Welcome to the first in my series of Chautauqua-like travel blogs. My first series will recount the Trail of Tears as the Ponca tribe were forced to walk to Oklahoma and one chief returned to bury his son. The returning clan was arrested near present-day Omaha, setting in motion a landmark civil case recognizing Native Americans as human.

My first full day retracing the path of Standing Bear and his tribe in their forced removal was, literally, a tale of hits and misses.

As I drove along Highway 20 across northern Nebraska yesterday, the land became greener, grassier and not just spotted with trees, but dense with forests along the rushing Niobrara River. I was able to experience, on a much smaller scale, the reverse reaction of the Ponca people as they left this paradise and ventured south into an arid climate so foreign to them. My mind rested easier as I left behind the few pressures of my life and took up the scholarship of learning more about a very different culture by visiting the places they called home.

It’s like a hit of fresh air with a pine-scented chaser.

The miss followed closely on my heels, however. It appeared the state park service didn’t wait up for me to arrive, but they did leave the light on. When I arrived at my first night’s destination, Niobrara State Park, there was a note on the office door telling me my key was in the cabin and the porch light was on.

I’d hoped to catch a sunrise from the awesome lookout on my cabin’s deck across the Niobrara this morning, but the time change and the “jet lag,” evidently had other ideas. That plan will hatch on the morrow.

My first stop this morning was the Ponca Tribal Agency directly across from the park. I was quickly able to discover the outside trail, primarily designed for educating children and, perhaps old white women, about the seven clans of their tribe in an outdoor playground cris-crossing streams feeding the river. It took two trips to discover the tribe’s local cemetery and small herd of bison, but the big hit was the 15’ statue of Standing Bear on a hill overlooking the tribe’s homeland here.

It’s twin is on the Centennial Mall in Lincoln and a third statue will be dedicated in the U.S. capitol rotunda in December. A postage stamp with the chief’s image will be issued in January and a movie, based on Joe Starita’s “I am a Man,” will begin filming in February. It’s a good time to be a Standing Bear fan-girl, but I plan to introduce you to others before I end this journey.

My miss was expected as the Ponca of Niobrara, Nebraska are on the move south again, this time to Norfolk to visit the Pawnee who settled in this area 250 years before the Ponca. The Pawnee were also relocated to Oklahoma by the U.S. government in 1873. Today, they all return to Ponca Hills,near Norfolk, with the Arikara of North Dakota for a reunion of sorts.

Tribal Cultural Officer Dwight Howe has invited me to join them tomorrow for a ceremonial war dance and my first adventure camping out in my Honda. The Arikara are also known as the Ree tribe and coincidentally my park cabin is named “Struck by the Ree,” a Yankton chief’s name. The Standing Bear cabin is two doors down, but I have the better view, based on accompanying photos.

Three big hits for me personally today had little to do with history, but brought simple smiles along the way. I literally joined the high school Homecoming parades in Wynot and Crofton, little villages less than 20 miles apart, both with Main Streets smaller than Hemingford.

The Crofton lumberyard owner is also a Ponca wannabe. He helped place the Standing Bear statue near Niobrara atop a five-ton chunk of limestone at the tippy-top of the gently sloping hill overlooking the Niobrara valley. His generosity continued as he advised me on Honda renovations to create a mini-camper in the back of my little SUV. The Airstream will be jealous and remain more luxurious.

The unincorporated village of Lindy is also right off Highway 12 and boasts a country club, a very large church and the neighboring Devil’s Nest ski resort, right beside Lewis and Clark Lake. The ski resort’s lift chairs hang ghostly in the sky as the 25-story luxury hotel, planned in the early ‘70s never materialized. The country club, however, still offers a great Friday happy hour and chicken-fried steak. Saturday’s special is smoked prime rib, but I’ll likely be campfiring with the Ponca, Pawnee and Ree Saturday night.

Internet access is spotty here in the woods, so I’m unsure when I’ll be able to share this blog post, as I’m nearly off the grid. And the batteries on my wireless keyboard died, so I’m hunting and pecking on my iPad. First world problems. Shuck-ey darn, Doug.

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