Ponca Stories of Courage for Uncertain Times
Reading and listening to the words of others can be a wonderful source of inspiration, especially during difficult times; such as those we are currently experiencing. Words can move us, feeding both our hearts and minds. They too can help us see the world from different angles and inspire us into action.
Today, citing the words of others is a popular strategy utilised by entrepreneurs, businesses and organisations to communicate to their tribe what their core values are and which experts, authorities and influencers they align with. However, during the process of cutting and severing words from their original cultural and historical context, their magic often bleeds away. Words retain their true power when the quoter pays proper respect to their original source.
In this story, I re-contextualise Chief White Eagle’s quote for courage within his life story. As I do, his famous and inspirational words reclaim their original strength and serve as a guide, helping us through these dark times by showing us how to face loss, uncertainty, and death, with courage.
Chief White Eagle’s message for courage
If you conduct a Google search for motivational quotes to help you overcome challenges and build courage, you may come across the following words attributed to Chief White Eagle:
“Go forth with courage, when you are in doubt, be still, and wait; when doubt no longer exists for you, then go forward with courage. So long as mist envelops you, be still; be still until the sunlight pours through and dispels the mists — as it surely will. Then act with courage.”
This quote is a bundle of wisdom. It comprises multiple layers of meanings and ideas. One overarching message is that patience and forbearance are the companions of courage: when you find yourself in doubt, it takes strength to stand still instead of rushing into action driven by anxiety and in the absence of clarity and perspective. While Chief White Eagle’s words alone are moving, his message of courage is strengthened when you consider the significant challenges he and his people faced during the latter part of the 19th century.
White Eagle was a Ponca chief. The Ponca are a small tribe living in the Midwestern part of the United States and are linguistically related to the Sioux. Today there are two federated branches: one that resides in Nebraska; and the other in Oklahoma. How these two branches came to reside in different areas forms part of White Eagle’s story and also that of Standing Bear, who was another Ponca Chief. Their stories are not widely known, even though their actions and decisions helped to shape the socio-political landscape of the United States.
The relocation of the Ponca
Chief White Eagle was born on a Nebraska reservation around 1840 and led his people for over 50 years until his death. Even though they were a small tribe, the Ponca were ‘prosperous’ (Brown 2012. 408). In contrast to other tribes who lived on the Great Plains, the Ponca kept gardens and grew corn, while they also raised horses and traded with European settlers (Brown 2012, 408).
In 1878, Chief White Eagle led his people from the Nebraska-Dakota border to the warmer lands of Oklahoma (see NMAIAC 2017 ). Their relocation came after they waged a long battle to retain their homeland. From 1858, government officials travelled through the western region defining new territorial boundaries (Brown 2012, 408). The Ponca entered a bargain with the government: they gave up a portion of their land in exchange for ‘protection’. A decade later, the government mistakenly entered into a treaty with the Sioux, which assigned sections of Ponca-owned lands to them. For the next seven years, the Ponca defended themselves against Sioux raids, which aimed to ‘dislodge’ them (Thomas et al. 2001; Brown 2012, 408). They pleaded to officials in Washington to help them; however, their requests were met with silence.
In 1878, the government devised a plan to exile the Ponca and assimilate them into the Sioux (Brown 2012, 408; Thomas et al. 2001). In response, the ten incumbent Ponca chiefs, including White Eagle and Standing Bear, gathered in council to decide how to proceed. While they did not intend to accept the government’s plan, they agreed to visit the proposed reservation because they believed this would end the ‘trouble’ (Thomas et al. 2001). The chiefs understood that if they didn’t like the land, they would be able to return to Nebraska (Tibbles 1972, 6–7).
Escorted by government officials, the chiefs and their people made a journey which lasted more than 50 days, eventually arriving in Kay County, Oklahoma.
Acts of courage born from grief and loss
The relocation marked a period of great suffering and loss for the Ponca. There is no doubt that the relocation was poorly-planned; for example, the group arrived too late to plant crops, which would later result in food shortages. During and immediately after the relocation, more than 150 people, including Standing Bear’s oldest son and sister, died. Many passed away from starvation or disease. In 1879, White Eagle testified that they also lost many of their horses. They were stolen or died after ingesting poisonous weeds or from disease (NMAIAC 2017 , 288– 91).
According to biographer Stephen Dando-Collins (2009), on his deathbed, Standing Bear’s son expressed his great fear that he would be ‘alone’ after death because he would not be buried with his ancestors (see also Brockwell 2019). In January 1879, Standing Bear and a group escaped the reservation carrying the remains of his son. Moved by grief and love, Standing Bear was determined to return to Nebraska and bury his son in his ancestral lands.
