Native Village 
Youth and Education News

April 1, 2013

Ponca songs finding new voices
Condensed by Native Village

This is their grandfather's song, and these are his grandchildren, singing as a way to honor their ancestor.

They sing Standing Bear's song to be remembered. A young man leads the song, his voice low and steady. The other men join as the beat builds and grows louder.

The song's words are about Chief Standing Bear's fight to gain independence and recognition for his people. It's a song meant to honor the chief.

"This is our song, our family song,"  Steve Laravie tells the young men and women gathered together.

Sometimes others forget the tribe is  still here.

"...they think we no longer exist. They think we're a thing of the past," he says.

Every Wednesday afternoon, Steve Laravie meets with about 20 young Native men and women at the Ponca Tribe's offices. They practice drumming and singing and telling stories.

Portraits of their chiefs adorn the walls. Names such as Big Snake and Smoke Maker. Hairy Grizzly Bear and Black Crow.

The Ponca Youth Culture Program teaches Ponca youth about their culture and history. It gives them a sense of identity. It began in April 2012 and is open to any youth.

Every Wednesday, such as this one, the program begins with drumming.

Steve's son, Steve Laravie Jr., often leads the singers. The 15-year-old high school sophomore said learning about the songs helps him express his spirituality and stay on the right track. The youth group also has helped him learn to stand up for his people's rights.

In January he joined his father and others to sing and play drums at a rally to protest the Keystone XL pipeline. They helped draw attention to attacks on Native people in America and Canada. It was the first time Steve Jr. had taken part in such a show of cultural pride.

He said learning the Ponca songs -- many were nearly forgotten until now -- helps him understand who he is.

"They help me understand my language that was lost," he said. "That can help me express my Ponca identity."

Steve Sr. said it's important for the youth to learn their culture, language and history. For many years, the Ponca forgot those things after the tribe lost its federal recognition. They struggled to regain their collective identity. But in 1990, the tribe was again recognized and its members were able to enroll.

But much had been lost. Songs and language were forgotten.

In the late 19th century, the Ponca tribe split into two factions. The Ponca Tribe of Nebraska is the tribe's northern band. No fluent Ponca speakers remain in their tribe, Laravie said.

The southern Ponca, who live in Oklahoma, have only a handful, he said.

Still, the language is surviving. An English/Ponca dictionary has been published, and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln developed a Ponca digital language library.   And many traditional songs have been recorded and archived by the southern Ponca and the Smithsonian Institution, Laravie said.

The Ponca Youth Program students sing about nine Ponca language songs, as well as several other Lakota ceremony songs. They plan to take their drum to the powwow in Niobrara in April.

At the weekly youth meetings, he often gives lists of Ponca words to the students to learn.

"They're thirsty for knowledge," Laravie said. "They're thirsty for who they are. They're thirsty for identity."

Vanessa Rodriguez Laravie, 11, knew about Standing Bear, but not much else of her Ponca heritage. Then she joined the youth group. She has learned to stitch and make Native regalia, as well as sing along with the drum group.

"I always thought I was just American," she said. "But it shows my true self."

D.J. Laravie, 13, enjoys spending time with friends and relatives while learning about tribe. He said the youth group has taught him leadership skills and made him proud to be Native.

He also enjoys spending time with his dad.

"My dad is trying to bring it all back," he said. "It makes me really proud."


Watch Standing Bear's Footsteps on PBS. See more from Standing Bear's Footsteps.

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Native Village Gina Boltz
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