Sometimes you’re just in the right place at the right time and meet the right people. Such was my good fortune yesterday while touring the Marland Estates in Ponca City, Okla. The Marland’s Grand Home was not on my short list of places to stop on the Trail of Tears, questioning “What could a rich oilman have to do with the proud Ponca tribe, relegated to the prairies of Oklahoma?”

First, I learned E.W. Marland was a friend of the Ponca, leasing land near a sacred tribal burial ground to drill oil, with special permission from Chief White Eagle. Then, sitting in the home’s foyer, watching the informational video, I chanced to meet the epitome of Standing Bear, the second in my lifetime.

Chris Little Cook is a Ponca man who works with Native youth in the Ponca City School System. He was the model for Mike Wimmer’s paintings of the Trial of Standing Bear, featured in Monday’s post. I didn’t know this at the time — just that a nice-looking Ponca man learned from the Grand Home’s site director some crazy blogger lady was disappointed to have missed a Ponca display recently dismantled at the home. He invited me to the tribe’s mourning meal and war dance Friday evening.

The director, Jane Detten, introduced me to Little Cook, a member of her board. He literally drew me a map with times and dates for the early evening meal to recognize family members who have died in the past year, followed by a ceremonial dance in an arena at White Eagle, Okla., the Ponca Nation’s agency village, five miles south of Ponca City.

Robert Collins is the leader of the Ponca Warrior Society, Hethushka, sponsoring the event. As we sat in a circle around the center symbol of the Ponca Nation, the warriors — a group of about 10 men — brought the food to those of us attending in large pots and baskets.

Two bushel-size hampers full of white wrapped loaves of fresh, sweet fry bread gave new meaning to the word breadbasket. I wanted to take the basket home with me and nibble at the edges of the tender, chewy treats well into the evening. There were also potato salads, no-bake cookies and four kinds of pie, but, well, Keto.

Collins said the Hethushka began when the nuda honga (war leader) chose men to follow him on a journey to hunt or go to war. He would carry a sacred bundle made from white buffalo hide through the camp, calling to the men to pledge fealty to the leader and follow him until their objectives were met. The leader sang the same song used to open Friday night’s ceremony, along with a blessing of the arena. The sweet smell of burning cedar wafted into the parking lot and hallways as I entered the community center, leading me by my nose to the appointed place.

After the meal, the men retired to put on their regalia for the ceremonial war dance. The dancers included not only Collins and Little Cook, but their young sons and several elders, plus guests from across the country and across the pond. One dancer, I’d seen earlier in the day at the Osage Tribal Museum, was from England. Others will arrive tomorrow from California and the East Coast.

Photos are not allowed during the dance and two young men known as whip men were there to enforce the rules. I was sure to ask first, since I was uncovered earlier, unknowingly taking photos of Osage busts in the aforementioned museum. This is when my second bit of good fortune for the evening appeared, because I had just met another right person.

Little Cook’s wife, Mindy, is an artist and often sketches the dancers and singers while they take part in the ceremony. She photographed Wimmer during his creation of the Standing Bear painting, while her husband modeled. Her art is recognized across the community, as a teacher and in photography and drawings for personal, community and commercial purposes. The Little Cook couple paired up, Mindy said, to create a whimsical character named for a baby fox visiting their tipi at the Standing Bear PowWow four years ago.

Because the fox is not indigenous to the area — it was introduced by Ernest Whitworth Marland who brought fox hunting and an English trained master-of-the-hunt to Ponca City — the fox was christened Whit. The kit became the subject of a Christmas ornament, created by Mindy and several short stories penned by Chris. All proceeds went to benefit the Marland Grand Home and a book may be in the works.

But, in the end, the real treat for me was in learning Chris was the model for Standing Bear in so many ways. He and his family moved back to the community to serve the people; he was the model for the Wimmer paintings and is a leader in the Ponca (tribal) community. Formerly a Conoco employee, the Little Cooks met in Texas, when the Swedish girl met the Ponca boy and moved to Oklahoma to raise a family. The rest, as they say, is history.

I hope to have a feature story with drawings and photos from the dance and the Wimmer paintings next week, as they become available. My trip to Pawhuska for the Osage story was more difficult to round up and will be posted later this evening.

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