I’m in Oklahoma, so it’s to be expected, but today I met me some real cowboys and Indians. Oh, I know cowboys and Indians back home, but if you were to look up cowboy in a dictionary, there’d be a picture of Tony Coleman at the top of the page. Louis Headman is a Ponca elder and, at 86, he’s full of stories of the old days and one really spooky one from less than a decade ago. But, I digress.
On my first day in Oklahoma, my first stop was the Standing Bear Museum and Education Center, of course. I was only a little surprised to find stories of five tribes at the museum and education center, but the cool “stuff” on Standing Bear filled me up. I bought a hard cover book of art from the Ponca’s forced removal and Standing Bear’s trial in Omaha, two or three T-shirts and even got an offer to camp out on the grounds.
Short on time, I returned today to speak with the center’s director and read more books.
I was also curious about the extremely authentic cowboy at the front desk and his pickup just outside, “Cowboy Process Server & Private Investigator.” I read that as bounty hunter and, of course, I was also intrigued to hear his story
Coleman, as required by cowboy law, started out polite, but laconic. As he warmed to his subject, however, I learned about his two most painful experiences in 15 years of law enforcement and four or five years as a PI and process server, chasing bad guys and riding horses.
The first, six and a half years ago, began with a bucking horse and a barn. Coleman is well over six feet, the horse 17 hands tall and not wishing to be rode. At least not inside, so he (the horse), attempted to throw him (the cowboy) into a pile of hay and/or manure. Coleman hit the roof, or more precisely the rafters, but he held his seat despite the pain in his neck.
“I suffered for a bit, then went to the chiropractor who popped my back and my neck,” he continued. When the doc popped his neck, Coleman said the room started to spin, he became nauseous and his blood pressure spiked. But, he said, it passed and he waited another five years before seeing a medical doctor. The doctor ordered an MRI and Coleman was on the road again.
The next day, when the doctor called back, it was time to pay the piper, face the music, saddle up and ride. The doctor wanted Coleman in the hospital right away because he’d broken his neck in the horse-riding incident FIVE YEARS AGO and any wrong turn might leave him paralyzed.
The cowboy talked the doctor into waiting a few months and, on the day he was in pre-op, with the IV already dripping into his arm, he tried to put it off, yet again.
“I was busy getting my new business off the ground and I thought it could wait,” he said. The doctor disagreed and in a quick moment of consensus, the anesthestist sent the cowboy off for a super-long siesta. That was a year and a half, ago, but he still chuckles softly remembering a broken wing hampering the chase of a few criminals.
His only other serious injury came at the hands of a woman, but it’s not what you think. His most despised criminal has always been perpetrators of child abuse and domestic violence against women. As a police officer, he was called to a DV incident and had to subdue the abuser. As they fought, the victim jumped onto his back and used her fingers and nails to try to gouge out his eyes. She nearly succeeded.
Louis Headman is more of a scholar. He’s writing his memoir and has already produced a documentary on Ponca history and a 5,000 word Ponca dictionary. The latter two are to be published by the press with University of Nebaska at Lincoln any day now. Promotions have already begun for the dictionary, but the documentary remains unnamed.
Active in Indian education and culture for more than 50 years, Headman has served in a half-dozen states and Canada, as an historian, a teacher and a minister. His grandmother walked to Oklahoma with Standing Bear, settling first near Baxter Springs, Kansas too late to plant a good crop on the rocky soil in July of 1877.
In 1878, the Ponca moved south again to Oklahoma, he said, and the crop failed again. “They stopped at a high spot across the river,” he gestured toward the Ponca River. “They were able to claim 101,000 acres to ‘match’ the land taken from them in Nebraska, but it really wasn’t the same number of acres. Rightfully, the Ponca should claim most of Nebraska, he said.
As an ordained minister, Headman served first in the Methodist church, but has since been affiliated with the Nazarene church and retired from full-time ministry. He has translated many Christian hymns into the Ponca language and teaches a Sunday evening class for all faiths to learn the songs and the language. The Ponca have their own churches for the Methodist, Baptist and Nazarene denominations, but many tribal members attend the Catholic Church in town, too, he said.
As an elder in the Ponca tribe, Headman schooled me in the differences between kinship and relationships. I’d boil it down to “We are all brothers and sisters, but only a select few are born of the same parents and grandparents.”
In modern times, he said, there is no one to confirm the facts of the Ponca history. But he’s been able to quote the elders before him, by writing down their oral histories and preserving them for future generations. His work-in-progress is a memoir at the request of his “kids,” ages 55-60. It includes some fables, similar to Ponca fairy tales, some happy, some sad, some to teach a lesson and others just because.
But the most interesting story, Headman was able to quickly recall, because it’s one of his own. He wanted to be alone, so he went to an area near the river where the trees had fallen over and become covered with leaves to create a shelter large enough for a man. Dressed in a warm parka and carrying a gun, he settled in to watch the activity along the river. He shelved his gun in a tree branch and, growing warm and tired, fell asleep leaning against a tree.
When he woke up, he said, there was a large woodcock (woodpecker) directly in front of him, two or three cardinals in the shelter, as well as a few other birds and some rabbits. “I lay still and watched for awhile, but eventually I decided I had to shoo the birds away and get back home,” he said.
Twice he waved his hand at the largest bird and said, “Shoo!” The woodpecker didn’t move.
“I thought I’d died and gone to heaven,” he chuckled. “I’ve always had strange feelings about nature,” he continued. “How it was when the Ponca had to white contacts. They had a different way of seeing the world, a different way of thinking.”
Headman deferred me to the tribal affairs office for more current information on the southern Ponca tribe. There are 3,760 Poncas in the southern tribe, up from 2,500 nearly 14 years ago when the council changed the blood quantum (percentage of Ponca blood required) to be on the rolls of the Ponca Tribe of Oklahoma.
Paula Mendoza is the secretary and treasurer for the tribe. Born a Buffalo Head, her grandfather was Augustus Hurley McDonald, the first fancy war dance champion who won the title in 1926.
Mendoza said many Ponca grandparents wanted their grandkids to be enrolled in the tribe for cultural reasons. The Ponca do not allow dual enrollments, but some tribes do, she said. As an example, the Ponca Tribe of Oklahoma and the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska are separate enrollments.
However, within the Pawnee Agency, there are five tribes — the Ponca, Otoe, Tonkawa, Pawnee and Kaw. The other four tribes are what she refers to as casino tribes, because each of the tribes owns a casino and distribute profits to their members. Some younger Ponca tribe members with more than one tribe’s blood, enrolled in one of the other tribes when the funding became available, she continued.
Political issues will always affect our people, she concluded, but we continue to grow in both number and strength. The tribe’s agency in White Eagle, Okla., five miles south of Ponca City, includes a host of tribal and federal programs for members: education, workforce investment, roads, self-governance, social rehabilitation, child welfare, social services, child support and child care, housing, health and senior citizens services, commodities, public transit, court, youth programs, environmental management, a wellness center and police department.
The tribe has sealed a time capsule with artifacts, books, writings, songs and pictures to be opened in 130 years. The have an annual pow-wow and regular dancing at the agency and beyond. A recent veteran’s grant helped to build a memorials near the tribal cemetery, where U.S. veterans are buried; William Terry Big Snake, honored as a code talker in WWII.