Standing Bear and his party were detained by General George Crook, a federal official, at Fort Omaha, Nebraska (Thomas et al. 2001). Crook was moved by Standing Bear’s plight and advocated for him through the press (Brockwell 2019). Eventually, two lawyers agreed to represent him pro bono in his petition to return home (Thomas et al. 2001).
During the case, the US attorney argued that Standing Bear was not a person. Standing Bear, who was the first Native American to give testimony in court, urged the judge to recognise that while of different colours, the Ponca and European settlers were intrinsically the same. He said famously:
‘That hand is not the color of yours, but if I pierce it, I shall feel pain. If you pierce your hand you also feel pain. The blood that will flow from mine will be of the same color as yours. I am a man. The same god made us both.’
He also testified that the Ponca had been mistreated by the government (Thomas et al. 2001). Chief Eagle supported his claims. In a letter written by Susette LaFlesche on his behalf, Chief White Eagle stated that the Ponca had ‘resisted’ relocation until they were ‘worn out’ (NMAIAC 2017 , 288). He then related the inhumane way his people were treated during the process:
‘…soldiers got on their horses, went to all the houses, broke open all the doors, took our household utensils, put them in wagons, and pointing their bayonets at our people, ordered them to move (NMAIAC 2017 , 288–89).’
Their items were not returned nor were they compensated. He stressed the heavy burden of grief he carried in the aftermath: ‘My heart thinks all the time of our dead. I cry day and night for the men, children, who have been killed by this land (NMAIAC 2017 , 292).’ Towards the end of his letter, he expressed how the support of Standing Bear’s petition gave him hope:
‘My eyes were heavy with weeping, but when I heard of your kindness to some of my people. I felt as if I might raise my head and open my eyes to see the coming light (NMAIAC 2017 , 292).’
The ‘light’ White Eagle saw finally came when the judge made a groundbreaking decision, ruling that Standing Bear was a person and held the same rights under the constitution. Standing Bear was released and returned to Ponca lands located on the Niobrara River. There, he finally buried his son. He continued to live in Nebraska until his death in 1908. In 2019, a statue of Standing Bear’s was erected at Statuary Hall of the U.S. Capitol, Washington, in his memory (Brockwell 2019).
Meanwhile, Chief White Eagle and his people were denied permission to return to Nebraska. The chief then encouraged his people to move forward and build new lives in Oklahoma. They continued to perform their ceremonies, recite their oral stories and every year since 1879, they have held their annual powwow.
Chief White Eagle died in 1914 when the world was marching into war. He is remembered as a ‘progressive leader’, who seized opportunities to improve the living conditions for his tribe where possible. After his death, his son inherited his position.
Following Ponca oral tradition, the Ponca first camped at White Eagle Park in Kay County and in 2007, this place was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Redefining words of courage
Chief White Eagle’s words belong within a moving and inspiring historical narrative, which show us how acts of courage are born from facing fears, grieving loss and for standing up for what is right. This is a very timely message for many; many of us has been found ourselves enveloped by the mists of uncertainty.
The power of White Eagle’s words comes from his lived experience and are echoed by the actions of his fellow chief, Standing Bear. Both men knew how to sit in the mists of uncertainty. They waited. They listened. Then, when the mists finally broke, they seized opportunities with the intention of creating better lives for their people. Courage gave them the strength to fight long and hard battles against oppression and injustice. I see shades of the same courageous spirit in the hearts and minds of emerging leaders and warriors in our modern world, such as Greta Thunberg.
As I bring this story to a close, I am reminded that acts of courage do not always lead to ideal or victorious endings. Ultimately, courage is making a decision when the propitious time arrives; you may not know what the outcome will be, but regardless, you step out of the mist and walk bravely to the rhythm of your truth, knowing who you are.
Brockwell, Gillian. 2019. The civil rights leader ‘almost nobody knows about’ gets a statue in the U.S. Capitol, Washington Post, September 21, 2019.
Brown, Dee. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West. Sterling Signature, New York.
Dando-Collins, Stephen 2009. Standing Bear Is a Person. US, Ingram Publisher Services.
National Museum of the American Indian Archives Center (NMAIAC) 2017 . Thomas Henry Tibbles papers — Bright Eyes, Susette La Flesche: Statement by White Eagle, 1879. Accessed on 4 October 2019, https://transcription.si.edu/project/8131.
Tibbles, Thomas Henry 1972. The Ponca Chiefs: An Account of the Trial of Standing Bear. Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press.
Thomas, David Hurst, Betty Ballantine, Ian Ballantine 2001. Native Americas: An Illustrated History. North Dighton, JG Press, World Publications.