Geographical region : plains, prairie, South Dakota

Lived normally in earth-lodges (shacks)

Language group : siouan dialect (Hokan-Siouan linguistic stock)


One of the five tribes of the so-called Dhegiha group of the Siouan family, forming with the Omaha, Osage, and Kansa, the upper Dhegiha or Omaha division.

The Ponca and Omaha have the same language, differing only in some dialectic forms and approximating the Quapaw rather than the Kansa and Osage languages.

The early history of the tribe is the same as that of the other tribes of the group, and, after the first separation, is identical with that, of the Omaha.

After the migration of the combined body to the mouth of Osage river the first division of the Omaha group took place, the Osage settling on that stream, and the Kansa continuing up Missouri river, while the Omaha and Ponca crossed to the north side.

The course of the latter is given from the tradition recorded by J. O. Dorsey (Am. Nat., Mar. 1886) as follows: The Omaha and Ponca, after crossing the Missouri, ascended a tributary of that river, which may have been Chariton river, and finally reached the pipestone quarry in south west Minnesota.

All the traditions agree in stating that the people built earth lodges or permanent villages, cultivated the soil, and hunted buffalo and other animals.

When game became scarce they abandoned their villages and moved north west.

On reaching a place where game was plentiful, other villages were built and occupied for years.

Thus they lived and moved until they reached the pipestone quarry.

After reaching Big Sioux river they built a fort.

The Dakota made war on the Omaha and their allies, defeating them and compelling them to flee south west until they reached Lake Andes, S. Dakota.

There, according to Omaha and Ponca tradition, the sacred pipes were given and the present gentes constituted.

From this place they ascended the Missouri to the mouth of White river, South Dakota.

There the Iowa and Omaha remained, but the Ponca crossed the Missouri and went on to Little Missouri river and the region of the Black hills.

They subsequently rejoined their allies, and all descended the Missouri on its right bank to the month of Niobrara river, where the final separation took place.

The Ponca remained there and the Omaha settled on Bow creek, Nebr., while the Iowa went down the Missouri to the site of Ionia, Dixon county, Nebr.

The Yana, who on Marquette's autograph map (1673) are placed near the Omaha, apparently on the Missouri about the mouth of the Niobrara, are supposed to be the Ponca.

If so, this is the earliest historical mention of the tribe.

They were met by Lewis and Clark in 1804, when their number, which had been greatly reduced by smallpox toward the close of the 18th century, was estimated at only 200.

This number, however, may not include those who had taken refuge with the Omaha.

Lewis and Clark (Orig. Jour. Lewis and Clark, y1, 88, 1905) say that they formerly resided on a branch of Red river of the North, but as this statement is at variance with all other authorities, and as the wording of the sentence is almost identical with that relating to the Cheyenne (ibid., 100), there is probably a confusion of tribes.

They increased rapidly, however, reaching about 600 in 1829 and some 800 in 1842; in 1871, when they were first visited by Dorsey, they numbered 747.

Up to this time the Ponca and Sioux were amicable, but a dispute grew out of the cession of lands, and the Sioux made annual raids on the Ponca until the enforced removal of the tribe to Indian Territory took place in 1877.

Through this warfare more than a quarter of the Ponca lost their lives.

The displacement of this tribe from lands owned by them in fee simple attracted attention, and a commission was appointed by President Hayes in 1880 to inquire into the matter; the commission visited the Ponca settlements in Indian Territory and on the Niobrara, and effected a satisfactory arrangement of the affairs of the tribe, through which the greater portion (some 600) remained in Indian Territory, while some 225 kept their reservation in Nebraska.

The two bands now (1906) number, respectively, 570 and 263; total, 833.

Their lands have been allotted to them in severalty.

The divisions or gentes as given by Morgan are as follows, the names following in parentheses being the proper forms or definitions according to La Flesche:

1. Wasabe, 'grizzly bear' (properly black bear)

2. Deagheta (Dhihida), 'many people'

3. Nakopozna (Nikapashna), 'elk'

4. Mohkuh, 'skunk' (Moukou, 'medicine')

5. Washaba, 'buffalo'

6. Wazhazha, 'snake'

7. Nohga, 'medicine' (Noghe, 'ice')

8. Wahga, 'ice' (Waga, 'jerked meat')


See J. H. Howard, The Ponca Tribe (1965); Joseph Jablow, Ethnohistory of the Ponca (1974).



Standing Bear

(1830/34 -1908)

Chief Standing Bear with Western Actor William S. Hart

From the Nebraska State Historical Society Contribution to state. Trial clarified status of Native Americans Years in Nebraska. Approximately 68 years National Contribution.

Trial outcome declared Indians to be citizens under the law; speaker for Indian rights. The trial of Standing Bear, a Ponca Indian chief, in a United States District court in Omaha in 1879, led to a decision by Judge Elmer Dundy that native Americans are "persons within the meaning of the law" and have the rights of citizenship.

Standing Bear was born on the Ponca reservation in what is now Nebraska around 1834, although some sources say he was born in 1829/30.

His Indian name was "Ma-chu-nah-zah, Mo - Chu - No - Zh". Because he showed unusual abilities, he became a chief at an early age.

In early times the Ponca were driven southward by the Sioux. By the time Standing Bear was born they had settled in an area around the mouth of the Niobrara River.

