Wakonda was the Great Spirit or universal creator. All things had supernatural power, which could be accessed through guardian spirits obtained in vision quests. The original tribal Sacred Pipe was carved of catlinite when the Poncas lived in Minnesota. It was used in the Pipe Dance and on other occasions, as were its later replacements. Other important events included the Medicine Lodge ceremony, Sun Dance, and War Dance. The Ponca Sun Dance included self-torture.
Hereditary chiefs governed the clans. On the Plains, buffalo police kept order during the hunt. Two divisions, Chighu and Wazhazha, were each subdivided into four patrilineal clans. The Poncas built permanent villages on bluffs over rivers and fortified them with log and earth stockades. They lived in east-facing earth or hide-covered lodges. There was also a ceremonial earth lodge. Skin teepees were used on buffalo hunts. Women grew corn, beans, squash, pumpkins, and tobacco in gardens located on river bottomlands. There were two annual communal buffalo hunts. Before the people acquired horses, buffalo were often stampeded over cliffs. Men also hunted other large and small game. The people ate fish as well as a variety of wild foods.
Notable art items included carved wooden goods, blue clay pottery, woven mats and baskets, and work in quills and beads in floral and geometric designs.
Women tanned the skins and made the clothing. They wore a one-piece dress and moccasins. Men wore leggings and breechclouts, as well as moccasins. Cold weather gear included shirts, mittens, robes, and caps. On the Plains men wore their hair long, a custom they probably adopted from the Dakotas. Weapons included the bow and arrow, buffalo hide shield, and wooden war club. On the Plains, the Poncas acquired the institution of rival military clubs, probably from the Tetons.
Dhegiha speakers probably originated in the Southeast and entered the Plains from the Ohio Valley. After arriving at the Mississippi in the midsixteenth century, the Poncas traveled upriver with the Kaws, Omahas, and Osages. Continuing north with the Omahas into Iowa and Minnesota, the groups settled on the Big Sioux River near the pipestone quarries. Pressure from the Dakotas forced them to the Lake Andres area of South Dakota, where they separated from the Omahas in the early to midseventeenth century. From there they traveled west to the Black Hills and then east again, rejoining the Omahas and moving south along the Missouri River to Nebraska. They settled on the mouth of the Niobrara River around 1763. The Omahas left them soon after to settle on Bow Creek.
Epidemics had reduced the Ponca population by over 90 percent by the time they encountered the Meriwether Lewis and William Clark expedition in 1804. Treaties with the United States, beginning in 1817, cost them over 2 million acres of land. In 1858, the people accepted a reservation of about 100,000 acres and promises of protection against Lakota tribes. However, ten years later the Lakotas successfully claimed most of this land in the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty. Lakota attacks were worse then ever, since they now controlled the disputed land by treaty. In contravention of the treaties and in the face of active resistance of the chiefs, the United States forced the Poncas to remove to the Indian Territory (Oklahoma). There the Indians received a reservation of just over 100,000 acres near the Arkansas and Salt Fork Rivers. Within a year, about a quarter of the tribe died in those new lands from hunger and disease.
In 1877, Chief Standing Bear and others led their people on a 500-mile walk back to the Niobrara River to bury their dead. They were arrested and detained, but a precedent-setting trial established their rights both to legal standing and to their Nebraska land, to which they soon returned. Fearing for the very survival of the reservation system, however, not to mention the corrupt system of supplying reservation Indians with substandard food and materials, the United States refused permission for the rest of the Poncas to return to Nebraska. From then on, the Poncas living in Nebraska were known as northern Poncas, and the southern Poncas remained in Oklahoma.
The Oklahoma land was allotted in 1908. Most people later sold their allotments or leased them to non-Indians. Among the southern Poncas, strong antiallotment sentiment led to factionalism within the tribe. Two Poncas were among those who established the Native American Church in the 1910s; the church's first president was a Ponca. The northern Poncas were formally "terminated" in the 1950s. By the mid-1960s, over 400 Poncas had lost all of their remaining 834 acres of land. The Ponca Clyde Warrior and the Paiut, Mel Thom formed the National Indian Youth Council, a group dedicated to advancing Indian rights, in 1961.