Standing Bear (1829-1908) was a respected leader of the small Ponca Indian tribe that resided for years in northern Nebraska. In the late 1870s, at a crucial point in the tribe's existence, he took heroic action to reverse the wrongs inflicted upon his people at the hands of the U.S. government and its Indian agents. He remains a heroic and symbolic figure in the long struggle for Native American rights.
Nothing is known of Standing Bear's early life, although he is generally assumed to have been born around 1829. He was a member and a chief of the Ponca Indians, a small tribe—apparently never more than 800 or 900 persons strong in the nineteenth century—closely related to the much larger Omaha tribe. Since at least the mid-seventeenth century, the tribe had lived near the region where the Niobrara River enters the Missouri River in what is now northeastern Nebraska.
The Loss of Ponca Land
In a treaty between the U.S. government and the Ponca Indians signed on March 12, 1858, the tribe ceded to the United States all the land they held except for an extensive tract near the mouth of the Niobrara River, which was reserved for the Poncas as their permanent home. In a second treaty, signed on March 10, 1865, the Poncas ceded another 30,000 acres to the federal government, retaining a total of 96,000 acres as their permanent reservation. However, in a separate treaty negotiated with the Sioux Indian tribes three years later, U.S. government negotiators inadvertently included the Poncas' 96,000 acres as part of a much larger reservation granted to the Sioux nation. Since the Poncas had not been consulted in the matter, they continued to occupy the tract. However, the much larger and more warlike Sioux tribes carried out repeated attacks on the Poncas during the next few years, seeking to drive them off land that they regarded as part of Sioux territory. The Indian Bureau in the U.S. Department of the Interior decided in 1876 that the only solution to the problem was to relocate the Ponca tribe to a new reservation in the Indian Territory, located in the present state of Oklahoma.
Early in 1877, a delegation of ten Ponca chiefs, Standing Bear among them, was escorted by agents of the Indian Bureau to the Indian Territory to survey the land and choose a location for their reservation there. Standing Bear and seven of the other leaders found all the suggested sites unsatisfactory and decided to return to their home in Nebraska; the agents refused to assist them in their return, so the eight chiefs walked the 500 miles from Oklahoma back to Nebraska in 40 days in the late winter of 1877. When they arrived home, they found that their Ponca tribe was already being moved to the Indian Territory under military escort.
About 170 Ponca members had begun the long trek in late April of 1877. Standing Bear and his brother, Big Snake, were briefly imprisoned when they urged that the remainder of the Poncas resist the removal. By May, the remaining 600 or so Poncas—including Standing Bear and his brother—were forced to join in the march, leaving behind their homes, farms, and many of their possessions. Nine persons died in the course of the journey, including a daughter of Standing Bear.
The nine deaths turned out to be a grim prelude to much further hardship and death for the Poncas in their new locale. They suffered from diseases, such as malaria, which afflicted a large number of Indians transported from northern climates to the humid Indian Territory. Estimates of the number of deaths vary greatly, but even Indian Bureau reports indicate that a sizeable portion of the tribe perished in the course of the first year. Standing Bear and several other leaders went to Washington, D.C., in the autumn of 1877, seeking President Rutherford B. Hayes' approval of their request to return to Nebraska. Hayes reportedly vetoed the request, but allowed the Ponca leaders to select a more desirable location for their reservation within the Indian Territory. Although the Poncas eventually settled on a more favorable site 150 miles away, the ravages of disease and poverty continued. Standing Bear's last living son was among those who had died by 1878.
Standing Bear's Trial
Despair over the situation of the Poncas in Indian Territory, together with the more personal desire to bury his son in the tribe's Nebraska homeland, led Standing Bear to make the move that made him famous—though it cost him the leadership of his tribe. In early January of 1879, he led a small band of Poncas on a return march to Nebraska, determined to resettle on the old land or die in the attempt. Most of the roughly 600 members of the tribe chose to remain in the Indian Territory, but Standing Bear and several dozen followers arrived at the Omaha Indian agency at Decatur, Nebraska, on March 4, 1879. The Omahas welcomed their kinsmen and invited them to settle there; temporarily at least, they did so.
