Ponca tribe to thank city of Milford

By Kevin Abourezk
Milford, Nebraska (AP) June 2011

A Milford woman made her a new dress. A local carpenter built a coffin, and the carpenter’s wife cleaned her body.

Prairie Flower’s father, Ponca Chief Standing Bear, presided over the $15 Christian funeral. The grief-stricken father spoke of renouncing his tribal ways in favor of “those of the white man,” according to E.A. Howard, the government agent in charge of the Poncas’ forced march to Oklahoma.

But Standing Bear appreciated the community’s gesture, which helped “ameliorate the grief of the husband and father,” Howard wrote in his journal.

“This was a hallmark moment of this tragic Ponca trail of tears flight,” said Joe Starita, author of “I Am a Man,” a biography of Standing Bear.

Now the chief’s ancestors want to thank the community that helped Standing Bear bury his adult daughter on June 6, 1877. They plan to host a traditional meal of buffalo corn soup, fry bread and wojapi (a kind of fruit pudding) starting at 11:30 a.m. June 5 in Milford City Park.

The event will be free and open to the public.

“Mainly, we want to thank the city of Milford for taking care of our ancestor for 134 years,” said Gary Robinette, cultural director of the Ponca Museum in Niobrara. “It’s also about closure for the relatives of Prairie Flower.”

It will mark the second time in as many weeks the Ponca have honored a Nebraska community for caring for one of the nine members of their small nation who died on that arduous, 500-mile trek to Oklahoma that the tribe considers its trail of tears.

On May 22, the Ponca and Omaha tribes hosted a memorial ceremony, giveaway and traditional meal in Neligh to honor the community for caring for the grave of the infant daughter of Ponca Chief Black Elk. White Buffalo Girl died of pneumonia on May 23, 1877, also during the Poncas’ forced march to Oklahoma.

Since her death, the community of Neligh has cared for White Buffalo Girl’s grave and adorned it with flowers each Memorial Day.

“We lost nine members on the trail down (to Oklahoma),” Robinette said. “We have three of them now, so we have six more to find. We want to do this same type of event at each community.”

The same night that Prairie Flower’s funeral was held, a storm struck the Poncas’ camp outside Milford. Lightning, thunder, rain and hail pounded the camp. A tornado demolished tents, overturned wagons and hurled people into the air.

Strong winds overturned a kettle of boiling water onto Standing Bear’s infant granddaughter, scalding her to death, according to Starita. The Poncas carried her body to be buried next to her aunt Prairie Flower.

Except for White Buffalo Girl, the Poncas aren’t certain where those who died on the trail to Oklahoma were buried, Robinette said. Two historical sleuths in Milford think they have a good idea where Prairie Flower and her niece are buried.

After analyzing the Poncas’ path, Eldon Hostetler and Dwaine Fosler believe the two Poncas are buried in Mount Pleasant Cemetery, about four miles northwest of Milford. The cemetery’s records confirm “several Indians” are among the unmarked graves in a section reserved for people who couldn’t afford headstones.

The tribe has resisted digging up the graves to conduct DNA tests to confirm the location of Prairie Flower and her niece. But Robinette said the tribe agrees the cemetery is the most likely location for their graves.

After learning about the story of Prairie Flower, members of the Milford Historical Society raised money for a marker, which they erected in the city park. Hostetler said it’s important to remember not only the community’s kindness but the government’s apparent callousness toward the Poncas’ plight.

“I felt sorry for the Indians,” he said. “It was terrible.”

Robinette said now it’s time to say goodbye, something the tribe was unable to do properly according to its custom on that long march to Oklahoma.

“We want to recognize and thank the communities for taking care of them and also do the final memorial that the families were not able to do because of the situation,” he said.