The Ponca Tribe by James H.Howard

                 

Introduction

 

In the past four decades the data of archeology, ethnology, and ethnohistory have begun to provide us with at least the main outlines of what was undoubtedly one of the most highly developed North American Indian civilizations. This culture, which clearly shows its derivation from the high cultures of Middle America, has been termed "Middle Mississippi" by modern archeologists. In technological advancement, social organization, and art it ranks just below the civilizations of the Aztec, Toltec, and Maya.

Middle Mississippi towns were usually built on the fertile floodplains of rivers. Each town was built around a great central plaza or "square ground" where important ceremonials were held. Nearby were huge pyramidal mounds with temples and chiefs' houses on their flattened summits. These mounds, the largest of which are as large or larger than the great pyramids of Egypt, were built up of earth and clay. In some instances the mound exteriors were faced with a smooth covering of clay analogous to the stone or plaster shells which covered Mexican pyramids. A wide ramp or stairway of earth or logs led to the summit of each mound. Also near the "square ground" was the "hothouse," a large, sometimes earth-covered lodge where councils were held.

Clustered around the square ground, mounds, and hothouse were the dwellings of the ordinary folk. These houses were generally rectangular in shape, with walls of wattle and daub construction and roofs of poles and thatch. The chiefs' houses and temples were similar but often boasted elaborately carved interior timbers and roof combs. Around the town there was frequently a palisade of upright posts supported by earthen embankments for protection against enemies.

No less impressive than their architectural works was the art of the Middle Mississippi people. Their pottery-buff, grey, or black in color - has been called the best in aboriginal North America. Some ceremonial vessels were made in the shape of animals, fish, and even human heads. Pots were decorated by polishing, incising, modeling, punctating, engraving, and painting.

Shellwork also was of a high order. Shell gorgets with engraved or cut and engraved figures remind one immediately of the elaborate ceremonial art of ancient Mexico. Gorgets with representations of feathered serpents, eagle warriors, and athletes playing the hoop and javelin game are characteristic. In some parts of the Middle Mississippi territory pear-shaped gorgets in the form of a human face with strange "weeping" eyes have been found.

The Middle Mississippi people were acquainted with copper and worked it into a variety of tools and ornaments. One excellent example of the coppersmith's art is an ornamental plate showing a dancing eagle warrior carrying a human trophy head in one hand and a mace in the other.

From stone the Middle Mississippi people made magnificent monolithic axes and maces that are masterpieces of primitive workmanship. Woodcarving, weaving, and featherwork also were of a high order, judging by the few examples that have survived.

Politically the Middle Mississippi Indians were advanced beyond the level of their neighbors to the north and west. The principal political unit seems to have been a city-state of the type found in ancient Mesopotamia and represented in the New World by the Maya. One large village culturally and politically dominated surrounding satellite villages. We know little of the political structure other than that there must have been some means of organizing cooperative labor on a large scale to effect the construction of the great temple mounds and fortifications. Perhaps a theocracy, with the principal chief and his priests acting as representatives of the gods, prevailed.

The construction of the great earthen pyramids and fortifications and to a lesser extent the elaborate works of art indicate a surplus economy which freed considerable time for these activities. Hence we are not surprised to learn that bottom-land agriculture was the principal economic base of Middle Mississippi civilization. Corn, squash, beans, gourds, and perhaps other crops were raised. This vegetal fare was supplemented by hunting, fishing, and the gathering of wild foods.

Middle Mississippi culture represents the most intensive Indian occupancy of Eastern North America and the highest cultural achievement north of Mexico. Nowhere was there a civilization which developed so rapidly and expanded so greatly in a few short centuries. From its center in the Southeast, Middle Mississippi influences radiated west and north into the Plains, and north into the North-eastern Woodlands.

Although a great deal has been learned about this civilization from the excavation of its sites, its genesis remains a mystery. Middle American influences are clearly discernible in the truncated pyramidal mounds, art motifs, weapons, and pottery styles. Yet, strangely enough, no Middle American trade pieces have ever been fauna in a Middle Mississippian site. Nor have archeologists found the neat string of connecting Bites, either through the islands of the Caribbean or via the land route of the Southwest and northern Mexico, which would show how these exotic ideas reached the Southeast. It appears, rather, that certain basic Middle American ideas, once they were implanted among the Indians of the Southeast, developed there without additional stimulus.

Mysterious in its origins, the decline of this advanced culture is also imperfectly understood. Although De Soto and a few other very early explorers viewed Middle Mississippi culture before the great fortress towns and ceremonial centers bad been abandoned, this culture seems to have passed its peak before the arrival of the White man. The coming of European explorers, traders, and colonists and the population displacement, tribal warfare, and disease which resulted merely hastened the fall of this once flourishing civilization.

No single tribe or linguistic group can be credited with Middle Mississippi culture. It was rather the product of many different tribes and linguistic groups. Among the historie tribes which were, at the time of their discovery, participants in this culture were the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, and the numerous tribes of the Creek Confederacy. It was no mere accident that their descendants became known to the Whites as the "Five Civilized Tribes." They were carrying on, in their tribal life, many features derived from Middle Mississippi culture. Furthermore, their own relative advancement made it easier for them to adopt features of the newly introduced European civilization.

Other participants in the Middle Mississippi culture were the Caddoan tribes of the Central and Southern Plains and certain groups speaking languages of the Siouan linguistic stock. Apparently these Siouan-speaking groups, migrating out of the Southeast and receiving new cultural stimuli during their movements, carried Middle Mississippi ideas into the Prairie region.

Among these Siouan speakers were groups which became known in historie times as the Mandan tribe. Famous for their fortified earthlodge villages, intensive horticulture, and spectacular ceremonies directed by a priestly hierarchy, the members of this tribe became known as the "gentlemanly Mandan" to traders and explorers on the Missouri. They introduced their semisedentary way of life to many other groups in the Northern Plains, including the Hidatsa, and in late historie times, one division of the Dakota or Sioux.

Farther south, in the Central Plains, were tribes of the Degiha and Chiwere divisions of the Siouan language family. The Degiha-speaking tribes were the Ponca, Omaha, Osage, Kansa, and Quapaw, and the Chiwere groups were the Iowa, Oto, and Missouri. Like the Mandan, these "Southern Siouans" brought with them to the Plains certain advanced ideas derived from the Middle Mississippi centers in the Southeast, such as an agricultural way of life, a social and religions organization of a relatively complex nature, and, in the case of the Ponca, the custom of building fortified towns.

Neither the Mandan nor the Southern Siouans carried the highest form of the great south-eastern culture into the Plains but rather a muted, simplified form. Nevertheless, throughout the cultures of all these tribes one can clearly see the impress of contact with the Middle Mississippi way of life.

It is with one of these Southern Siouan tribes, the Ponca, that this monograph is concerned. By the time they were contacted by White explorers, traders, and missionaries, the Ponca had become in most respects a typical Prairie tribe. Yet there remained many elements in their culture, the most notable being their custom of building bastioned earthen forts, which demonstrate their Middle Mississippi heritage. One who fails to take account of this South-eastern leitmotif in Ponca culture cannot, in my opinion, fully understand or appreciate it. Without further ado, then, let us meet the Ponca.

The Ponca refer to themselves as Pònka, and they were known by this name to the Omaha, Osage, Kansa, Quapaw, Iowa, Oto, and Missouri tribes. Many American Indian tribal names have a meaning apart from their mere tribal designation. The name "Omaha" for example, means "Upstream people." If such a secondary meaning ever existed for the name "Ponca," it was lost long ago. Even the oldest members of the tribe do not know just why the tribe is called Ponca.

One fact, however, is certain; the name is not of foreign origin. It occurs as a clan or subclan name among three of the other four Degiha-speaking tribes - the Osage, Kansa, and Quapaw. The fact that the Omaha tribe lacks a "Ponca" clan may have significance because of the tradition that the Ponca were a clan of the Omaha before the separation of the two tribes (Fletcher and La Flesche, 1911, po 41). As a result of the tragic Removal of 1877, the Ponca tribe is now divided into two bands, one in Nebraska and adjacent parts of South Dakota and the other in Oklahoma. These bands are generally known as the Northern and Southern Ponca. The native term for Northern Ponca is Osni-Ponka, which means "Cold Ponca" and refers to the relative coldness of their country as contrasted with Oklahoma where the Southern Ponca are settled. By the some token the Southern Ponca are called Mašte-Pònka, "Warm Ponca."

Concerning the term Degiha, which is the name applied to the linguistic group consisting of the Omaha, Ponca, Osage, Kansa, and Quapaw, James O. Dorsey (1885 b, p. 919) states: "When an Omaha was challenged in the dark, if in his own territory, he usually replied, 'I am a Degiha.' So might a Ponka reply under similar circumstances, when at home." I have heard this term used in speeches by Ponca and Omaha on numerous occasions and its use was confirmed by my informants. The term means "The people of this group."