In 1858 the Ponca relinquished all land they had claimed except for a small reserve along the Niobrara. They tried to change from nomadic buffalo hunters to farmers.

n the Treaty of 1868, the government mistakenly included the Ponca's land in the territory assigned to the Sioux.

Following this the Sioux raided the area claimed by the Ponca and many lives were lost.

The government's proposal to end the raids was to move the Ponca to Indian Territory (present day Oklahoma).

In 1876 when the Ponca were told they were to be moved to Indian Territory, they sent ten chiefs with a United States agent to look over the land and its prospects. They were to make a decision for the Ponca tribe.

However, based on what they learned, the chiefs could not make a favorable report, and the tribe voted not to go to Indian Territory.

The government then decided to send the Ponca to Indian Territory with or without their consent.

So the Ponca left on foot for Indian territory, escorted by the U.S. Army.

Inhospitable surroundings there caused many deaths.

Standing Bear and thirty others tried to return to their home on the Niobrara. They were stopped on the Omaha Reservation and arrested on orders from the Secretary of Interior at Washington, D.C.

General George Crook detained Standing Bear and the others at Fort Omaha.

Although they were ordered back to Indian Territory at once, a delay was obtained so they could rest and regain their health.

During this time their story was told to the public by Thomas Tibbles of the Omaha World-Herald.

With the help of Thomas Tibbles and two lawyers, John L. Webster and A.J. Poppleton, (and probably General Crook), Standing Bear petitioned the court by a writ of Habeas Corpus. He appeared before Judge Elmer Dundy.

The government's lawyer was G.M. Lambertson.

Judge Dundy had to rule on whether an Indian had the rights of freedom guaranteed by the Constitution.

The government tried to prove that an Indian was neither a person nor a citizen so couldn't bring suit against the government.

On April 30, 1879 Judge Dundy stated that an Indian is a person within the law and that the Ponca were being held illegally.

He set free Standing Bear and the Ponca.

A government commission, appointed by President Rutherford B. Hayes, investigated and found the Ponca situation to be unjust.

They arranged for the return of the Ponca from Indian Territory and allotted land to them along the Niobrara River.

Between 1879 and 1883 Standing Bear traveled in eastern United States and spoke about Indian rights.

He was accompanied by Tibbles, Susette (Bright Eyes) LaFlesche, and her brother Francis LaFlesche.

Standing Bear won the support of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and other prominent people.

After he returned from the East, Standing Bear resided on his old home on the Niobrara and farmed his land.

He died in 1908.


from Land of the Spotted Eagle (Standing Bear)

The Lakota was a true naturist, lover of Nature. He loved the earth and all things of the earth, the attachment growing with age.

The old people came literally to love the soil and they sat or reclined on the ground with a feeling of being close to a mothering power.

It was good for the skin to touch the earth and the old people liked to remove their moccasins and walk with bare feet on the sacred earth.

Their tipis were built upon the earth and their altars were made of earth.

The birds that flew in the air came to rest upon the earth and it was the final abiding place of all things that lived and grew.

The soil was soothing, strengthening, cleansing, and healing... Wherever the Lakota went, he was with Mother Earth.

No matter where he roamed by day or slept by night, he was safe with her.

This thought comforted and sustained the Lakota and he was eternally filled with gratitude

From Waken Tanka there came a great unifying life force that flowered in and through all things, the flowers of the plains, blowing winds, rocks, trees, birds, animals, and was the same force that had been breathed into the first man.

Thus all things were kindred and brought together by the same Great Mystery.

Kinship with all creatures of the earth, sky, and water was a real and active principle.

For the animal and bird world there existed a brotherly feeling that kept the Lakota safe among them. And so close did some of the Lakotas come to their feathered and furred friends that in true brotherhood they spoke a common tongue.

The animal had rights. The right of man's protection, the right to live, the right to multiply, the right to freedom, and the right to man's indebtedness, and in recognition of these rights the Lakota never enslaved the animal, and spared all life that was not needed for food and clothing.

This concept of life was humanizing and gave to the Lakota an abiding love.

It filled his being with the joy and mystery of things; it gave him reverence for all life; it made a place for all things in the scheme of existence with equal importance to all.

The Lakota could despise no creature, for all were of one blood, made by the same hand, and filled with the essence of the Great Mystery...

The old people told us to heed wa maka skan, which were the, 'moving things of the earth.' This meant, of course, the animals that lived and moved about, and the stories they told us of wa maka skan increased our interest and delight.

The wolf, duck, eagle, hawk, spider, bear, and other creatures, had marvelous powers, and each one was useful and helpful to us.

Then there were the warriors who lived in the sky and dashed about on spirited horses during a thunder storm, their lances clashing with the thunder and glittering with the lightning.

There was wiwila, the living spirit of the spring, and the stones that flew like a bird and talked like a man.

Everything was possessed of a personality, only differing with us in form.

Knowledge was inherent in all things. The world was a library and its books were the stones, leaves, grass, brooks, and the birds and animals that shared, alike with us, the storms and blessings of earth.

We learned to do what only the student of nature ever learns, and that was to feel beauty...

Bright days and dark days were both expressions of the Great Mystery, and the Indian reveled in being close to the Big Holy.