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Although the city bearing their name is in Oklahoma, the Ponca Indians are a tribe of native Americans that originated in Nebraska and lived along the Niobrara branch of the Missouri River. In 1858 the Ponca, under their Chief Standing Bear, under pressure from the United States government, agreed to give up all of their land except for a section along the Niobrara and tried to change from being a nomadic people to being farmers. But on March 2, 1889 the United States government enacted a treaty assigning the land that belonged to the Ponca to the Sioux. As a result the Sioux repeatedly raided the area where the Ponca still lived, and many Ponca lives were lost.

In January of 1877, a United States government representative named Edward Kemble brought word from Washington DC that the government had decided that the best way to handle this problem was to relocate the Ponca to Indian Territory now known as Oklahoma. The tribe refused, but the government insisted. In 1878 the Ponca sent a contingent of ten chiefs, headed by Standing bear, by train with a government official to check out the land and report back to the people. Their report was not favorable. They chiefs were not accustomed to the climate and grew ill and refused to bring their people south to die. Kemble decided that their opinion of the relocation was irrelevant and abandoned the Ponca leaders. They were forced to walk five hundred miles back to their home in Nebraska with no money or food, and only one blanket and one pair of moccasins for each person. It took two months for the Ponca to get back to Nebraska, and a contingent of U.S. soldiers was waiting for them. They forced the Ponca to relocate in a terrible journey that began on May 21, 1878. The soldiers formed a line and drove the people like cattle, as other soldiers confiscated- stole- their tools, seed and household goods.

Unwelcoming surroundings and diseases for which they had no immunity caused many deaths. The elderly, sick and young children, including Ponca Chief Standing Bear's own daughter, died before the tribe reached "the Warm Lands". No provisions to settle them had been made, and by the end of the year one hundred and fifty eight of the seven hundred and thirty Poncas had died from pneumonia, malaria and other diseases in Indian Territory. Standing Bear's twelve year old son died of disease in this period.

Standing Bear and about thirty others defiantly, but peacefully, returned to Nebraska, a trip which took ten weeks. They were detained at the Omaha Reservation on orders from the Secretary of the Interior in Washington, DC. The Ponca were detained at Fort Omaha by soldiers serving under General George Crook. The Ponca were ordered to return to Oklahoma territory, but convinced the authorities to allow them time to regain their strength after the long trip. When General Crook heard of the detainment he was infuriated at the mistreatment of the Poncas.