According to Dave Little-cook, a Southern Ponca, certain Southern Plains tribes refer to the Ponca as Pá-masè, or 'Head-cutters.' Little-cook knew no reason for the use of this term. The anthropologist Alanson Skinner (1915 c, p. 797) states, however: "When an enemy was killed, the Ponca scalped him, then cut off his head and threw it a way. The sign for Ponca in the sign language indicates this custom." Apparently the Ponca, together with the Omaha and Osage, retained the old Middle Mississippian custom of removing the entire head from a slaughtered enemy. A common motif in Middle Mississippi art is a dancing warrior carrying such a trophy head.

The Pawnee names for the Ponca were Rihit and Dihit, while the Caddo term was Tšiaxosokuš (Dorsey and Thomas, 1910, p. 279). James O. Dorsey lists the Winnebago name as Kánca in his vocabulary, compiled in 1896 (ibid., p. 279). In his "Omaha Sociology," he writes that from their custom of sometimes pitching their tipis in three concentric circles, the Ponca were sometimes called Oyateyamni or the 'three nations' by the Dakota (1884 a, p. 219).

Before the 1877 Removal split the tribe into Northern and Southern Ponca, there were two important bands or village groups among the Ponca in Nebraska. The first of these was the Waíxúde or "Grayblanket" band. This band maintained its winter village in the vicinity of the present Northern Ponca Community Building, 2 miles west and 3 miles south of Niobrara, Nebraska. The name "Gray-blanket" derived from the fact that this group was once issued white blankets by the Government. Worn in the dust of the prairies these blankets soon, apparently, took on a grayish cast.

The second band was the Hubdó or 'Fish-smell' village group, who camped about 2 miles east of the present town of Verdel, Nebraska. Their name is said to refer to a year when dead fish, left behind by thawing ice in the nearby river, created a stench in the village that was remarkable even to the strong-stomached Ponca of that era.

The dialect spoken by the Ponca is one of four in the Degiha language (Dorsey, 1885 b, pp. 919-920). The Ponca and Omaha dialects are the same except for a few words of modern origin, such as those for "cat" and "schoolhouse." The other three dialects in the language are Kansa, Osage, and Quapaw. The Degiha language is a member of the widespread Siouan linguistic family. This language takes its name from the well-known Dakota or "Sioux" tribe. The fact that a tribe speaks a "Siouan" language, however, should not be taken to mean that they were politically allied with the Dakota. As a matter of fact most of the other members of the Siouan language family were bitter enemies of the Sioux tribe.

         At the present time only older Ponca use their native tongue in ordinary conversation. The younger people of both bands customarily speak English. They may understand some Deghia, but when addressed in this language by an older person they will reply in English. An informal census in 1961 revealed only 10 individuals under the age of 25 who could conduct a lengthy conversation in Degiha. One cannot help regretting the extinction of this language, which will probably occur (in regard to the Ponca) in two or three generations. It is soft, resonant, yet capable of expressing dramatic action and deep emotion.

The Southern Ponca, as a result of their years in Oklahoma, now speak English with a slight Southern accent, and this has affected their pronunciation of Deghia as well. This fact their Northern kinsmen find quite amusing. Yet the Northern Ponca, too, have changed. Members of this band, when speaking their native tongue, have the habit of interjecting an occasional Santee or Teton Dakota word, the result of their long contact with these groups in Nebraska and South Dakota. Even PLC, the tribal historian, does this occasionally. When asked the Ponca name for the women's menstrual hut, he first gave the Dakota Išna-t’hi instead of the Degiha term Oka-ati.

According to older members of the tribe, the Ponca formerly hunted and ranged over most of the area now known as the Central Great Plains. The Black Hills of South Dakota they knew well, and sometimes even reached the Rockies in their search for game, scalps, and the adventure of seeing new territory. Their mall seat, however, and the area where most of their permanent villages and forts were built, was what is now Knox County, in north-eastern Nebraska. This was the heart of the Ponca domain in former times and is still the home of most of the Northern Ponca. Ponca folktales and accounts of great battles in the Fast almost invariably find their setting in this area.

Geographers and anthropologists agree that environment has an important conditioning effect upon the way of life of a region's inhabitants. What, then, was the Ponca country like? The climate of this Ponca "heartland" is of the general continental type. Summers are long and warm, and well suited to the raising of crops. The spring is usually cool, with considerable rainy weather, and the autumns are long and pleasant, with only occasionally rainy spell. Indeed, the Ponca preferred the fall of the year to both spring and summer.

The mean rainfall is 24.1 inches. About 77 percent of this occurs during the principal part of the growing season, from April to September, a very fortunate circumstance for the agricultural Ponca. In the summer most of the rainfall occurs as heavy thunder-showers, but torrential rains are rare. Severe droughts are almost unknown during May and June, but in the latter part of July and through August the rainfall varies considerably and short dry spells may occur. The annual amount of snowfall varies from a few inches to several feet, with a mean of 30.6.

The Ponca country is part of a broad, nearly level plain which slopes gently down ward toward the south and east (pI. 18). However, the Missouri River is so deeply entrenched along the northern edge of Knox County that much of the drainage locally is northward to that stream. About 90 percent of the land is upland and the remainder is alluvial. The land surfaces range from gently rolling to extremely rough and broken. Most of the upland area hag been rather severely eroded, and this area includes a wide variety of wind- and water-formed physiographie features. When viewed from the crest of one of the Missouri bluffs, the landscape of the Ponca "heartland" is most inspiring. TaIl, rounded, hills slope downward to rich green bottom lands. Away to the north stretches the mighty Missouri, outlined by its white chalk banks, the burial ground of unnumbered generations of Ponca.

Ponca villages, like the Middle Mississippi towns of the South-east, were almost always located on river or creek terraces, preferably at a fork where a tributary entered a larger stream. The gardens were on nearby bottom lands which could be easily cultivated with a bison scapula hoe. The soils of the area, though not equally productive, are as a whole weIl suited to agriculture. The nearby hills and gullies provided both game and wild roots and berries.

Deposits of metal are significantly lacking in this area, but clay and sand suitable for ceramics are abundant at many places along the Missouri and its tributaries. Sandstone, used by the Ponca to polish wooden articles, is widely exposed along the Missouri bluffs.

The principal mammals in the area at the present time are the Virginia deer, coyote, beaver, raccoon, badger, muskrat, prairie dog, weasel, gopher, and field mouse. Formerly bison, antelope, and wapiti were found. The principal birds are the pinnated grouse, Canada goose, redhead, pintail, teal, and mallard duck, coot, mil, pelican, heron, golden eagle, bald eagle, and several varieties of hawks and owls, together with the other small birds of the general Nebraska area.

The fish which occur most commonly in rivers and streams of the Ponca country are the yellow and blue catfish, channel catfish, red horse, buffalo, carp, sunfish, and crappie. Of these, all are native except the carp. Both snapping turtles and painted turtles are found. Snakes most common in the area are the bull snake and garter snake, although an occasional rattlesnake is encountered.

The Ponca country is in the prairie region of the United States. In the virgin areas throughout the uplands and terraces, the predominant grasses are big bluestem, little bluestem, and slender wheatgrass. On the more sandy soils needle-grass predominates in most places. The bottoms support a great variety of moisture-loving grasses, except in the more poorly drained situations, where rushes and sedges grow. Native trees, including elm, oak, cottonwood, ash, hackberry, box-elder, and willow, occupy narrow strips adjacent to the stream channels in all the larger valleys, and walnut was formerly quite common as well. Trees are especially numerous on many of the lower slopes of bluffs bordering the Missouri River bottom lands.

The Ponca territory is a pleasant land, and the many tourists who annually visit Niobrara State Park, a small portion of the old Ponca domain which has been set aside as a recreation center, can readily appreciate the sorrow and bitterness of the Ponca when the Federal Government announced that the tribe must leave their homeland forever.

The Ponca were never, apparently, a very large tribe. Population figures vary greatly within a short span of time, probably because of poor estimates on the part of early observers. Nevertheless, a rough idea of Ponca population through the years can be gained from the various sources.

