Millions sought for museums devoted to Standing Bear and history of Fort Robinson

Bill would also provide for purchase and restoration of long-closed Nebraska City site on underground railroad

By: - March 9, 2023 6:54 pm
Standing Bear

A bust of Chief Standing Bear was unveiled last summer in front of a state office building renamed for the famed Ponca chief. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

LINCOLN — A Nebraska museum honoring Ponca Chief Standing Bear.

A more complete telling of the history of Fort Robinson in the state’s Pine Ridge.

And saving the Mayhew Cabin, the last remaining structure on the underground railroad through southeast Nebraska.

Those are three projects State Sens. Justin Wayne of Omaha and Tom Brewer of Gordon are aiming to accomplish via a legislative bill seeking $35 million in state funds.

State Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha (Cindy Gonzalez/Nebraska Examiner)

Legislative Bill 474 got a wave of support during a hearing Thursday before the Legislature’s Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee, as well as a pledge by its sponsors to get it passed this year.

Wayne, who described his bill as “preserve the third” (as in the 3rd Congressional District), said that Nebraska, Standing Bear’s home,  deserves to have an appropriate center dedicated to the Native American who won a court ruling in 1879 declaring that he was legally “a person.”

Fort Robinson’s vast history as a military fort, POW camp and site of the killing of Crazy Horse, could be better developed and told, the senator said, enhancing tourism to a site that is now a scenic state park.

Mayhew Cabin
The Mayhew Cabin, built in 1852, is one of the oldest structures in Nebraska, predating statehood. But its future is cloudy after a flood damaged an underground tunnel and adjacent museum, leading to lawsuits and finger pointing. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

And the Mayhew Cabin, closed since 2019 because of a damaging flood, needs to be restored and reopened before its history of serving on the underground railroad from 1855-59 is forgotten.

“We need to start preserving some of our culture and history before we lose it,” Wayne said.

The state is awash in surplus funds, and Wayne, along with Brewer, are hoping to replicate what the North Omaha senator has done for his district and South Omaha. Wayne led efforts to obtain $335 million in redevelopment funds last year for those Omaha neighborhoods and is seeking an additional $100 million this year.

He and Brewer admitted Thursday that the exact needs of the three history projects have yet to be worked out but said those details are in the process of being determined.

Mayhew Cabin
The foundation that owns the Mayhew Cabin/John Brown’s Cave complex in Nebraska City has been locked in a bitter battle with the city over who was responsible for flood damage that closed the facility. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

During the hearing, Wayne estimated that purchasing and renovating the Mayhew Cabin would cost less than $1 million, with his bill providing a dollar-for-dollar match of the cost of upgrading historic sites at Fort Robinson and establishing a Standing Bear & Ponca Cultural Center in Niobrara. He estimated those projects at $27 million and $50 million, respectively.

But, he said, “if it’s only $5 million this year, then it’s only $5 million this year.”

Much will depend, Wayne said, on how much money state lawmakers have available to spend after the state budget is passed later during the 2023 session.

Officials from Nebraska City, the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs and the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska testified in favor of the bill. A representative of History Nebraska — which would take ownership of the Mayhew Cabin and Fort Robinson enhancements under the bill — took a neutral stance and asked for more information on what exact responsibilities the historical society would be expected to assume.

Ponca officials said Thursday that they have many artifacts connected with Standing Bear and are pursuing the construction of a cultural center to display them on tribal land near Niobrara, the chief’s home land.

Judi gaiashkibosh
Judi gaiashkibos, executive director of the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs, testifies Thursday in favor of funding a Standing Bear cultural center. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

Judi gaiashkibos, executive director of the Indian Affairs Commission, said that the story of Standing Bear will soon get a higher profile with the production of up to two movies about the famed civil rights leader.

Last year, the Legislature appropriated $5 million toward the production of a film, and gaiashkibos said a second movie director — an award-winning Irish director — is now also interested in telling the story in film.

She said that talks are underway to determine whether the two directors will work together on one film, or produce two movies.

The Government Committee took no action on LB 474 after the public hearing. Lincoln Sen. Jane Raybould said that options are being discussed to get the bill prioritized so it will come up for debate this year.

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Paul Hammel
Paul Hammel

Senior Reporter Paul Hammel has covered the Nebraska Legislature and Nebraska state government for decades. A native of Ralston, Nebraska, he is vice president of the John G. Neihardt Foundation, a member of the Nebraska Hop Growers and a volunteer caretaker of Irvingdale Park in Lincoln.