Standing Bear
The new statue of Ponca Chief Standing Bear at the U.S. Capitol looms as the largest statue in Statuary Hall. In 1879, the Ponca leader was the first Native American to be recognized as a person in U.S. federal court. (Sarah Beth Guevara / Gaylord News)

(Editor’s noteGaylord News is a Washington reporting project of the Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Oklahoma.)

WASHINGTON — A new statue of Standing Bear, a legendary chief of the Ponca Tribe, joined the silent sentinels in Statuary Hall of the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday.

The statue, submitted by the State of Nebraska from which Chief Standing Bear hailed and in which he is buried, sits 12 statues down from the statue of Sequoyah, the creator of the Cherokee syllabary.

Chief Standing Bear replaces a statue of William Jennings Bryan, a former Omaha World-Herald editor and Secretary of State under President Woodrow Wilson.

Each of Oklahoma’s two statues at the U.S. Capitol have indigenous roots, but Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK4) said it is important for Native Americans everywhere to have representation. Other congressmen agreed.

“It is almost unthinkable to us today that it wasn’t until 1879 — after Standing Bear’s trial — that Native Americans were declared to be persons for consideration of the law,” said Nebraska Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE1). “Chief Standing Bear didn’t seek to be a civil rights leader. He simply wanted to bury his dead on their ancestral homeland.”

One-third of his tribe died along the way from their ancestral homelands to what became Ponca City. Among them was the Standing Bear’s 16-year-old son, Shielding Bear.

Shielding Bear’s last wish was to be buried along the Niobrara River in Nebraska. Standing Bear returned to the state to bury his son and was arrested, according to the National Park Service.

His case was brought to federal court where he made a famous speech that Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA12) cited during Wednesday’s ceremony.

According to the National Library of Medicine, Standing Bear held out his hand to the judge and said, “This hand is not the color of yours, but if I pierce it, I shall feel pain. If you pierce your hand, you also feel pain. The blood that will flow from mine will be of the same color as yours. I am a man. The same God made us both.”

Pelosi and other leaders said Wednesday that this speech was one of the key turning points to give Native Americans more rights.

“Everyone (who) comes through here will see that statue, hear that story and be inspired. From every part of the world, people will give witness to him. From all over America, people will see that for generations to come,” Pelosi said.

Standing Bear
U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi discusses the life of Ponca Chief Standing Bear on Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2019, in Statuary Hall in Washington. (Sarah Beth Guevara / Gaylord News)

Tom Cole: Standing Bear statue ‘tells a very powerful story’

The statue of Standing Bear becomes the 68th piece of art depicting Indigenous people out of nearly 8,000 at the Capitol, according to the Architect of the Capitol. Only six of those depictions are statues.

Cole, a member of the Chickasaw Nation, praised Standing Bear’s story and statue.

“The dominating force of the Statue, it is beautiful, and tells a very powerful story most Americans don’t know very much about,” Cole said. “Most Americans and even Oklahomans don’t know that most Indians didn’t have the right to vote until 1924. And the last Indians to get the right to vote were actually in New Mexico in 1962. So it’s been a long struggle for Native Americans.”

Cole said the statue is the largest and the most impressive in the room.

One of the attorneys who organized Standing Bear’s statue dedication, Katie Brossy, brought her 6-year-old son with her to see Wednesday’s dedication.

“The first thought that came to me that my children will be able to see one of our Ponca leaders here in the United States Capitol, and I just can’t tell you how much that means to me,” said Brossy.

She said Native Americans are often thought of as an “invisible race,” but she hopes the statue will help people think twice and remember that Native Americans are still here.

A movement starting in the late 1990s encouraged states to review their status in hopes of getting more diverse representation in the statues at the Capitol. Each state is allowed to have two statues placed in the Capitol. An early change involved adding Rosa Parks’ statue in 2013, although the plans for the installation began before 2006, according to the U.S. Government Printing Office.

Currently, the U.S. government recognizes two Ponca tribes: the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska and the Ponca Tribe of Indians of Oklahoma.