my questions. Yes, we’d get to them, she assured me, just not now. I grew impatient. Let’s just come to the picnic table and talk, I thought. Let’s just get on with it.
Rosetta and I eventually did get to my questions, and I learned more than I could have imagined. I also like to think we became friends, breaking bread many times over the following months and staying in touch even after I moved to Canada. But none of that would have happened if I had insisted on my original timeline, if I hadn’t waited and listened.
The Ponca Nation is unlike the Wet’suwet’en Nation on many counts, just as the geography of the Great Plains is unlike that of central British Columbia. Yet a number of common motifs have lately come to mind: pipelines and petrochemicals, commodities and railroad attorneys, chiefs who take markedly different positions on the existential matters facing their people and lands, calls for the army to intervene, and, above all, the temptation to grow impatient.
Patience wore thin for those Canadians who pressed for the authorities to bring down the barricades that dominated the news before the spread of the novel coronavirus accelerated. Many urged the hereditary chiefs to come to the table, so Canada could get on with it already. But, as Rosetta showed me years ago, there’s something invaluable about waiting, about listening and watching with an elder, about humility when trying to move things along on Indigenous territory.