Term Paper: History of the Ponca Indian Tribe in the 19th Century

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Ponca Indians

The history of interactions between the Ponca Indian tribe, the rapidly expanding United States, and other tribes in the region over the course of the nineteenth century is a history of misunderstanding, genocide, and tragedy. In response to U.S. expansion, the Ponca signed a number of treaties which served to gradually reduce their land base undermine their sovereignty and autonomy, ultimately resulting in forced removal from their ancestral lands and widespread death and disease. Using David J. Wishart's history of the Nebraska Indians, An Unspeakable Sadness: The Dispossession of the Nebraska Indians, one may trace the evolution of the tribe over the course of the nineteenth century with a particular focus on the way in which four treaties between the Ponca and the United States, one treaty between the United States and the Dakota, and the conflict between tribes which arose as a result of U.S. expansion served to gradually reduce the Ponca's power and range until they were finally stripped of all autonomy in the latter half of the nineteenth century.

In order to understand the Ponca's gradual loss of land and sovereignty, one must chart the shifting relationships and alliances that characterized the Ponca's existence over the course of the nineteenth century. The first treaty between the United States and the Ponca was signed in 1817, but this treaty was only the most obvious event in a process of dispossession which had begun decades earlier. Having been decimated by smallpox at the end of the eighteenth century, by the time Lewis and Clark encountered the Ponca in 1804, they found only around 200 Ponca living the area that would become Nebraska (Wishart 1994, 7 & 72). Because of their reduced size, especially in comparison to some neighboring tribes, the Ponca were forced to rely on alliances in order to maintain their land, and the 1817 treaty offered means of negating the threat from one potential opponent, the United States. In addition to their reduced numbers, the Ponca were at something of a disadvantage to other tribes because unlike many of their neighbors, the Ponca subsisted heavily on agriculture, growing corn near the Niobara river and claiming the surrounding land as their ancestral homeland (Wishart 1994, 133). Thus, while all of the Nebraska Indian tribes relied on the maintenance of their lands in order to survive, the Ponca had a particularly strong attachment to that specific region, both culturally and economically, because they had developed a society heavily based on agriculture that was only partially supplemented by hunting, which often could only be done with the acquiescence of other, more powerful tribes.

The tenuous relationship with the United States and a reliance on other, sometimes conflicting tribes characterized the Ponca's existence over the course of the nineteenth century, so that despite occasional brief periods of relative peace and prosperity, the Ponca and their power base was already on the decline by the time the United States' western expansion finally necessitated their forced removal. In the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Ponca were mostly affected by the Teton Dakota tribe (also known as the Lakota), the southern and westernmost branch of the Sioux nation, which had been gradually encroaching as a result of the United States' western expansion. Like all of the Ponca's interactions with neighboring tribes, this relationship was marked by inconsistently and rapidly changing allegiances, and one event in particular serves to clearly demonstrate this. In 1824 the Ponca suffered an especially devastating loss when "thirty Ponca, including all of their chiefs, had been returning from a friendly visit to the Oglala [a band of Teton Dakota Indians] when they were attacked by another band of Teton Dakota [and] the chiefs, all old men, were unable to flee and were easily killed" (Wishart 1994, 75). Despite the naming of a new chief, "in effect, Ponca society had been decapitated" and they soon were forced to abandon their traditional villages in favor of smaller, distant outposts, even after signing a new treaty intended to protect them from the Teton Dakota and other nearby tribes (Wishart 1994, 75).

The loss of the Ponca chiefs in 1824 is likely one of the reasons for the treaty between the Ponca and the United States which was signed a year later in June, 1825. Among reaffirming the peace which had been established by the earlier treaty and regulating trade within the Ponca's territory, the treaty also included a promise of protection by the United States in return for the Ponca's acquiescence to the supremacy of the United States in regard to ultimate sovereignty. Whereas the first treaty merely formalized a peaceful relationship between the Ponca and the United States, this second treaty marked the beginning of the Ponca's gradual loss of official sovereignty, and it seems reasonable to presume that this treaty was at least partially made possible by the loss of the chiefs the previous fall.

That the 1825 treaty was almost undoubtedly precipitated by the loss of the chiefs in 1824 is attested to by both the language of the treaty itself and the Ponca signatories. The treaty appears largely one-sided, and from the Ponca's perspective, beneficial due to their precarious situation in regards to the more powerful tribes surrounding them, although it would ultimately serve to undermine them. The first article of the treaty states that "it is admitted by the Poncar tribe of Indians, that they reside within the territorial limits of the United States, acknowledge their supremacy, and claim their protection," and this protection is what the Ponca received in return for protecting the economic interests of the United States within their territory (Treaty with the Ponca 1825, Article I). The treaty purports to be signed by the "Chiefs, Headmen, and Warriors, of the Poncar tribe of Indians, on behalf of said tribe," but a look at the signatories reveals that this treaty was likely signed out of a kind of desperation on the part of the remaining Ponca. The first Ponca signature on the treaty is that of "Shu-de-gah-he, or He who makes Smoke," in reality this could only have been the son of the former chief of the same name, because "among the dead [following the October 1824 attack] was the Ponca's principal chief, Smoke Maker (Shu-de-gah-he)" (Treaty with the Ponca 1825, Wishart 1994, 75). His son was appointed the new chief, but with the loss of the rest of the leadership, the authority of Smoke Maker's son and the rest of the signatories to the 1825 treaty remains in doubt.

While the 1825 treaty marked the gradual dissolution of Ponca autonomy in the eyes of the United States, the protection promised was not enough to shield the Ponca from the conflict around them, so although there were "an estimated one thousand Ponca at the village" where the 1825 treaty was signed, "increased hostilities with the Brule [a band of Teton Dakota Indians] and Pawnee, together with smallpox in 1831, made living in fixed villages precarious" (Wishart 1994, 75-76). They were forced to abandon their traditional villages near the mouth of the Niobara and instead begin living transiently in tipis. The smallpox epidemic cut their numbers nearly in half, to the point that only five years after the promised protection failed to arrive, the Ponca began to ally themselves with the Teton Dakota as a whole, in order to forestall further attacks by different Dakota bands and to protect themselves from the effects of the conflict between the Dakota and the Pawnee (Wishart 1994, 76).

This alliance with the Dakota saw a period of relative success for the Ponca, because although they were forced to abandon their traditional villages near the mouth of the Niobara and the agriculture which they had previously relied upon, "at least the Ponca, by virtue of their understanding with the Teton Dakota, still had relatively easy access to the bison, which remained abundant in the region north of Niobara and between the Missouri River and the Black Hills" (Wishart 1994, p. 76). Thus, while the Ponca population had dropped "to about five hundred people after the 1831 epidemic," "the most detailed estimate" of the Ponca population over the course of the 1830s showed that they had grown to around

800 […] including 300 women, 240 men, and 260 children" (Wishart 1994, p. 76). This was considerably lower than the tribe's historical populations, but it does show that the tribe was able to rebound relatively quickly following the losses of the early 1830s, in much the same way they had following the smallpox epidemic nearly three decades earlier.

The brief period of expansion and stabilization which occurred over the course of the 1830s was short-lived, however, because the tenuous relationship between the Ponca and the Dakota remained as unstable as ever, especially due to the fact that "to be tolerated by one band did not necessarily mean acceptance by another" (Wishart 1994, 84). Of course, this was evidenced in 1824 when the Ponca chiefs were killed by a band… [END OF PREVIEW]

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