Will and Hyde write: "The traditions stare that when they reached the Niobrara the Ponkas numbered three thousand people and encamped in three large concentric circles" (1917, p. 39). Mooney (1928, p. 7) gives 800 as the probable size of the tribe in 1788. The earliest historical estimate known to me is contained in a letter written by Esteban Rodriguez Miró, Governor General of Louisiana, to Antonio Renzel, Commandant of the Interior Provinces of Louisiana, in 1785. Miró states that the Ponca then bad "not more than eighty warriors" (Nasatir, 1952, vol. 1, p. 126). Pierre Tabeau says that in 1804 they still bad 80 men hearing arms, "but an invasion of the Bois Brules has since destroyed more than half of them" (Tabeau, 1939, p. 100). The "Bois Brules" mentioned by Tabeau were undoubtedly members of the Brule subband of the Teton Dakota. Lewis and Clark estimated only 200 total population for the Ponca that same year, and this figure appears on Clark's map (Lewis, 1904-5).

Our next estimate comes from the explorer John Bradbury (1904,vol. 5, p. 96), writing in 1819 hut probably referring to about a decade earlier. He stares: "They now number about seven hundred." Edwin James (1905, p. 152), who accompanied S. H. Long's expedition of 1819-20, gives their number as 200. In 1832 Prince Maximilian of Wied, the famous Missouri explorer, visited the Ponca. He writes: "According to Dr. Morse's report, they numbered, in 1822, 1,750 in all, at present the total amount of their warriors is estimated at about 300" (Wied-Neuweid, 1906, vol. 22, p. 284). Gen. Henry Atkinson (1922, p. 10) in a letter written to Colonel Hamilton in 1825, lists the Ponca as having 180 warriors. Dorsey and Thomas (1910, pt. 2, p.278) give 600 as the number in 1829 and 800 in 1842.

In his diary the Rev. Moses Merrill (1892, p. 170) estimates their number as being from 800 to 1,000 in 1834. Seth K. Humphrey (1906, p. 47) notes: "In 1869 their number is given [RB] 768." In 1874 the Government census, quoted by Fletcher and La Flesche (197, p. 51), lists their number as 733. In 1880 Dorsey and Thomas (1910, p. 279) give the number of Southern Ponca as 600 and Northern Ponca as 225, while in 1906 they list 570 for the Southern Ponca and 263 for the Northern band.

The census of 1910 gave 875 in all, including 619 in Oklahoma and 193 in Nebraska. The Report of the U .S. Indian Office for 1923 was 1,381. The census of 1930 returned 939. In 1937 the Indian Office gave 825 in Oklahoma and 397 in Nebraska. At the present time figures are approximately 1,000 for the Southern Ponca and 350 for the Northern Ponca, though the latter group is now so scattered as to make enumeration difficult.

 

ORIGINS

 

At the present time, archeology, "the handmaiden of history," can tell us little concerning the entrance of the Ponca into their historie territory. We can, however, speIl out in a rough way the penetration of Middle Mississippi culture into the Prairie region, in which the ancestors of the Ponca and Omaha were undoubtedly involved. Perhaps the best scheme is that advanced by the archeologist James B. Griffin. He suggests that some of the later Bites of the Mill Creek Aspect in South Dakota may represent the Ponca and Omaha, and that the Middle Mississippian influences which appear in the Plains ca. A.D. 1200-1300 are partly due to the movement of Dégiha-speaking tribes into the area:

As a working hypothesis I have proposed elsewhere that the Mississippi Pattern influences in the Plains were the results of the movements of specific cultural units from the Mississippi Valley. The first of these is strongly associated, culturally, with sites in the Cahokia region. They moved from there into the Kansas City area . . . . Apparently this actual movement of people modified the eastern section of the Upper Republican giving rise to the Nebraska Aspect. Possibly a slightly earlier or concurrent movement from the Aztalan area to the west took place, producing first, the Cambria FOCUB in south-central Minnesota. Then it moved into western Iowa to become the Mill Creek Aspect. The later Mill Creek sites in South Dakota acquired Upper Republican and Borne Woodland traits. These Bites were, one might postulate, occupied by the proto-historic Ponca and Omaha. [Griffin, 1946, p. 89.]

Many archeological sites of unknown affiliation in Nebraska and South Dakota, particularly in the Niobrara area, are claimed by the Ponca as former villages of their people. In 1936 and 1937 the University of Nebraska sponsored summer field parties in north-eastern Nebraska in an effort to delineate the culture of the Ponca as it appears in archeological remains. By doing so, it was thought their claims could be disproved or verified.

One of the prime objectives of this work was the excavation of the famous Ponca Fort site, 25KX1, which is located near the mouth of Ponca Creek in Knox County, Nebraska. This site, famous in Ponca tribal lore, was considered the most logical point from which to begin. It was definitely known to be Ponca by reason of its having been mentioned by a number of early explorers. Therefore, by excavating it and determining what Ponca pottery and other artifacts were like, it was believed that other Bites in the area, by comparison, could be identified as Ponca or the remains of some other group or groups. Unfortunately, however, the work at 25KX1 has thus far raised more questions about Ponca archeology than it has answered.

The Ponca Fort site may be characterized as the remains of a fortified earthlodge village. It is located in sec. 29, T. 33 N., R. 7 W., Knox County, Nebraska. It is roughly 8 miles northwest of the town of Niobrara and 1 mile east of Verdel. The site is on the south side of the Missouri, and Ponca Creek, a tributary of the Missouri, is 2,000 feet north of the sire, emptying into the Missouri a mile and a half to the east. The fort was well situated from a defensive point of view, being located on a prominence, one of the bluffs of the Missouri, Borne 50 or 60 feet above the floor of the valley of Ponca Creek.

The fort has an oval defensive ditch with an interior earthen embankment. This embankment supported, at the time the fort was occupied, a post palisade. The long axis of the ditch or moat is oriented east and west. The fort covers an area of 3 acres, and measures 380 feet east and west and 320 feet north and south. On at least one side of the fortification, protuberances or bastions were built from which the village inhabitants could rake attacking forces with a murderous crossfire. These bastions, still visible in an aerial photograph of the site (Wood, 1959, pI.1), may have functioned primarily to protect the entrance to the fort which, according to J. O. Dorsey's map (1884 a, fig. 30, orientation corrected by Wood, 1959, map 1), was at the northwest end of the village.

Between 1953 and 1955 Raymond Wood, then a graduate student at the University of Nebraska, made an analysis of the material recovered from the Ponca Fort as well as from other purported Ponca Bites in the area excavated by the Nebraska field parties in the thirties. Recently Wood has published on the Ponca Fort site (1959; 1960). He notes that the stockade surrounding the village was composed of posts that were quite widely spaced. Perhaps, in order to provide more adequate defense, logs or branches were interwoven between these uprights (Wood, 1960, p. 26).

Owing to repeated cultivation, no remains which could definitely be termed earth lodges were discovered inside the ditch, although numerous post molds were recovered in the 30 excavation units of the 1936 and 1937 fieldwork. Nevertheless, all traditional and historic accounts of the fort indicate the presence of earth lodges, and the Dorsey map (1884 a, fig. 30) indicates four lodges within the enclosure, the depressions of which may have been visible in the 1880's. Outside the fortification ditch, in natural hummocks or mounds, the inhabitants of the fort buried their dead. The crania from these mound burials show a roundheaded, broad-faced, narrow-nosed physical type in no way different from the present-day Ponca.

The Ponca Fort, or N as it is termed in Degiha, seems to have been the last of its type built by the Ponca, though at least one other is mentioned in the traditional history of the tribe. In my opinion the construction of earthen forts of this fort is almost certainly a culture complex which the Ponca derived from their Middle Mississippi forebears in the Southeast or which diffused to them from this area.

Wood has identified three components at the site, one of which is prehistoric and two of which date from the early historie period. The prehistoric component is identified as belonging to the rather widespread Aksarben Aspect, which is thought by many Plains archeologists to represent the ancestors of the Pawnee, Arikara, and perhaps other groups and is dated A.D. 1000-1500. The second or "B" component yielded pottery of the type known as Stanley ware. Stanley ware has been found at several Bites in South Dakota and is attributed to the Arikara Indians of the latter part of the 18th century. Component B hag been identified, nevertheless, as representing the Ponca occupation of the site.

Aside from the pottery, Component B contained such native artifacts as grooved stone mauls, mealing slabs and mullers, shaft smoothers, grooved abraders, bowshaves, discoidal hammerstones, whetstones, cobble hammerstones, stone anvils, flint projectile points and scrapers, bone knife handles, a bone tube, fleshers, shaft wrenches, scapula hoes, an ulna pick, catlinite pipes and disks, fragments of twined matting, and a strip of bark in a roll. These artifacts, though valuable in indicating the general cultural orientation of the inhabitants of the site, are unfortunately not distinctive enough to specifically identify them, or to connect 25KX1 with other possible Ponca sites.

Numerous European trade objects were also recovered, including iron hoes, a hatchet, metal arrowpoints, coils of lead wire, button weights, pin brooches, and scraps of cloth. With one of the burials a conch shell gorget and a hair pipe were recovered. Finds of corn and beans indicate that the Ponca of this era were gardeners or farmers.

