Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld’s Katie Brossy tapped every resource she had in her pro bono campaign to replace the statue of William Jennings Bryan in the U.S. Capitol’s National Statuary Hall with that of Ponca Tribe Chief Standing Bear.
Brossy used her legal skills as a long-standing senior counsel at the firm with a focus on American Indian policy. She parlayed her lobbyist colleagues’ Capitol Hill connections.
And she took great inspiration from the fact that she’s a Ponca tribe member.
Brossy was on hand as the 11-foot statue of Standing Bear, a notable Native American civil rights leader, was dedicated and formally unveiled Sept. 18 at a ceremony attended by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as well as Nebraska Republicans U.S. Sen. Deb Fischer, U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, and state Gov. Pete Ricketts.
As the statue was unboxed to a small group last weekend Brossy told Bloomberg Law she got emotional. “I can’t tell you how moving it was,” she said. “As a Ponca person, I got to welcome him into the Capitol.”
Brossy’s mission didn’t begin with the statue.
At first, Brossy, 40, was enlisted to help her nonprofit client, the Chief Standing Bear Trail Foundation, which is led by her mother Judi gaiashkibos, the executive director of the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs.
The foundation sought to establish a type of “corridor” trail through parts of Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma through the National Park Service.
The route would in part follow the Ponca Trail of Tears, created in the 1870s when the tribe moved from their homeland in Nebraska to a site in Oklahoma.
Soon after relocating, Standing Bear trekked back to Nebraska to bury his son, Bear Shield. Upon his return, he was arrested, leading to a historic federal court ruling that found Native Americans must be considered “persons” within the meaning of U.S. law.
Prior bills to create the trail have passed the House of Representatives but died in the Senate, Brossy said. A current bill was introduced in the House in May, and she continues to work for its passage.
But her efforts on behalf of her nonprofit client changed direction somewhat in 2018, after Nebraska’s legislature passed a bill granting a change to both of the state’s two allotted statues in Statuary Hall. The statue of Bryan, the former three-time Democratic presidential nominee, is returning to Nebraska, she said. (In the other switch, the statue of Julius Sterling Morton, former U.S. secretary of agriculture, is set to be replaced by one of Willa Cather, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist.)
At that point, Brossy began wading through the lengthy bureaucratic proccess that involved working with Architect of the Capitol, the Joint Committee on the Library, and the many other federal offices necessary to allow for a statue change.
She enlisted the help of Akin Gump senior advisor Vic Fazio, the former Democratic congressman from California, and other firm lobbyists.
It also took effort from many others to bring on a sculptor, Benjamin Victor, to create the statue, to raise the money for the artwork, and to carry out other key steps.
At the unveiling ceremony, Pelosi, other House and Senate leaders, and the Nebraska political delegation each recounted how Standing Bear’s striking and large likeness, and his story, would prove inspirational to the Capitol’s many visitors.
“Let this statue be a symbol of righting the wrongs of the past,” Pelosi said.
Standing Bear’s story helped the courts and the nation confirm a vital truth, said Ricketts—that the Ponca chief, and all Native Americans, should have the same civil rights as anyone else in the United States. “As Nebraskans, we’re very proud to have this statue here in the Capitol,” he said.
In the end, Brossy suggests that the 17 months it took to get from Nebraska legislative approval to statue unveiling was pretty speedy—by Washington standards, anyway. The “substantial” number of pro bono hours she’s put into the matter were made easier by her first-hand connection to the Ponca and to Standing Bear.
“This has been a story about family and a love of nation,” she said through tears in her interview with Bloomberg Law. “It’s been personal to me from the very beginning.”