A statue of Chief Standing Bear at Centennial Mall in Lincoln, Nebraska.
A statue of Chief Standing Bear at Centennial Mall in Lincoln, Nebraska. Standing Bear helped secure rights for Native Americans in the 1870s. Photo by Drake Keeler/NNS.

Stacy Laravie says the history of Standing Bear is a true Nebraska story. 

Standing Bear, a former chief of the Ponca Tribe in Nebraska, was a civil rights leader best known for successfully arguing for Native American civil rights in a 1879 court case. The case, Standing Bear v. Crook, took place in U.S. District Court in Omaha and ended with the ruling that an “Indian is a person within the meaning of the law.” 

An important part of that story is that support for Standing Bear didn’t only come from other Native Americans — it came from all kinds of Nebraskans, said Laravie, a descendant of the Standing Bear and Ponca Tribe historic preservation officer. 

That’s a big reason why she supports a proposal to build a museum in Standing Bear’s honor. 

“If you look back at the flooding and different things that have happened and impacted Nebraskans, you know how we all just come together and help each other out. That’s why I call this a true Nebraska story,” she said. “Because I mean, you see that (unity) and for that time, that was not something that was seen very much when it came to Native Americans.”

Last month, Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha introduced LB1228, which would dedicate $75 million of the $1.04 billion in federal pandemic relief money to the building of a museum in Standing Bear’s honor. The museum would likely be located close to Niobrara, which is the traditional Ponca homeland and where the tribal headquarters are located. 

Wayne said he thought of the idea when he visited a museum at the Crazy Horse Memorial in South Dakota and saw some items related to Standing Bear, according to transcripts of the Feb. 11 hearing. While Standing Bear has been honored in several ways — a lake in Omaha and a statue, park and high school in Lincoln are named after him —there is no museum dedicated to preserving his story. 

According to Richard Wright Jr., director of cultural affairs for the Ponca Tribe, the artifacts the tribe has related to Standing Bear are stored in a community building that was built in 1936. That’s not an ideal location, he said, and the building was never intended to be a museum. 

The proposed museum would help with preservation efforts of those artifacts and others the tribe is still acquiring. For example, they want to have a place to display and preserve Standing Bear’s tomahawk, which is now at a museum at Harvard University. Wright said a museum would work well for that purpose.

“We’re really hoping that we can actually have a place to really house it, take good care of it,” he said. 

Funding has always been the main issue when it comes to preservation, Wright said. While the bill is asking for $75 million, he said that any amount of money would be of great use. 

“If we could even get, you know, 11 million, 10 million, I mean, whatever we can get, we’re going to be thankful and happy,” he said.

Laravie also highly values the preservation of such artifacts. She calls them “heirlooms,” because of the importance the tribe places on honoring their ancestors. 

“We are all related to our ancestors, and to me, it’s like heirlooms are coming back,” she said. “And we’ll be able to provide preservation efforts toward that, as well as protection. And we’ll be able to have more of our history.”

In addition to preservation, Laravie said the museum could help bring more Ponca people back to Niobrara. Her department already had a goal to build a museum in the Niobrara area, and Wayne’s proposal fit into that well. 

“I feel like it would be a good asset for the Ponca people,” Laravie said. “And that’s always first on my mind, the Ponca people.”

More than anything, Laravie knows that the proposed museum would provide a great opportunity for Nebraskans, both Native Americans and non-Native Americans, to learn more about Native history. 

“The Standing Bear story, it didn’t start at the trial,” she said. “There’s so much more about the Ponca people before the trial that many people don’t even know. And even Ponca members themselves do not know how extraordinary our whole history has been, and that goes all the way back, hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years before we were ever in Nebraska.”