A very curious find from the site is a fragment of a catlinite bannerstone. These objects are usually regarded as weights or counterbalances used in connection with the atlatl or spear thrower, a very ancient American Indian weapon but one retained until the historic period by Borne South-eastern groups. Could this object from the Ponca Fort site represent a ceremonial retention of an old Middle Mississippi weapon by the Ponca? Certainly the bow and arrow was the principal weapon of war and the hunt at this period, and the find of a gun part indicates that the villagers were beginning to acquire a few firearms.

From the large amount of European trade goods present, Wood suggests that the occupation of the site 'by the Ponca occurred between 1790 and 1800, when the Ponca were acquiring huge quantities of goods through trade and the pillage of boots ascending the Missouri. In the last analysis, then, the Ponca Fort site not only teIls us little about Ponca archeology but also presents us with the problem of accounting for the presence of Arikara pottery at a documented Ponca site. Wood suggests that this may indicate that some of the Ponca bad taken Arikara women for wives. As unlikely as this explanation appears at first blush, it may have considerable merit, :for the total amount of pottery recovered was small. Finds of kettle handIes and brass kettle patches indicate that most of the women at the site, even at this date, were using metal vessels for cooking and carrying water. Furthermore, Peter Le Claire, the Ponca historian, states (letter of February 23, 1962) that the earliest Ponca traditions tell of friendly contacts and joint bison hunts with the "Sand Pawnee" or Arikara. Apparently these friendly contacts resulted in some intermarriage. Perhaps the Arikara wives, coming from a tribe farther upriver and hence a bit more removed from the influences of White civilisation, continued to practice the ceramic arts at a time when they bad been abandoned by their Ponca sisters-in-law.

Other sites which may represent the prehistoric and early history Ponca are those of the Redbird Focus, recently described by Dr. Wood (MS., 1956). Here again, however, difficulties are encountered. All of the pottery occurring in sites of this focus is markedly different from that at the Ponca Fort site. These ceramics suggest that the Redbird Focus is related to both the Lower Loup Focus of the Central Plains, which is thought to represent the Pawnee of late prehistoric and early history times, and the La Roche Focus of the Middle Missouri area, which seems to represent another Caddoan-speaking group, the Arikara.

We must say, then, that at the present time the prehistoric archeological remains of the Ponca tribe remain to be identified and that the archeology of north-central Nebraska is still too imperfectly understood to tell us much of the entry and occupation of the area by the Ponca. It is hoped that future research will clarify the relationships of the Ponca to other groups in the area and provide us with a more detailed account of their prehistory.

Since we lack archeological evidence in the form of a neat string of Bites stretching back in time and space to the ancestral homeland of the Ponca, we must rely upon other sorts of data in reconstructing the tribe's past. One line of evidence is afforded by the tribal migration legends. Passed down from One generation to the next by word of mouth, such legends are of course subject to considerable distortion. Nevertheless they constitute one of our best sources for the reconstruction of Ponca history.

There are many Ponca and Omaha legends in the anthropological literature. Most of these agree in their main points, namely, that the Ponca, Omaha, Kansa, Osage, and Quapaw were once a single tribe in the Southeast, and that during the migration north and west the group split up, the Ponca and Omaha being the last to separate (Dorsey, 1884 a, pp. 211-213; Riggs, 1893, p. 190; McGee, 1897, p. 191; Anonymous, 1907, pp. 653-656 ; Dorsey and Thomas, 1910, pp. 278-279; Swanton, 1910, pp. 156-158; Fletcher and La Flesche, 1911, pp. 38-39; Miner, 1911, pp. xvii-xiii; Skinner, 1915 c, p. 779; La Flesche, 1917, pp. 460-462; Hyde, 1934 b, pp. 23-26; Strang, 1935, pp. 16-17; Wedel, 1936, p.3). Many Southern Ponca, Omaha, and Osage interviewed in 1954 confirmed this tradition. Although the accounts agree in placing the ancestral home of the Degiha tribes in the Southeast, they are vague as to the path followed when moving westward.

One traditional account from the Omaha tribe, cited by Fletcher and La Flesche (1911, pp. 72-81), states that after their separation from the Quapaw, the Omaha (and Ponca) followed the Des Moines River to its headwaters and then wandered to the northeast. The two tribes finally settled in a village on the Big Sioux River and lived there until a disastrous battle with the Dakota took place. They thereupon abandoned this village and turned southward, where they encountered the ancestors of the Arikara tribe, who then occupied the historie Omaha territory in north-eastern Nebraska. At first they warred with the Arikara, but later a peace was concluded. During this peaceful interlude the Omaha and Ponca learned to build Plains-type earth lodges from the Arikara. The separation of the Omaha and Ponca supposedly took place shortly after this.

The Reverend James O. Dorsey, for many years a missionary among the Ponca and Omaha, gives a slightly more detailed account of the Degiha migrations, combining native traditions with his own speculations. He gays that the Omaha, Ponca, Osage, and other cognate tribes traveled down the Ohio River to its mouth from their original homeland in the Southeast. When they arrived at the Mississippi some went upriver, hence the name Umáhà (Omaha), which means 'Upstream,' while the rest went downriver, and so earned the name Ugáxpe (Quapaw), meaning 'Downstream.' The former group contained the Omaha, Ponca, Osage, and Kansa. The latter group became the Quapaw.

The tribes which went upriver ranged for a time in the present Osage, Gasconade, and adjacent counties in Missouri. Here they were joined by a Chiwere Siouan-speaking group, the Iowa. At the mouth of the Osage River another separation took place, the Osage and Kansa leaving the main group. The Omaha, Ponca, and Iowa proceeded, by degrees, through Missouri, Iowa, and Minnesota to the pipestone quarries near the present city of Pipestone, Minnesota. From here they journeyed to the Big Sioux River, where they built a fort and a village. Game abounded in this locality.

The neighboring Dakota, however, made war on the three tribes and so they went west and southwest to a lake near the head of Chouteau Creek, now known as Lake Andes (?) in South Dakota. Here they cut the sacred pole, an important religions object, and assigned each clan and subclan its peculiar customs and duties. After leaving this lake they traveled up the Missouri River to the mouth of the White River, where they crossed over to the west bank. The Ponca then went on to the Black Hills while the Omaha and Iowa stayed in the vicinity.

Later the Ponca rejoined the others and the three tribes turned downstream. When they reached the vicinity of the present town of Niobrara, Nebraska, the Ponca stopped. The Omaha removed to a place near Covington, Nebraska. The Iowa passed the Omaha and later made a village near Florenee, Nebraska (Dorsey, 1884 a, pp. 211-213.).

It is not possible to determine the assumed period of these different movements from either Dorsey's account or that of Fletcher and La Flesche. The former (1884 a, pp. 218-222) believed, however, that the Ponca separated from the Omaha around 1390, and that all migrations prior to the separation of the Iowa, Omaha, and Ponca occurred prior to 1673, and that the split between the Quapaw and the four other tribes took place before 1540. Fletcher and La Flesche (1911) imply that the Omaha-Ponca separation was late, hut are not specific. W. J. McGee (1897, p. 191) believed that the separation took place ca. 1650.

Unpublished data accumulated by John L. Champe leads him to date the joint Omaha-Ponca occupancy of the village on the Big Sioux River, north of present-day Sioux City, Iowa, from 1700-1702, and the split of the two tribes at the mouth of the White River about 1715. Later the Ponca returned to the mouth of the White and, according to Champe (cited by Wood, 1959, p.10), the Omaha moved to Bow Creek, near the present-day Wynot, Nebraska, about 1735. This was the location of the Omaha "Bad Village," and it may have been here that the Ponca made their final break with the Omaha.

To the various traditional histories cited above we add another below, prepared by Peter Le Claire (PLC) several years ago. He gave it to me in 1949. This interesting document contains, in addition to the oral historical traditions of the tribe, a great deal of material on the customs, morals, and attitudes of the Ponca of his own and earlier generations. Although we will "get ahead of our story" with Borne of the later historical material included, it is thought best to present PLC's "Ponca History" as a unit at this point as an example of the traditional history of the tribe in its most recent form.

Pierre Le Claire secured much of his material troll a man named M’ázáhadè (Mi-jin-ha-the in PLC's transcription from the Degiha) or John Bull, a Southern Ponca chief (pI.16). M’ázáhadè died very shortly after imparting this information. PLC, in describing M’ázáhadè, said that he was a "good old man," an expert on tribal history and customs, and that he bad participated in the Sun dance.

