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It’s been 140 years since the Ponca Tribe made the tearful walk to Oklahoma, and dozens of Ponca marked that anniversary with a stop in Neligh as part of their 282-mile Remembrance Walk.
With large flakes of snow coming down Sunday, mixing with rain and 30-degree temperatures, the Ponca Tribe walked the same steps that their ancestors walked. Cold, wet and hungry, the Ponca found warmth in Neligh in the early evening, again just as their ancestors had.
“The Ponca Tribe and the Neligh community have a long history together,” said Ponca Tribe of Nebraska Chairman Larry Wright Jr. “Unfortunately, it’s not one of the happier times in our nation’s history, but it is something that’s always been there. In other places, they
haven’t taken care of one of our own like you have for all of these generations.”
The walk was more than just about history for one of the young Poncas, who happens to make his home in Antelope County. For 10-year-old Isaak Matthew Birdhead Maxwell, it was an opportunity to learn about his heritage firsthand since he lives with his adoptive parents Matt and Gwen Maxwell in Orchard.
On Sunday, Isaak was allowed to carry the staff during the walk, which is sacred to the Poncas. It was not allowed to touch the ground and no one could walk in front of the one carrying the staff.
“I felt more like I belong there, and that they’re my people and my relatives,” Isaak said after spending several days with the Ponca Tribe. “I went to some Pow Wows when I was real young, but this is the most involved experience I’ve had.”
It was an incredible lesson of Heritage, said Isaak, who is a fourth-grader at Clearwater-Orchard. Until the Remembrance Walk, Isaak said he had never heard the story of White Buffalo Girl or knew she was buried in Neligh.
It was 140 years ago that the citizens of Neligh committed to burying and caring for White Buffalo Girl’s grave. To this day, her grave has flowers on it year round. That respect was commended by Wright and many others on Sunday as he presented a plaque to City of Neligh Mayor Joe Hartz in honor of the relationship.
“This being the 140th anniversary of our tribal leaders being moved to Oklahoma, it’s only fitting that we’re here tonight and sharing this with all of you and having you take us in and take care of us,” Wright told the crowd in Riverside Park. “This is one stop in that journey, and it’s always prideful to know that grave is still there, still taken care of and know people keep coming back to pay their respects.”
Hartz reminded everyone that the conditions 140 years ago were very similar to those on Sunday - rainy, snowy, cold and windy.
Miserable conditions that would bring anyone to tears without the immense heartache and suffering the Poncas were also experiencing.
When asked to help the tribe 140 years, Hartz said Neligh citizens never hesitated, just like they don’t hesitate today in contining to care for White Buffalo Girl.
“Thanks for doing what you are to help recognize the history that has occured in your nation,” Hartz said. “And thanks for coming here to Neligh and sharing with us. It’s very important to us that you’re a piece of who we are, so thank you for doing this. We very much appreciate you.”
The Poncas arrived in Neligh at about 4 p.m. Sunday and were greeted by City of Neligh officials, the Neligh Chamber of Commerce, Antelope County Historical Society and Thrivent Financial. They were treated to warm meal and shelter in Riverside Park before moving to the American Legion for a warm place to sleep.
Despite the snow on Monday morning, the tribe walked to White Buffalo Girl’s grave to pay their respects. They then continued on their 282-walk remembrance walk, which began on Saturday in Niobrara and will conclude on May 11.
The route will closely retrace thate of tribe’s forced removal from its homelands in the 1870s. There will be a deed signing ceremony May 11 in Barneston where the tribe will receive ownership of a 19.5-mile segment of the Chief Standing Bear Trail from the Nebraska Trails Foundation and the Homestead Conservation and Trails Association.
“As we mark the 140th anniversary of the forced removal of the Ponca Nation, we honor our ancestors who have gone before us and commemorate their sacrifice and loss while also celebrating where we are as a nation today and look forward for our future generations,” Wright said.
Among those generations are young Isaak Matthew Birdhead Maxwell, who proudly speaks of “Birdhead” as his Ponca name, which he said means eagle and is a prestigious name. Ponca through his biological father, Isaak said he learned a great deal about his heritage as he walked beside other Poncas.
He said the most important lesson he learned from the Poncas was the respect they have for their elders. Although it’s something all parents teach, Isaak experienced it in a different way during the Remembrance Walk.
“You have to know all of your people and your ancestors are important,” he said. “Elders are more important than anything. They do everything before us — eat, walk, everything. Your elders are important.”
His mother, Gwen, said the family wants Isaak to know his heritage and be part of the Ponca Nation.
“I was thrilled when he received the letter,” Gwen said. “We made a commitment when we adopted Isaak to keep his heritage a part of who he is. This was great for him.”