KEARNEY, Neb. — When the Dancers of the Plains cultural exhibition unfolds June 15-16, the Ponca Tribes of Nebraska and Oklahoma won’t be the only honored guests.
Also on the grounds of the Great Platte River Road Archway Monument will be 50 leaders of Indian tribes from across North America. The leaders will be participating in a National Conference of American Indians meeting in Lincoln and plan a side trip to Kearney to experience Dancers of the Plains.
“I think they’re going to see how amazingly the community of Kearney has embraced the event,” said Carol Rempp of Lincoln. She coordinates multicultural and Native American education with the Nebraska Department of Education.
Rempp, who has Oglala Lakota ancestors, serves as a cultural adviser during planning for Dancers of the Plains. Rempp said people of the Kearney area are “very respectful in how they honor the traditions of the Native American people.”
Unlike most powwows that feature competitive dancing, Dancers of the Plains focuses on culture, tradition and lore.
“We’re really excited that one of the projects I feel passionate about, Dancers of the Plains, is going to overlap with the NCAI conference,” Rempp said. “Representatives from many tribes outside Nebraska will see that it is possible to have an event that is very respectful in how it handles tribal traditions.”
Rempp said the Cornhusker Hotel in Lincoln is expecting 800 to 1,200 delegates representing an estimated 500 U.S. tribes for the June 17-20 NCAI gathering.
Delegates from the Lincoln gathering who visit Dancers of the Plains will be recognized during the Kearney event.
The estimated 50 delegates will travel by bus, but Rempp said others might drive to Kearney.
While the Dancers of the Plains event will be a two-day focus on Ponca culture, the archway plans a summerlong focus on growing corn varieties and other foods that sustained Plains tribes.
Interns from the Pawnee Tribe of Oklahoma will work on the archway’s corn project that began with the first Dancers event four years ago.
Dawna Ourada, the lead coordinator for Dancers, said six Pawnee interns will work in the archway’s corn gardens. The interns will be available during Dancers to tell about the food they’re growing.
Interns will learn how the corn grows in native Nebraska conditions and return to Oklahoma with the knowledge. The interns will serve in pairs over four-week rotations.
“Traditionally the Pawnee and Ponca haven’t been too great of friends,” Ourada said. “There is a lot they set aside to put up a united front for pan-Indianism.”
Preservation of Native American cultures is the purpose of gatherings such as Dancers and the NCIA conference.
Ourada said a comment she heard during the 2011 Dancers event reminds her why the work of staging the Native American culture exhibition is worth the effort.
“The emcee for the Otoe-Missouria Tribe at last year’s event made the comment that at one time the Otoe people left Nebraska in tears because they didn’t want to leave” their land, Ourada said. “And they would leave again in tears after this event because they would be leaving friends behind rather than in bitterness.”
What began with an anticipated small gathering of Pawnee Indians in celebration of reclaimed land in the area four years ago has grown into an event that has attracted thousands of spectators and hundreds of native dancers to the archway, Ourada said.
“Bringing the Pawnee corn back to Nebraska and welcoming them back to their traditional homeland is going to be a powerful story that will resonate with all of the tribes that will be here to see how amazing this event really is,” Rempp said.