by Jackie Sojico, NET Radio
Listen to the full story on


Professor Sara Crook took her students on a three day trip traveling part of the trail Standing Bear and Ponca tribe members walked on their return to Nebraska from Oklahoma in early spring. (Photo courtesy of Sara Crook)

Before 1879, Native Americans weren’t recognized as people under United States Federal law. That all changed because of a trial in Omaha, and because of a member of the Ponca tribe named Standing Bear. Today there are Nebraskans working to commemorate Standing Bear on a national scale.

Judi gaiashkibos has been telling people about Standing Bear for a long time. Ten years ago she started the Standing Bear Breakfast in Lincoln.

“It’s grown from a breakfast to a two-day symposium. At the breakfastwe have the opportunity to tell the story about standing bear and educate Nebraskans about the first peoples,” gaiashkibos said.

But she’s also working on something else to bring attention to Standing Bear’s story, in a big way. gaiashkibos, director of the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs, wants to have a federal historic trail dedicated to Standing Bear. The trail itself would commemorate the federal government forcing the Ponca to move from their home and the path Standing Bear and 65 Ponca walked from Oklahoma back to Nebraska in 1878.

“Some of the stories in America aren’t always the ones that we can be the proudest of but I think Standing Bear is a good story for all people and for us,” gaiashkibos said.

Standing Bear’s story was a pivotal moment in legal history for Native Americans. Standing Bear v Crook was brought to trial in Omaha and led to Native Americans being officially recognized as people under US law

“It’s a national story and it’s a human rights story. Native people weren’t humans prior to 1879. The first peoples of America? And we’re not considered humans?” gaiashkibos said.

With a coalition of support from state legislatures and Congressional representatives in Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma, gaishkobos helped get a bill in Congress that would be the first step to creating a Standing Bear federal historic trail. Right now, H.R. 984 has passed in the House and is waiting Senate review. If it passes, then the National Parks Service will determine if the proposed trail is feasible, then a second bill would go through Congress to actually designate the trail.

“This is the very first step that needs to be done,” Katie Brossy, a lawyer in Washington DC and lobbyist working on HR 984, said. “Judi gaishkobos also happens to be my mother.”

For both Brossy and gaishkobos, this trail and Standing Bear’s story are kind of personal for them. Both women are members of the Ponca tribe.

“The reason why I went to law school and went into Indian law was really to be able to work on issues that affect Native Americans but to be able to work on something that is specific to Nebraska and specific to my tribe, that’s really been a wonderful experience,” Brossy said.

“Our tribe was terminated and so for many years we didn’t have access to our culture. And our history. And we’ve had to try to recapture and learn these great stories,” gaishkobos.

Over the past five years, Standing Bear’s story has become a bigger part of the conversation here in Nebraska. In 2009, Joe Starita, a reporter and University of Nebraska Lincoln professor of journalism, wrote I Am A Man, a book all about Standing Bear’s trial. It even became the One Book One Nebraska pick in 2012. Sara Crook, history and politics professor at Peru State College, has used I Am A Man in her History of Nebraska class since 2009 to show her students how important Standing Bear’s story is to state history.

“Nebraska really did take a lead role in acknowledging Indians as people. It’s a great story. I often tell my students you can’t make stuff up that’s this good. And this is real history,” Crook said.

This year she took some of her students on part of the trail Standing Bear and Ponca tribe members walked when they returned from Oklahoma. They started in Barneston, just north of the Nebraska-Kansas border, and over two days traveled 250 miles north to the Niobrara Valley.

“I said imagine if you’d lived here your whole life and your ancestors were buried here and now they’re telling you you have to go somewhere where the climate’s different, the soil’s different, the topography’s different, and you can’t come back,” Crook said. “And I had one student turn around to me and go oh, Dr. Crook I finally get why they didn’t want to leave here. So that for me was the high point.”

gaiashkibos hopes that in the future, the Standing Bear Trail can recreate that moment for all its visitors.

“It will become similar to the Oregon Trail and the Lewis and Clark Trail. I want all children to know this story and then they can go home and ask their grandparents to tell their stories and by learning your own story it empowers you as an American.”

She still has a while to wait, but gaishkobos is optimistic about the bill passing. She says, eventually, the historic Standing Bear trail will be a big triumph for Native American history.

“You have to remember that Indian people, we’ve been forced to do a lot of things that we really didn’t want to do. And getting anything through Congress in this day is a big accomplishment. So we hope that in this case that this can be something we can celebrate and be proud of,” said gaiashkibos.