- Associated Press - Saturday, December 5, 2020

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - The Ponca Tribe of Nebraska had no land - and nearly nothing else to its name - when it regained federal recognition 30 years ago.

“Literally, the first office equipment the tribal leaders had in 1990 was a folding table, a card table, folding chairs and an office coffee pot,” Ponca Tribal Chairman Larry Wright Jr. said recently.

Now look: Enrollment has risen from fewer than 500 when its federal status was terminated in the 1960s to nearly 5,000 today, and the tribe has amassed roughly $60 million in property, serving its scattered members - it’s the only tribe in the state without a central land base - in five communities in Nebraska and Iowa.

And it’s about to get even bigger in Lincoln. Earlier this year, the Ponca Tribe bought the former Black Hills Natural Gas building for more than $4 million, and now it’s spending nearly $4 million more to turn it into a 25,000-square-foot pharmacy and clinic, offering dental, medical and mental health services.

It also plans to move most of its offices from its longtime Lincoln home at 17th and E streets.

“Our vision for this is a one-stop shop for our people,” Wright told the Lincoln Journal Star. “If they have other programs - education, social services, housing needs - and they also have an appointment with the dentist, they can make an appointment to serve all the needs they have.”

The tribe already operates primary care clinics in Norfolk and Omaha, but that’s required out-of-town trips for members who live in Lincoln and beyond, said Dr. Matthew Matusiak, chief executive officer of Ponca Health Services.

“Our service delivery area goes as far as Grand Island,” he said. “To ask someone to go from Grand Island to Omaha is kind of ridiculous.”

The tribe expects to add 25 to 30 jobs at its Lincoln clinic and pharmacy, serving more than 2,500 patients annually - Ponca members and, through its existing contract with the Indian Health Service, Natives from other tribes, he said.

It will keep its clinics in Norfolk and Omaha, where it’s also planning a massive expansion, scheduled to break ground next year.

One clinic might be enough if the tribe had its own land base. But its far-flung citizenry requires it to offer the same services at multiple sites, Wright said.

“To serve our people, to make sure we have parity among all of our sites, we have to duplicate those services, regardless of where our tribal members live.”

The Lincoln project took root because the tribe listened to its members, who put health care services high on their list of needs, Wright said. At the same time, the tribe was running out of room at 17th and E, its base in Lincoln for 20 years.

“We’ve been looking for an alternative site for a while. We got serious and did some long-range planning and we knew we had to find something different.”

The tribe has always been attentive to its members, he said. He credits its growth since federal recognition was restored to early leaders and their ability to listen.

“The first 10 years was slow-going, trying to build a financial foundation and offer programs. The learning curve was steep and we were very fortunate and mindful as we listened to our people and heard what they wanted and the needs they have.”

The tribe grew fast once it found financial footing, Wright said. And now it’s in a position to pay a crew from Hausmann Construction to convert the cavernous warehouse and office building near 14th Street and Old Cheney Road - framing exam rooms, piping in dental plumbing, installing ventilation systems.

The tribe hopes to open the clinic by the end of the year and move its offices by spring. It’s still deciding how to use its 17th and E building once it empties, Wright said.

The Lincoln clinic will be staffed by primary care doctors, and the tribe’s health department is working to arrange a roster of specialists to take appointments at all three sites.

“I can’t afford an endocrinologist at each clinic,” Matusiak said. “But I can afford one who will rotate through each clinic.”

The new clinic’s care will be tailored to its patient base, Wright said, designed to make Ponca citizens and members of other tribes comfortable inside its doors.

“It will have a holistic approach; it will be culturally sensitive for our Native people.”

For example, behavioral health care will include conventional counseling and, if necessary, prescriptions. But it could also include access to traditional Ponca approaches, such as a sweat lodge, or talking circle.

“They’re not mutually exclusive. We also know ceremonies for people do have a healing effect; we make sure people know that if they’re interested, they have an avenue to pursue that,” Wright said.

The clinic won’t schedule as tightly as other medical centers, allowing more interaction time between patient and provider. And Ponca and other tribal members should simply feel less stress surrounded by other Natives, Wright said.

“The health care needs of people are only going up,” he said. “We want to make sure we’re providing a first-class opportunity.”

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