PLC has elaborated upon M’ázáhadè’s material to some extent, injecting other stories and traditions with which he is familiar. The latter part of the history, for example, incorporates a great deal from published accounts of the Ponca Removal. The text in its present form was taken from a typewritten account prepared under PLC's direction in 1947. He had deposited this for safekeeping with a banker in Niobrara, Nebraska, fearing that death might prevent his being able to pass it on. The text has been unaltered except for a few corrections made by PLC at a later date and the elimination of typographical errors. It was deemed best to leave native terms in PLC's own form of transcription.

 

PONCA HISTORY

By PETER LE CLAIRE (a Ponca Indian)

 

August 26, 1947

December 25th, 1928. A Xmas doings of the Poncas at the agency dance hall at Ponca City, Oklahoma when I visited M’ázáhadè (Mi-jin-ha-the) at his tent in the evening before the dance, this is what he said to me. "There is something that I want to teIl you about the old Ponca history. At the present time there are some of them Poncas are older than I am that are living, but I was raised by two of my grandfathers and this is what they told me and I want you to know it, as we are living a different life now. No more long hair, no more old ways. You can write it on a tablet and try to get something out of it by having it published.'" He told me this three times and I caught all of it; he died suddenly, shortly after.

The Poncas were in a big (Hu-tho-gah) camp and where they were were people of light complexion and these people abused the Poncas and they wanted to get away from them. The chiefs gathered in their tent and prayed and they wanted someone to talk to God, and there was a stranger came in, a chief they didn't know, who Bat in the door. They wanted this man to go and talk to God. There was a mountain nearby and they told him to go up there and talk to God. He went up there and stayed four days and four nights and on the fourth night God taIked to him in his sleep." "You go back and teIl them to cross this and do not look back when you are crossing. Don't take anything, only your doge." He woke up and started home, he was so weak that he just barely made the camp. They wet his lips with water and fed him little by little until he was able to talk. He told all he had heard and they moved. They crossed this water and they reached the end, there was all kinds of fruits and they were in a wonderful land.

They came on each side of the Ohio (Oh-hah-they) River and when they got to the Mississippi River they were on both sides of the river camping and one of the little chiefs from the side sent a word that he wanted war, but the head chief refused and this was repeated four times and the head chief said, "Tomorrow morning we shall have war." Seven of the chiefs in their tents heard a voice from heaven telling them, "Wake up, wake up. Put cold water on the children's eyes so they can open their eyes. There is a man coming. He is light complected and sweating and looking down." He is going to eat from the ground.9 As you go west (It-tah-xa-tah) there is plenty to eat and try everything, as you go, there are animals, in the water there is something to eat, there are birds, there are fruit trees with ripe berries."

They came and lived in Pipestone, Minnesota. While they were living there they found the pipe stone after a hard rain in a deep buffalo trail. They saw the red stone and the head chief was called and he told them to dig it and get it out as God has given us a pipe. The pipe was made there and the stem was made in Ponca, Nebraska. There is a creek they called Ash Creek across the river from Ponca. When they were in Pipestone they started marking their trail on the big boulders. This was done by the Medicine Men. It was a two-toned picture, part of the picture is already on the wall and it is finished and only a few Poncas can see it, make out what it is. We will come to some more of these pictures later. Pa-dah-gah, he was the chief that kept the Sacred Pipe, he was the head chief and handed down to song and grandsons for thousands of years until by some error, it fell into white mans hands.

They moved to another place where the little town of St. Helena is and from St. Helena, Nebraska, to Santee, Nebraska where the old agency is now. On the Chalk rock walls near Springfield, S.D. is one more of the drawings of the Medicine Men.

From these villages, they would go on Wah-ni-sa (Buffalo hunt) up the Missouri River, way in the Rocky Mountains. They say where they step over the Nu-sho-day (Missouri River) they would follow the Rocky Mountains to Pikes Peak and they would come back to Nebraska and they would follow on the rivers back to Wah-ta where Fremont, Nebraska is. From Santee to Niobrara River, here they saw a Pa-gnu-tah dead (an Elephant) and they also saw a prehistoric animal they called (Wah-kon-da-gee).

This animal was of long body, had forked feet, yellow hair, about 8 feet high, and about 40 feet long. They saw this animal go into its hole northwest of Verdel, Nebraska. This place they called (Way-kon-da-gi-mi-shon-da). At the coldest days of the winter it would go into the hole. They found Niobrara River to be ideal place as they found everything they wanted to eat there, in the water, under the ground. They found wild beans and potatoes and fruits of all kinds.

There are old villages up the Niobrara River. There is one southwest of the Twin Buttes where the fork of the two rivers is (Ke-ah-pa-ha) and the Niobrara. The Twin Buttes were the places for the medicine men to perform. There is a cave in the east one there is where they saw a prehistoric animal, the Pah-snu-tah.

Near Verdel, Nebraska, there is a dirt fort (Na-za) where a battle took place 600 years or better. The tribe they called Pa-du-kah. They were from the south. They fought these Pa-du-kah four times and the last one they took a little boy as prisoner from the Poncas.

Very few of them went home. It is said that this boy prisoner came home, he was a good hundred years old. He said he came back to die and wished to be buried where his forefathers were buried at Ma-Ah-zee. This means "Chalkrock-Bank" where the burying ground is, he told his family in the South, sons and grandchildren, and five of them have come back to die and they were all hundred years old. The last one, Gish-ta-wah-gu died early part of 1900. He was so old that he was childish. He would cry for his mama and papa.

In the Big Horn mountains in Wyoming is the best trail marks there is made by the Poncas. It is a circle in the shape of a wagon wheel, rocks laid forming the shape. It represents a sun dance circle. All the colors that goes with the sun dance is found, the Black, red and white. Black represents weeping, and White is their prayers and the answer.

West of this circle is an arrow laid with rocks pointing directly toward it.

In the mountains the dwarfs is found and dreaded as it leads them away at nights and last until morning. "Mong-thu-jah-the-gah" is what they called them.

The Ponca camp is called Hu-thu-gah, it is round the entrance in the east. There are seven bands in the Hu-thu-gah or camp. Each of these bands has duties in the camp. From the entrance left to right are the Wah-jah-ta. Their duty is to watch the entrance, they see who goes out, anyone going out and gets lost, they track them as they are expert trackers.

The next band are Ni-kah-pah-schna. Their duty is they know all about the human head and how it should be dressed.

The third band are Te-xa-da. This band when the camp is getting short of meats they would get their bows and arrows out and make believe they are shooting animals saying "I’ll shoot this fat one."

The band in Center west are the Wah-sha-ba. The head is in this band. He gives out orders. He prays daily.

The band next to them are the mi-ki-Medicine. They know all about medicines.

The sixth band are Nu-xa-ice. They know everything about water and ice.

The seventh band are called He-sah-da. The rain makers they know all about the heavens and the clouds.

In the center of the Hu-thu-gah or camp, all the chiefs have a tent in which they meet and pray. When the buffalo is found they meet with the Buffalo Police and plan the attack, sometimes they plan so perfect that not one of them gets away, some of the sharpshooters or fast shooters kill high as seven buffaloes out of a herd that is surrounded. Most of these men that kill seven buffaloes give all their kill to the needy ones such as the old chiefs and orphans.

If the buffalo herd is far from the camp they would move the camp closer without disturbing the herd, when they are moving closer the Sacred Pipe is taken in the lead. When the herd is killed, they see that all of the camp is supplied equally, first the oldest are taken care of. They get the most tenderest meat.

The Buffalo Police are real strict if anyone disturbs the Buffalo herd before the attack, he is whipped good and hard. The police also keep the camp in order. The commandments are few in the tribe.

 

1. Have One God.

2. Do not kill One another.

3. Do not steal from One another.

4. Be kind to One another.

5. Do not talk about each other.

6. Do not be stingy.

7. Have respect for the Sacred Pipe.

 

They have the Sun-dance in mid-summer when the corn is in silk. The dance lasts four days and four nights without drink, sleep, and without food, a real sacrifice. The dancers are in the shape of a wheel or representing the four winds they would swing every so often. The next branch of the sun dance is the Wah-Wan Pipe dance anyone in the tribe that is needy makes a little bag of tobacco and bands it to anyone that has plenty and have things to spare and if this man accepts this bag of tobacco the dance is given, a pipe and gourd is used. The gourd has a rattle, little stones inside and it keeps time of the drum and the pipe on the left hand." While the dance is on, it is passed on to anyone that wanted to dance with it and help give things to the needy ones.

When the Hu-thu-gah camp is moving the lire is kept alive in their travel. A dry oak with bark on is used, inside of the bark where the worms has eaten it leaves a powdered trail. This powder is lighted, the bark over it where the breeze keeps it alive until the next stop is reached. They use rotted grass and powdered ash wood that is rotted. The lire is made by blowing on it.

