NELIGH, Neb. (AP) - Residents here still honor a promise they made 140 years ago.
The evidence is on a grassy hill overlooking this Antelope County community. The Laurel Hill cemetery isn’t much different from any other, but on any given day, there is always one headstone more decorated than the others.
Because when the people of Neligh promised to care for the grave, they meant it.
White Buffalo Girl has been buried in the cemetery since she died in 1877, and her story is told at the Antelope County Museum.
Levern Hauptmann, a director at the museum, told the Norfolk Daily News that the museum is proudest of its collection of American Indian artifacts from the area.
Cases near the front of the museum showcase the work of Harry Marwood of Clearwater who collected arrowheads and arranged them for display.
What makes the exhibit special, Hauptmann said, are the three or four arrowheads with metal tips. These are rare finds because the metal often erodes, leaving only the stones to be found.
Experts have examined the arrowheads and concluded they’re from several different areas, which is logical because of the trading Northeast Nebraska people did with other tribes.
Near the arrowheads is a wall roll, much like wall maps in schools. It was created and used by a priest in 1885. By putting pictures beside his best spelling of the Ponca language, the priest helped Ponca children re-learn their language.
And another display case has a collection of moccasins and similar items. Experts have examined these items as well and determined the most valuable is a small beaded bag because of its intricate beadwork.
“Most of our information comes from South Dakota colleges and Native American studies professors,” Hauptmann said.
But by far the museum display that gets the most attention is the White Buffalo Girl exhibit.
In 1877, the Ponca people were forced to move to present-day Oklahoma, then known as “Indian Territory.” Because of harsh weather conditions that killed nine people along the way, the tribe’s journey is referred to as the Ponca Trail of Tears.
One of the people who died was White Buffalo Girl, the young daughter of Black Elk and Moon Hawk. According to her headstone, she was 18 months old at the time.
The marble stone in the cemetery was erected in 1913, replacing the original wooden cross.
Hauptmann said Black Elk gave White Buffalo Girl’s body to the townspeople of Neligh, requesting a Christian burial and that they take care of her grave as if it was for their own people.
The townspeople agreed and for 140 years they’ve done so.
“It’s a sign that a lot of people know that the Ponca people got a really raw deal,” Hauptmann said in reference to their being forced away from their home territory.
Now, the gravesite is decorated with bouquets, pinwheels, stuffed animals and toys. Hauptmann said the site is usually “absolutely loaded with gifts.”
In addition, there is a metal silhouette piece depicting a black elk, a hawk, a moon and a white buffalo.
The Ponca people haven’t forgotten either.
Six years ago, representatives of the Ponca and Omaha tribes came to Neligh to celebrate the memory of White Buffalo Girl and what she represents. Hauptmann said the tribes gathered with people in Neligh to have a cookout and to present plaques to honor and recognize the town that took care of her.
Starting in late April this year, more than 100 people, mostly Native Americans, started in Niobrara and retraced the steps of the Ponca to Barneston, traveling 285 miles. It was all to commemorate the struggle that took place 140 years ago and to celebrate the dedication of the 20-mile Chief Standing Bear trail.
On their way, not surprisingly, they stopped again in Neligh.
Information from: Norfolk Daily News, https://www.norfolkdailynews.com
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