Celebrating Nebraska’s Indigenous tribes through art

Omaha tribal Chief Big Elk sculpture
The sculpture of Omaha Chief Big Elk was added to the Omaha riverfront in Summer 2023.

Standing tall along Omaha’s riverfront, Chief Big Elk looks out over his traditional homeland. A sculpture of the Umo Hon (Omaha) chief is the newest addition to Omaha’s popular recreation area.

Dedicated last summer, the statue is a symbol of the Indigenous Peoples who were the original residents of the Missouri River Valley.

Public art is important to communities, and several have embraced it through sculpture walks and murals that combine history and culture along with some fun pop culture.

For Nebraska’s Indigenous population, recent art additions signal the importance of acknowledging their homeland and understanding their history and current stories.

Benjamin Victor, who studied art at Northern State University in South Dakota appreciates the importance of detail in his work. He created the Chief Big Elk statue, as well as Ponca Chief Standing Bear and Dr. Susan LA Flesche Picotte. Both Standing Bear and Picotte sculptures are located on the Capitol Mall in Lincoln, Nebraska. Another Standing Bear statue is located at the Ponca tribal headquarters near Ponca, Nebraska.

Sculpture of Dr. Susan La Flesche Picotte, who was the first Native American doctor
Susan La Flesche Picotte, an Omaha tribal citizen, was the first Native American doctor.

Victor is the only American artist to have three sculptures – including Chief Standing Bear – at Statuary Hall at the United States Capitol. He is working on a fourth piece which will be displayed there.

Ponca Chief Standing Bear statue
Ponca Chief Standing Bear was the first Native American sculpture erected on Nebraska’s Capitol Mall.

Winnebago is home to Honoring-the-Clans Sculpture Garden. Located in the heart of the Thurston County community, the garden celebrates the stories of the Ho Chunk’s 12 clans. Created in 2006 by Ho Chunk artist Charles Aldrich, the garden’s sculpture of tribal ancestors explains the role of each clan, from providing for community security to meeting food and water services, as well as medical and spiritual needs.

Honoring-the-Clans Sculpture Garden at Winnebago
The Ho Chunks’ 12 clans are honored at a sculpture garden in the northeast Nebraska community.

Murals help share history

Besides sculptures, murals help tell a tribe’s history or culture. In Santee, you’ll find historical murals at the Ohiya Casino and inside the iSanti Community Schools building.

The casino’s art includes dancers at a wacipi (Dakota for powwow) and a tipi, as well as murals inside observing Santee’s history. Daniel Long Soldier, an Ogalala Lakota, was the artist who created the works showcased at the casino.

Painting of Native Americans with their horses in front of tipi
The mural represents the arrival of the iSanti Dakota to Nebraska.

At the school, a mural painted by Redwing Thomas celebrates “Warrior Nation” (the school’s nickname is Warriors). The mural features three grandmothers representing the three main communities of the Oceti Sakowin (O-che-tee Sack-o-wee – Seven Councils Fire or Sioux Nation to non-Natives) – Lakota, Dakota and Nakota.

Mural with a horse and rider in front of Warrior Nation and three Grandmothers
The painting honors the three communities of the Oceti Sakowin.

In nearby Ponca, the Northern Ponca tribe celebrates its history through a series of sculptures and other historical exhibits along a heritage walk, culminating with a stop at the statue of Chief Standing Bear overlooking the Niobrara River valley.

Rabbit sculpture is part of Ponca legends
The hare is part of a Ponca legend you can learn about during a walk along the tribe’s heritage path in Niobrara.

Our final look at tribal art takes you to Omaha, where murals honor Nebraska’s four current tribes – Santee, Omaha, Ponca and Winnebago. Both murals are located near Plaza de la Raza near 24th and M Streets in South Omaha.

Mural honors the grandmothers of Nebraska's four tribes
A mural in South Omaha features four women as symbols of Nebraska’s four current tribes.

Joslyn Museum’s sculpture garden also features works recognizing tribes such as the Chiricahua Apache and Hidatsa.

While art introduces you to the story of Nebraska’s tribes, the state has been home to dozens of tribes over time, including the Pawnee and Otoe. I encourage you to learn more about not only Nebraska’s tribal history – and current stories – but those of your area.