Pro Bono Efforts Secure Placement in U.S. Capitol of Statue of Native Civil Rights Icon Ponca Chief Standing Bear

Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP
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Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP

(Washington, D.C.) – A monumental bronze sculpture honoring Native civil rights icon Ponca Chief Standing Bear will be unveiled in Statuary Hall of the United States Capitol at a dedication ceremony on Wednesday, September 18, 2019—the culmination of a nearly 18-month effort to secure federal approval to do so. Katie Brossy, senior counsel in Akin Gump’s American Indian law and policy practice, led the firm’s pro bono representation of the Chief Standing Bear Trail Foundation in the matter.

Chief Standing Bear is revered for his struggle to gain equality and justice for Native peoples across the U.S. In 1877, Chief Standing Bear and the Ponca Tribe were forced by federal treaty to leave their homeland in Nebraska for Indian Territory in what is now Oklahoma, which led to many members of the tribe perishing—including Chief Standing Bear’s son. Determined to honor his son’s dying wish to be buried in his homeland, Chief Standing Bear, along with 30 Poncas, walked over 500 miles back to their home in Nebraska. A resulting court case, Standing Bear v. Crook, in which Standing Bear sued for and won freedom from U. S. Army custody for himself and his companions, became not only the first time in which an indigenous person spoke before a U. S. federal court, it also established that Native Americans were persons and, as such, had civil rights.

Each state has an opportunity to select two statues for permanent display in the U. S. Capitol. Nebraska chose statues honoring William Jennings Bryan and J. Sterling Morton, which have been part of the National Statuary Hall collection since 1937. On April 23, 2018, Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts signed into law a bill to replace the two Nebraska statues.

Ms. Brossy, herself a member of the Ponca Tribe, and the firm were engaged on a pro bono basis to navigate the rigorous process needed to replace the William Jennings Bryan statue with the Chief Standing Bear statue.

“Being involved in an effort like this is deeply meaningful to me,” stated Ms. Brossy. “Chief Standing Bear is an admired civil rights leader with a story that resonates far beyond our tribe. I am immensely proud to have played a role in securing a place for his statue in the United States Capitol, where his legacy of equality can be remembered.”

Judi M. gaiashkibos, executive director of the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs, added, “With its deep presence in Washington and stature throughout Indian Country, combined with having Ms. Brossy—a member of the Ponca Tribe—coordinating the project, Akin Gump was uniquely suited to lead an effort like this. This involved tremendous resources, and we could not be more thrilled with the outcome. The dedication of the Chief Standing Bear statue is a banner achievement for all of Indian Country and a fitting recognition of a truly inspiring leader.”

Benjamin Victor of Boise, Idaho is the sculptor of the 11-foot-tall portrait of Chief Standing Bear.

The unveiling ceremony will include a Native American color guard; remarks by members of the Nebraska congressional delegation and other congressional leaders, Gov. Ricketts and Nebraska State Sen. Tom Brewer; an opening prayer by Ponca chairman Larry Wright Jr.; and a Native American honor song by Steve Laravie Jr., a direct descendant of Chief Standing Bear.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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