To start a new fire, the stem of a soap weed is used, fine sand, rotten powdered ash wood, and rotted dry blue stern grass, this is put on a flat rock, they rub with the big end on the rock where the powdered stuff is with a cupped hand over it until the flame is started and lire is made.

The arts of pottery and arrowhead making are lost. It is said they are very few of them that can make them. They say it was a gift of God to make them and they passed on with the secret. There is a butte east of Pikes Peak where they make supplies of it, and left there for the next trip. The Ponca is very strict with the history. Anyone making a mistake is corrected by groups of old men.

There is a place between the Black Bills and the Rocky Mountains where the tribe split in two. They were passing sinew around the camp and home of them were left out as the sinew didn't go around the camp and this caused them to get sore and they sided in with them until they were equally divided and the sore bunch pulled for the North and this bunch are found in Canada. Days and days passed. Finally they got tour of the best trackers on their trail and the trail went straight north. It means no turning, and they came back and told what it means. This place is so far back that the oldest men cannot remember the exact spot.

In one of their trips to Pikes Peak one man stayed and farmed by the name of Tah-ha-wah-ti. He stayed there, raised corn, and stored it until they came again. This place is known as Tah-hah-wah-ti-hah-ah. It means "where the man farmed." This place is also too far back, and the exact place is forgotten. It is said that this place is between the Black Bills and the Rockies.

The wind cave in the Black Bills was found by the Poncas. It is called the hill that sucks in or the hill that swallows in. Pah-hah-wah-tha-hu-ni.33

How squaw corn was found. The camp was between two creeks. To the mouth of these creeks there came seven buffaloes and disappeared at the mouth. They were quickly surrounded and closed in on them, but there is no buffaloes to be found, but there were seven buffalo manures and they were tiny little plants on them.34 The head chief was called to see them and he came and saw them, he said let them grow and get ripe as God has given us some kind of fruit, we will move camp and when they are ripened we will come back. When they came back there stood the stalks and still they didn't know what they were. There was a man in the camp they called Mi-sah, this means "Smarty" or blowhard. He husked one of the ears and started a fire, he roasted it and ate some of it and said it is good. We call it Wah-tan-zee. The head chief said pick it all and pass it around camp, we will plant it in the Spring. There were four colors of it, red, white, blue, and yellow. After they started to plant it the Police were asked to watch it. No one is allowed to go near it, even the owners are kept away, until it is ripe and ready to be prepared for winter use.

The best dance is called Hay-thu-schka, known as the war dance; it is said that any one that is not well and feeling bad and anyone that is mourning, the sound of the drum will revive them and make them happy.

Long time ago before there were any kind of cut beads and bells there was another man they called Mi-sah (Smarty or blowhard) as he is known made remarks that he is going to have shiny beads, bells, and nice blankets on some day and all the girls will admire him while he is dancing. This dance ends up in prayers.

While the Ponca were living in their village near the town of Niobrara, there came wagons drawn by oxen they called them Monmona.35 They were real friendly people. They camped near the little channel on the west side of it,36 and stayed one year 1846 and one day chief Wah-gah-sah-pi told them of a good place out west part of his hunting ground, he told them that they might find a place that will suit them.

In the Spring of 1847 they moved on their way out west. All of the old people hold this meeting of the Mormons as a sacred thing, even of the present day. The younger ones feel the same.37 When the Great Sioux Treaty of 1868 was made at Fort Laramie by some blunder that no one has ever been able to explain, the whole Ponca reservation which has been guaranteed to the tribe over and over again in repeated treaties with the National Government was given to their deadly enemies the Brule and Ogalala Sioux. Soon their enemies understood that the Ponca Territory had been given them by this treaty, their raids became more fierce and frequent. The seven years that followed this treaty were years when the Poncas were obliged to work their gardens and cornfields as did the Pilgrims in New England or the early settlers of Kentucky with hoe in one hand and rifles in the other. In 1876 Congress passed an act providing for the removal of the Poncas to Indian Territory in Oklahoma without their consent.

In the Spring of 1877 the Poncas were busy putting away their crops, many put in their corn and were engaged in gardening. A force of soldiers arrived and orders were sent out for all the Indians to prepare to move at once to Indian Territory but they were taken to Baxter Springs, Kansas where there was nothing but rocks and the Poncas didn't like the place at all. There were heartbreaking scenes in the little tribe. The Niobrara and Ponca had been their home for so long they knew no other. The graves of a dozen generations were there. The little fields were to be left. There were tears in the teepees and hot words in the councils. The cooler heads prevented an outbreak and so the long march to the South began. Arriving in their new home, the warm moist climate, so different from the dry bracing air of their Nebraska home, brought on sickness.

Out of seven hundred and ten, one hundred and fifty-eight died the first year.

Homesickness worst of all diseases in misery that it carries was in every lodge. In the midwinter of such a scene of wretchedness, Chief Standing Bear's oldest son died and the boy wanted to be buried in Nebraska and the chief with a little band slipped away from the reservation and turned their faces to the North. Seven of the party were very sick when they started. They were 10 weeks on the road and arrived, ragged and nearly starved at the Omaha Agency which was part of the Ponca territory in March. Their presence there was reported to Washington by the Agent and on request of the Secretary of Interior Carl Shiery, the commanding officer at Omaha, General Crook, was ordered to arrest them and return them under military guard to Indian Territory. When the party was brought to Omaha, March 26, 1879, the news of their misfortunes became known and in their behalf was brought one of the most important law suits to determine the status of Indians ever tried. Friends of the prisoners induced John L. Webster and A. J. Poppleton to volunteer their services in their behalf. This was the case of Standing Bear, versus George Crook, Brigadier General of the United States Army and asked that a writ of habeas corpus be issued to restore them to the liberty of which they had been unjustly deprived.

The case was ordered by Webster and Poppleton for the Poncas and the U.S. District Attorney Lamberton for the Government. The great issue raised was whether Indians were citizens and as such entitled to the protection of the constitution and laws of the U.S. Judge Dundy did not decide this question in his opinion, but held that an Indian was a person within the meaning of the law and had therefore the right to habeas corpus; that in addition an Indian had the right to serve his tribal relations and that Standing Bear and party having done this could not be imprisoned without trial and were entitled to their liberty. Standing Bear and his band remained in Nebraska.

 

All the chiefs that signed the treaties are as follows:

 

 

1817

Handsome Man

Rough Buffalohorn

Ho we na

Pa da gab xa

Gah he ga

Smoke Maker

Little Chief

Aquotha bee

 

Interpreters :

Solomon and Joe La Flesh

 

1825

Smoke

Ish ca da bee

The um ba bee

Wah the he

Na ji hah tanga

Wah sho shah

Nu gah they

Wa gee muza

Iude cow se

E pe Tha Gah

 

Way buc kee ban

Ma han the gah no knife

Mi jin ha the

Ma cho shiga na pa bee

Black cros

Gah be gah

Na he tapee

Ne na pa shee

One that knows

 

 

1858 Treaty

Wah gah sah pi

Gish tah wah gu

Was Kon mi the

Ashna nika gah hi

 

 

 

 

PETER LE CLAIRE

Niobrara, Nebraska

 

 

In addition to archeology and traditional history, there are other lines of evidence which shed light on the Ponca past. Some interesting botanical evidence Bearing upon the relationship of the Ponca to the ,Omaha is presented by Will and Hyde (1917, p. 296) : "As might be supposed from their close relationship and intimacy in early times, the Ponkas and Omahas have the same varieties of corn today. Each tribe, however, preserves some varieties which the other appears to have lost."

The close connection between the Ponca and other Southern Siouan groups is evident to the trained observer even at the present time, and has been mentioned repeatedly in print. Fletcher and La Flesche, for example, write: "The five cognate tribes (Omaha, Ponca, Osage, Kansa, and Quapaw), of which the Omaha is one, bear a strong resemblance to one another, not only in language but in tribal organization and religious rites" (1911, p. 35). Some ceremonies and dances still performed today are claimed jointly by all of the Degiha groups, the most notable being the well-known Hedúška or "War dance." Indeed, the separation of the Omaha and Ponca was recent enough that at least one artifact predating the separation is still in existence. This is the famous "sacred pole" of which J. O. Dorsey writes: "The Waxdége, Za-wáxube, or sacred pole, is very old, having been cut more than two hundred years ago, before the separation of the Omahas, Ponkas, and Iowas" (1884 a, p.234). Two of James H. Howards own informants, LMD and OYB, knew of the sacred pole and mentioned that it had once been revered by both the Omaha and the Ponca. This intertribal relic now rests in the Peabody Museum, Harvard University. Its origin and functions are discussed at length by Fletcher and La Flesche in "The Omaha Tribe" (1911, pp. 217-269).

