Janice Rockwell, a Macomb artist, recently sold a grouping of paintings to the Ponca Indian tribe of Nebraska. The 10 portraits represent the individual chiefs in the William Henry Jackson photograph of The Ponca Delegation to Washington, D.C. of 1877. The photograph, found in the V.I.T. High School library’s copy of the Smithsonian’s book, Native Universe, had intrigued Rockwell with the dignity and strength evident in each man. As she researched their story, Rockwell understood their resolute appearance and felt led to create single portraits of each chief in the group.
Using William Henry Jackson’s sepia photograph as her inspiration, Mrs. Rockwell used water colors, and mixed- media collage to create each colorful portrait. Some of the items used are reworked/recycled materials such as egg cartons and packing cardboard. Mrs. Rockwell used “throw-away” items as an appropriate expression of the attitude toward Native Americans taken by many whites during our nation’s history.
Rockwell started the Ponca Chiefs collages in 2005 with the final portrait being completed in 2008. The collection was first exhibited at the Little Priest Tribal College on the Winnebago Reservation in Nebraska, and later was shown in the State Capital Building in Lincoln. From there the grouping was exhibited at Dickson Mounds State Museum in Lewistown, Illinois.
The paintings were shown this spring at the premiere of Nebraska Public Television’s documentary, In Standing Bear’s Footsteps, (airing later this fall on PBS) sponsored by the Douglas County Historical Society. The event was held on the grounds of Ft. Omaha as part of the yearly Chief Standing Bear Celebration. Ironically it was there that Chief Standing Bear was jailed during the decisive trial which ultimately ruled that American Indians are “people.”
Though his band was allowed to return to northern Nebraska, most of the remaining Ponca were forced to remain in Oklahoma. Eventually this divided the tribe into the Northern and Southern Ponca.
Several members of the Northern Ponca tribal council saw the portraits at the Omaha opening in May. Arrangements were made to purchase the entire group to be used at their Cultural Center and Tribal Headquarters in Niobrara, Nebraska. The portraits were moved to Niobrara in August in time for the annual Northern Ponca Powwow. In the end, the chiefs were all allowed to return home, if only symbolically. Their images now rest in their bountiful tribal land at the junction of the Missouri and Niobrara Rivers, near the chalk cliff burial grounds facing South Dakota.
The men shown in Jackson’s original photograph had traveled to Washington in peaceful protest of their forced relocation from their land in northern Nebraska to Indian Territory in Oklahoma. The tribe had always cooperated with the government in peace treaties and been good neighbors with settlers as they increasingly descended upon their land. The chiefs had confidence that the great White Father, President Hayes, would be sympathetic and help them retain their homes. Their trip was in vain and the Ponca endured a forced march to Oklahoma with much suffering and death of the Ponca. Chief Standing Bear left the reservation illegally to bury his son back on tribal grounds, was arrested but ultimately was able to gain some civil rights for his people through the legal system. Because of Standing Bear’s courage and eloquence, American Indians began to be viewed as people rather than savages and their rights finally were established in a legal hearing held in Omaha in May, 1879.
The chiefs depicted in the set of ten portraits are Standing Bear, The Chief, Standing Buffalo Bull, Big Snake, Black Crow, Smoke Maker, White Swan, White Eagle, Hairy Grizzly Bear, and Big Elk. Rockwell stated, “Many of the men are placed in front of a landscape. This expresses the fact that the Ponca were tied as a people to their land. They were born there, their ancestors were buried there and their daily lives were entwined with the hunting grounds, plant gathering and farmlands. The Ponca were stewards of their land and the creatures that lived there.”
Submitted by Jayne Schiek,
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