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Alum Creates Mural to Honor Historic Native American Leader

August 15, 2022

In July, public officials renamed the Nebraska State Justice Administration Building in Lincoln, Nebraska, the Chief Standing Bear Justice Administration Building.

Alum Sarah Harris ’11 was there. And not just there, but a part of the event after designing and painting a large mural of the historic chief of the Ponca tribe.

“At the rededication ceremony, some of the elders of the Ponca tribe gifted me a beautiful blanket,” Harris remembered fondly. “They told me they really appreciated not only what I had to say at the rededication, but also they loved the story and how beautiful the mural was.”

Harris, who lives in Meridian with her husband, James, was hired to create the mural, 21.5 feet long and 8.5 feet high, on a wall inside the building. The mural depicts part of Chief Standing Bear’s story. His tribe was removed from its land in northern Nebraska in 1877 and taken to a reservation in Oklahoma. Shortly after arriving, Chief Standing Bear’s son got sick and died. Before he died, however, he made his father promise to bury him on his people’s native land, which meant leaving the reservation without permission.

“He honored that promise, even though it was against the law,” explained Harris, a fine arts major at the College. “Shortly after burying his son, he was arrested and brought back.”

The story doesn’t end there. A journalist and two Omaha lawyers took up Chief Standing Bear’s case. In 1879, it reached U.S. District Court. During the trial, Standing Bear v. Crook, Standing Bear said the following:

“That hand is not the color of yours, but if I pierce it, I shall feel pain. If you pierce your hand, you also feel pain. The blood that will flow from mine will be the same color as yours. I am a man. God made us both”

On May 12, 1879, Judge Elmer S. Dundy ruled in favor of Chief Standing Bear, saying that native Americans were free to enjoy the rights of any other persons in America. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal of the verdict, which meant Standing Bear and his followers were free.

Harris’s creation, which took more than 250 hours from concept to completion, depicts Chief Standing Bear’s forced removal from native Ponca lands to the reservation and the loss of his son. That part of the mural is deliberately painted in drab tones to depict the sadness. Then, as the eye moves to the right side of the mural, bright colors are present as Standing Bear stands before Judge Dundy, a historic and triumphant moment for civil rights. The immersion into the project – she spent a full month in Lincoln completing the mural – makes it one of her favorite projects, which includes a mural at the Boise Project Board of Control in downtown Boise.

“I loved the people, I loved the work. As for painting Chief Standing Bear, I didn’t realize (when the project began) what a big figure he is in American history,” Harris explained. “The importance of this one, the story of this one makes it a little more special than the others.”

While Harris’ mural is inside, a sculpture of Chief Standing Bear’s head is now present in front of the building. The sculpture was created by Benjamin Victor, a Boise-area artist who recommended Harris for the mural. Harris said it is possible she may return to Lincoln to do more art featuring the Ponca chief.

The College of Idaho has a 130-year-old legacy of excellence. The College is known for its outstanding academic programs, winning athletics tradition, and history of producing successful graduates, including seven Rhodes Scholars, three governors, and countless business leaders and innovators. Its distinctive PEAK Curriculum challenges students to attain competency in the four knowledge peaks of humanities, natural sciences, social sciences, and a professional field—empowering them to earn a major and three minors in four years. The College’s close-knit, residential campus is located in Caldwell, where its proximity both to Boise and to the world-class outdoor activities of southwest Idaho’s mountains and rivers offers unique opportunities for learning beyond the classroom. For more information, visit