 

ENTER THE LONG-KNIVES

 

Some American Indian tribes, such as the Pawnee, Osage, and Dakota, owing to their great numbers or warlike reputation, became known to the Europeans long before explorers and traders bad actually reached their territory. This was not true of the Ponca. From the fact that they are not noted on the earliest maps nor mentioned, by report, in the earliest explorers' chronicles relating to the Missouri country, we may reasonably assume that the Ponca tribe was neither especially large nor hostile. Even long after their "discovery," in fact, references to the group are scattered and infrequent.

The earliest European reference to a group that may be identified with the Ponca is on a map. This map, attributed to the famous French cartographer Guillaume De L’Isle, has a draft copy dated May 1718. It shows a tribe called the "Maha," very likely the Omaha, living near the "Aiaouez" (Iowa) north of the Missouri on the "R.du Rocher," probably the Big Sioux River. Far above, east of the Missouri, is another group, identified as "Les Mahas, Nation errante" (i.e.,"Wandering Omahas"). This last group is very likely the Ponca, which if true is the earliest mention of the tribe. The 1718 De L'Isle is considered a good "mother map" and has had many imitations.

The 1722 De L'Isle map shows "Les Maha'.' north of the Missouri in the vicinity of the present Sioux City, Iowa, but does not mention any group that might be identified with the Ponca. The 1744 Bellin map mentions neither the Omaha nor the Ponca. The 1755 Mitchell map, however, which seems to be largely a copy of the 1718 De L'Isle, shows the "Maha" and "Ajoues" on a river which seems to correspond to the Big Sioux or Vermillion. Again, as on the 1718 De L'Isle, we find another group of "Mahas" further identified as "Wandering Indians," upriver. It is possible that these earliest maps fail to mention the Ponca by name because they were then still apart of the Omaha tribe, or that because of the near identity of their dialect with that of the Omaha they were assumed to be apart of that tribe.

A widely reproduced map, the 1757 Du Pratz, shows neither the Ponca nor Omaha. An unsigned French map of 1786, however, entitled "Carte du Mississippi et ses embranchemens" (sic), shows the Ponca, identified by name, above the "Maha." Their village is placed on the Missouri, between Ponca Creek and the Niobrara. The map of Gen. George H. V. Collot (published in 1826 but referring to 1796) shows the Ponca just north of Ponca Creek on the Missouri. The Sellard-Perrin du Lac map of 1802 (which would appear to be a plagiarization of a Makay and Evans map) also shows the Ponca in this location.

The earliest mention of the Ponca tribe, other than on the 1718 De L'Isle map cited above, is in an unsigned letter, probably by Esteban Rodriguez Miro, the Governor General of Louisiana, to Antonio Renzel, who bore the title "Commandant of the Interior Provinces of Louisiana." In this letter, dated December 12, 1785, Miro writes (as recorded by Nasatir, 1952, vol. 1, p. 126):

The Poncas have a village on the small river below the River-that-Runs (Niobrara). Nevertheless they are nomadic, naturally ferocious and cruel, kill without mercy those whom they meet on the road, although if they find themselves inferior in strength, they make friends of them, and, in a word, although they are not more than eighty warriors, they only keep friendship with those whom necessity obliges to treat as friends.”

The information contained in this letter was undoubtedly taken from the reports of Indians of other tribes, probably enemies of the Ponca, who lived closer to the settlements. The village mentioned was probably on Bazile Creek, as this is the first stream of any size below the mouth of the Niobrara.

The first European to actually visit the Ponca, or at any rate the first to leave a written record of his visit, was the trader Jean Baptiste Monier, known as "Juan Munie" in the Spanish accounts. Though of French descent, Monier, like most of the other traders on the Missouri, was a Spanish national. Monier visited and traded with the Ponca in 1789, and in 1793 we find him petitioning for the right to exclusive trade rights with the Ponca by reason of "having'discovered and pacified the tribe" (ibid., pp. 194-195). However, in 1794 another trader, Jacques Clamorgan, complained of Monier's monopoly: "This new enterprise was . . . a violation of the usual trade which had formerly been made with the two nations (Omaha and Ponca) which are really One nation, since the Poncas are nothing but Mahas who have left the tribe." Clamorgan, who later purchased Monier's "monopoly" to the Ponca trade, locates the Ponca "on the bank of the Missouri, about thirty leagues above the village of the Maha nation" (ibid.,p. 206).

Thus, as early as the last decade of the 18th century the Ponca were receiving European trade goods in very large amounts. The attraction of the rich Missouri Valley Indian trade soon drew others into the area, and in the years 1794-95 another French trader, Jean Baptiste Trudeau, established a post called "Ponca Rouse." This post served not only the Ponca, as the name would indicate, but also the Omaha and Dakota. The site of Trudeau's "Ponca Rouse" has never been located, but it is said to have been several miles up the Missouri from the mouth of Ponca Creek. Trudeau wrote (as recorded by Nasatir, 1952, vol. 2, 490): "The Ponca nation has its habitation placed at two leagues higher than the Niobrara's mouth. Their huts are built on a hill at the edge of a great plain about a league from the Missouri."

Trudeau was optimistic about prospects for the trade in the area, noting that, "The Buffalo, the deer, and beaver are common in this place." While Trudeau was trading out of Ponca Rouse, another Frenchman, Solomon Petit, was also wintering in the vicinity, as well as employees of Jean Monier (ibid., vol. 1, pp. 88-89). In spite of the competition, Trudeau managed to obtain some furs from the Dakota, Omaha, and Ponca.

The Ponca were quick to apprehend the value of a middleman's position in the trade, and in 1795 they began the practice of stopping and raiding trading craft as they passed up the Missouri. Some of these stolen goods the Ponca then traded to the tribes farther upriver. This piracy was perhaps motivated not only by greed but also by a fear that the upriver tribes, such as the Arikara and Dakota, would acquire guns which would later be turned on the Ponca. The traders, of course, were anxious to deal directly with the upriver groups, since the farther one got from the settlements the less common trade items became, and the greater the number of furs that could be secured for them. This Indian piracy, which was practiced by both the Omaha and Ponca, as well as the various Dakota bands on the Missouri, delayed for a considerable period the development of trade on the Upper Missouri, not to mention the considerable financial lose to the companies involved. For example, Zenon Trudeau, Lieutenant Governor of Spanish Illinois and Commandant at St. Louis, reported that one trading expedition moving up the Missouri was pillaged by the Ponca, the lass involving a sum of 7,000 pesos (ibid., p. 374).

The Ponca were also, of course, securing many trade items through legitimate channels, sometimes from British posts to the northeast. Materials traded to the Ponca at this period, or stolen by them, probably included guns, powder and ball, gunflints, wormscrews, large and small knives, awls, hatchets, pickaxes, hammers, kettles, medals, Hags, tobacco, combs, vermillion, cloth, and blankets, as all of these items are mentioned by J. B. Trudeau as items he carried with him as stock in trade (ibid., pp. 259-294). Wood (1959, p. 15) reports that of these items guns, hatchets, cooking kettles, and cloth were represented from burials and other features of the Ponca Fort, which was occupied by the Ponca at this time.

Less welcome "gifts" from the Wá ge or White man were the various European diseases, to which the. Ponca and other tribes of the area had little resistance. In the winter of 1800-1801, for example, a disastrous smallpox epidemie struck all of the tribes on the Missouri. Hardest hit were the Omaha and Dakota, the Ponca being affected to a lesser degree. So weakened by the disease were the Omaha that, although they set out on their customary fall and winter 'bison hunt, they were not able to hunt effectively, and starvation threatened the lives of the survivors. It was at this point that the Omaha accidentally encountered the Ponca, also engaged in their autumn hunt.

The Ponca "tribal memory" or traditional history clearly pictures this meeting-the initial shouts of friendly recognition which quickly fade as the Omaha draw nearer and the Ponca perceive the faces and bodies of the Omaha still covered with the hideous pustules and scurf left by the dread disease. Fearing another outbreak of the disease, the Ponca warned their Omaha kinsmen to come no closer. So desperate for food were the Omaha, however, that with their last strength they launched an attack on the Ponca, driving them from their camp and stores of dried meat. Fearing the disease more than their human antagonists, the Ponca offered little resistance.

Thus, by the time Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, on their epic journey of exploration, reached the Ponca, the tribe was quite familiar with Europeans-with their prized trade goods and their diseases. In their characteristic style and spelling, the explorers noted, on September 4, 1804, that there was a "Poncaries Village situated in a handsom Plain on the lower side of this Creek (Ponca Creek) about two miles from the Missouri" (Lewis, 1904-5, vol. 1,p.l40). On the Wm. Clark map of 1815 the "Poncarars, 200 souls" are shown a short distance above the mouth of Ponca Creek. Another explorer, H. M. Brackenridge (1904, p. 94), found their village there in 1811 and the Atkinson-O'Fallon party found them at the same place in 1825.

