It was much like any other day in a small town school gymnasium. Kids everywhere bouncing basketballs, young adults in trademarked camo hoodies and Michael Jordan sneakers, matrons in fuzzy sweaters and pearls, grandpas with caps sporting Vietnam War insignia — the cluster sign of an officer from 1966, now honored among his family and friends.
However, in today’s case, the opposing game players were members of the Pawnee and Arikara tribes of Oklahoma and North Dakota, once members of a much larger tribe, until exiled by the U.S government from their tribal lands in Nebraska.
Hosted by the Ponca Tribe in Norfolk, I was invited to join the homecoming and stumbled upon the handgame, instead of the ceremonial war dance I’d anticipated. Arriving late for lunch, I sat near the end of the row on the home team. That was my first mistake; when the game started I was one of the first pair chosen to play for the Arikara side.
My host, Dwight Howe, had told me rules of the game from his Ponca grandparents. His grandmother was a southern Ponca from Oklahoma and his grandfather a northern Ponca from Nebraska. They courted in a horse and buggy, like the old days, he said. “Until death do they part.”
Grandmother told Howe of the days when a medicine man from another tribe used his supernatural powers to make the handgame pieces (buffalo tooth beads), disappear from his hands and dissolve into powder before their eyes. Since, the object of the game is to locate the opposing team’s bead in the other player’s hand, the medicine man couldn’t be beat.
The Ponca called their elder into the circle for assistance and he used his powers to “shoot (magic) arrows into the hand of the medicine man holding the bead,” curtailing the first man’s powers and winning back the Ponca’s prized possessions. In the end, he said, the lesson was on the dangers of gambling too much and hurting your family and friends. “In Oklahoma,” Howe concluded,” the other tribes now all have casinos and are very wealthy. The Ponca are not.”
Today, a self-possessed young man, Dancing Eagle, was chosen as the lead player for the Arikara team. He and the Pawnee player approached a man on DE’s team at the end of the row and the second player, myself, and handed us each a bead. Behind our backs, we switched the bead back and forth between our two hands, keeping the final decision hidden, for the Pawnee player to guess.
Since I’ve never had a poker face, she guessed mine right away, but my partner was more surreptitious and won two rounds, bringing me back into the game before we both went out on the third round.
Back and forth, the play went between the two teams, with players shouting, jibing and tossing their hands into the air like they were inciting a bull. Between matches, the players wrapped shawls about their shoulders, joining the drummers and singers in round dances and war dances. In the end, the Arikara team took best three of five matches in quick succession for game and match.
The final farewell, was a ghost dance led by the Pawnee. The ghost dance, once forbidden by the Indian agents, was then conducted in secret and hidden among the handgame players. Their belief was, if they danced the ghost dance long enough, the buffalo would return and the white man would leave, freeing the Indians to roam the prairies free once again.
The haunting melody of the Pawnee singers was joined by the swaying and clapping Arikara and two or three whites. I remained seated.
The Pawnee leader ended with the wise words his grandfather told him, after the last hidden ghost dance for the Indian soldiers in World War II. “He said we have learned to live with the white men and the buffalo are increasing in number once again. Life is good.”
The ceremony opened and closed with a prayer and sharing a meal. Again, similar to a church potluck in any small community I’ve lived in, but with many retiring to tents on the grounds of the Ponca Hills’ tribal agency, on the grounds of the Northeast Community College’s former campus. With temps nearing 40 degrees and light rain all day, I retired to a motel with plans to head south Monday, after visiting family on Sunday.
Day Four should find this writer in Ponca City and White Eagle, Oklahoma. White Eagle was the head chief of the Ponca when they were forced to walk to Oklahoma. He chose to stay in Oklahoma when Standing Bear returned to Nebraska.
As a postscript that has no place at the end of any story — I stopped at the grave of White Buffalo Girl, a seven-year-old Ponca girl who died near Neligh, Nebraska shortly after the Ponca tribe left Niobrara on their deathly long trek.
It was unlike the Ponca to leave their loved ones behind, even after death, but Black Elk and Moon Hawk, the girl’s parents, had little choice. They exacted a promise from the people of Neligh to watch after their daughter’s grave, as they would one of their own.
Even today, more than 140 years later, the grave is carefully tended and abundantly decorated with flowers, toys, a rosary and jewelry. The perpetual care may do little to assuage the traveler’s loss, but it has become a memorial for the settlers respect for their friendly neighbors and their dismissal at the hands of the government. A child has painted a heart on a rock and left a plastic Olaf character near the grave. They share the child’s memory at this gravesite, frozen in time.
Hopefully, tomorrow I’ll gain tech support and be able to upload the photographs from the last two days to this blog. In the meanwhile, please check the Ponca album on my business page for Facebook.