From this time on, the Ponca village was a regular stopping place for boats ascending and descending the Missouri, and the tribe was visited by most of the "greats" who traveled the river-military men, explorers, traders, and also artists and ethnographers such as George Catlin and Prince Maximilian of Wied. Relations between the Ponca tribe and the United States began in 1811, when the Government entered into a treaty of "perpetual peace and friendship" with them. This was followed in 1826 by another treaty, in which the Federal Government agreed to receive the Ponca "into their friendship and under their protection." Present-day Ponca are proud of the fact that they have never taken up arms against the United States of America.

The accounts of early 19th-century visitors to the Ponca, though customarily filled with the routine and trivia of everyday affairs, sometimes permit us an interesting glimpse of the life of the tribe. In 1824, for example, Peter Wilson, acting on behalf of Maj. Benjamin O'Fallon, visited a small group of Ponca at the mouth of the Niobrara. Wilson noted: "The cries and lamentations made by them while approaching convinced me that some sad disaster, or misfortune had happened." The cause of their distress was soon learned. A party of 30 Ponca, who were returning from a friendly visit to the Oglala subband of Teton Dakota, had been surprised and attacked by a large party of "Saones" (members of the Brule subband of the Teton). Of the 30, only 12 escaped. Numbered among the dead were all of the Ponca chiefs, including the famous Smoke-maker (Súde-gàxe), the first Ponca chief of that name (frontis; pls.1 and 12, a). The son of Smoke-maker approached Wilson with tears in his eyes, bearing the chief's medal which had been given to his father by the Government. Wilson, after doing what he could to console the young man, appointed him chief of the tribe in his father's stead (pI.1). (Report of Wilson to O'Fallon, 1824, National Archives, St. Louis Superintendency.)

Details of the fur trade with the Ponca are revealed in a letter from John Dougherty, agent to the Ponca, to Lewis Cass, Secretary of War. Dougherty states that goods were traded to the Ponca from a post of the American Fur Company located at the mouth of the Little Missouri. Specific items mentioned are powder, ball, blankets, strands, calicoes, axes, hoes, tobacco, beads, and vermillion. It was the custom at this time (1830's) for a trader to establish "temporary" posts in the Indian villages, which might be some miles from the main post. When with the Ponca, the trader generally established himself in the earth lodge of a friendly chief, whose rank discouraged the pilfering of the trader's goods. It was not uncommon for the traders at these “temporary” posts to accompany the tribe on the tribal bison hunts.

The larger fur posts were staffed by 30 men each. These men loaded and unloaded the boats, some of them being delegated to take out goods to the temporary stations and bring back the furs. Regular cornfields and vegetable gardens surrounded the larger posts. The best months for fur trading were January, February, and March. After the spring trading season the furs were brought downriver in flatboats or barges, reaching St. Louis in the latter part of Mayor the first part of June. Even at this early date, Dougherty notes, the return of furs was diminishing as far north as the Ponca country, and he comments forebodingly that all of the tribes south of there must soon learn to "farm or perish" (letter of Dougherty to Cass, Nov. 19, 1831).

At this period the Ponca were allies of the Yankton and Teton Dakota, for in 1833 Dougherty reports that the Ponca were spending little time on the Missouri following the buffalo on the "Plains of the Eau-qui-cour (Niobrara) river. They are friendly with the Sioux and join them in war, against the Pawnees" (letter of Dougherty to Will. Clark, Nov. 12, 1834). One suspects that for the Ponca this alliance was merely a means of self-preservation. Being a small group, they were afraid to stop warring on the Pawnee so long as the Dakota were still at war, since their country lay between the two tribes. The Pawnee, of course, often retaliated on the Ponca, and in 1835 Joshua Pilcher reported that "Two or three Ponca families farming at the mouth of the Niobrara had their horses stolen by the Pawnee" (Report of Pilcher, Oct. 5, 1835). Pilcher notes that the Ponca at that time inhabited the "country near L'eau-qui-court to its source in the Black Hills."

That same year Dougherty and Pilcher jointly recommended that the Ponca be attached to the Sioux Subagency. Their letter states that the tribe numbered between 75 and 100 men at that date, and goes on to note that the Ponca "formerly raised corn at the mouth of L'eau-qui-court but depredations of the Sioux forced them to join the Sioux as bison hunters" (Report of Pilcher and Dougherty, Aug.27,1935).

At times the Ponca were even forced by their Dakota overlords to join the latter tribe in raids on the Omaha, close linguistic and cultural relatives of the Ponca. Thus Thos. H. Harvey, writing to Wm. Medill, Commissioner of Indian Affairs, notes:

The Omahas are a poor dispirited people. They have for some years been living about eighty miles above Council Bluffs near the Missouri River. Owing to the frequent attacks of the Sioux and Poncas they have for several years made but little corn, and have consequently been exceedingly poor and destitute. (Letter of Harvey to Medill, Sept. 5,1846.)

In this incessant raiding by the Dakota we see a pattern which was to become well-established in the later half of the 19th century. The semisedentary village tribes, attached to their earth-lodge villages and cornfields, were no match for the well-mounted and well-armed Dakota, who always knew both the exact strength and the precise location of their victims. Young Dakota warriors, eager for war honors, would snipe at the settlements of the village tribes from a safe distance, or try to pick off isolated hunters or farmers. When pursuit was organized by their victims, they simply retreated to the Plains, where their pursuers feared to follow them because of the danger of ambush.

All of the village tribes were exposed to this harassment: Pawnee, Omaha, Ponca, Arikara, Mandan, and Hidatsa. These raids on the Ponca began shortly before midcentury and continued unabated until the time of the Ponca Removal in 1877. In his autobiography, Luther Standing Bear, a Teton Dakota chief, tells of his participation, as a small boy, in One of the last of such raids. Like most of the raids the Teton launched against the Ponca, this raid was motivated only by a "dislike" of the Ponca. However, all but two members of this particular raiding party were turned back before they reached the Ponca country by an aged Dakota chief hearing a peace pipe (Standing Bear, 1928, pp. 75-77).

In the autumn of 1846 a small group of Mormon settlers arrived in the Ponca country. This band of immigrants had been invited to the Niobrara villages by a group of Ponca who had found them camped near the Pawnee village at Genoa, Nebraska. The Mormons had with them a small cannon, and it may have been the thought of how useful this item would be against the Dakota that prompted the Ponca invitation. The Mormons, called "Monmona" by the Ponca, were given some provisions to tide them over and assigned a camping spot near the "Gray blanket" village. In 1908 an impressive granite shaft was erected at this site.

The Mormons apparently got on famously with the Ponca, for their stay is recalled in the fondest manner in the tribal traditions. With the arrival of spring, however, the Mormons decided to move on to join their bretheren in the west. The Ponca chief Wégasàpi or 'Whip' (pl.9), indicated the best route for the group to follow on the journey (Fry,1922).

In 1855 a large-scale conflict took place between the Ponca and their old enemies, the Pawnee. Both tribes were on their tribal hunts, and the encounter was purely accidental. The Ponca were divided into two groups based on village affiliation, the "Gray blanket" group forming One and the Húbdo or 'Fish smellers' the other. The Húbdo band was the first to sight the Pawnee, and promptly gave chase. Arriving at the Pawnee hunting camp the Ponca surrounded it and, raising a great war whoop, charged. To their amazement, however, they found that the Pawnee had somehow managed to steal away without being seen. The "Fish smellers" therefore contented themselves with looting the deserted camp, appropriating for their own use the packs of dried meat, moccasins, leggings, and rawhide lariats left behind by the stealthy Caddoans. Then, careful to post guards over their horse herds, the Húbdo village group continued their bison hunting.

Meanwhile the "Gray blanket" village group encountered the fleeing Pawnee, and after a hot running fight, killed them to a man. Feeling against the Pawnee was high at this time because the year before a haughty Pawnee chief had forced his Ponca guest, a man who was seeking the return of some stolen horses, to eat two large pots of beans served in urine. This flouting of the customary laws of Indian hospitality infuriated the Ponca more than the fact that the Pawnee chief had demanded a gift of gunpowder in exchange for the stolen animals. Therefore, on the occasion of the slaughter of the Pawnee hunters, Chief Smoke-maker's newborn son was carried to the battlefield by an old woman and caused to put his feet on two of the Pawnee corpses, whereupon he was given the honorific title "Trod-on-two" (cf. J. O. Dorsey, 1890, pp. 377-383).

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