The Indian Bureau had been informed of Standing Bear's flight from the Indian Territory soon after his departure. Secretary of the Interior Carl Schurz ordered General George Crook, commander of the U.S. Army Department of the Platte, at Omaha, to arrest the chief and his followers and return them to the territory in Oklahoma. Schurz and his advisers feared that if Standing Bear and his band were allowed to remain in Nebraska, it would set a precedent for all Native Americans in the Indian Territory to demand a return to their respective homelands.
Although General Crook obeyed the order and arrested Standing Bear and his followers, he is said to have personally sympathized with the Poncas and believed that they had been repeatedly wronged by the government. Crook convinced Thomas Henry Tibbles, an Omaha newspaperman, to undertake a publicity campaign and institute a case in the federal district court to have Standing Bear and his group released.
Tibbles saw to it that the plight of Standing Bear and his followers was well publicized not only in his own Omaha newspaper but in papers nationwide. He also persuaded two young Omaha lawyers to file a writ of habeas corpus (a claim of unjust detention) in the federal district court at Omaha for the release of Standing Bear and his group. The trial of Standing Bear vs. Crook was held from April 30 to May 2, 1879. The case was of great significance not only as a means of righting the wrongs inflicted on the Ponca tribe, but also because it raised the larger question of Native American citizenship and the rights of Indians to appear in and to sue in the courts of the nation.
The federal district attorney argued that Standing Bear was not entitled to the protection of a writ of habeas corpus because he was not a citizen or even a "person" under American law. Standing Bear spoke briefly but eloquently on his own behalf. Judge Elmer S. Dundy, in the decision he handed down several weeks later, held that an Indian was, indeed, a person within the meaning of the laws of the United States, though he avoided the larger question of what rights of citizenship an Indian might have. He also ruled that the federal government had no rightful authority to remove the Poncas to the Indian Territory by force; Native Americans, he stated, possessed an inherent right of expatriation—that is, a right to move from one area to another as they wished. Dundy therefore ordered the release of Standing Bear and his followers from custody.
Became a Symbol of Human Rights Struggle
Thomas Tibbles and other leaders of the movement for Indian rights hoped to carry the case of Standing Bear to the U.S. Supreme Court in order to secure a more definitive statement on Indian citizenship and rights. Tibbles himself made a tour to Chicago, New York, and Boston in the summer of 1879 to publicize the case and to raise money for the Supreme Court appeal. By October of that year, he had arranged for Standing Bear to lecture in key cities in the eastern United States. As interpreters for the chief, who spoke no English, Tibbles included in the party two Omaha Indians: Susette La Flesche (better known by her Indian name, "Bright Eyes") and her brother, Francis La Flesche, both of whom had been educated in English-speaking schools.
The tour generated great enthusiasm in urban social and literary circles, especially in Boston. Standing Bear, an impressive figure in his full Indian regalia, including feather headdress, related his story and that of his people in simple but emotional terms, while Bright Eyes, also in Indian dress, translated it into poignant English. A good deal of money was raised for the court appeal and for relief of the Poncas, and reform leaders were moved to become active in the cause of Indian rights. Standing Bear and Bright Eyes also testified before committees of Congress in Washington. The tour finally ended in April of 1880.
As it turned out, Secretary of the Interior Schurz was able to quash the proposed appeal of the Ponca case to the Supreme Court. However, the agitation over the affair did lead to both congressional and presidential investigations. On February 1, 1881, President Hayes recommended to Congress that the Poncas be allowed to live where they chose and that they be compensated for lands relinquished and losses sustained during the forced removal to the Indian Territory in Oklahoma. Congress voted the necessary legislation and funds on March 3, 1881.
The majority of the Ponca tribe did in fact remain in the Indian Territory, but Standing Bear and his group lived quietly on the old Nebraska reservation near the mouth of the Niobrara River. Standing Bear died in September of 1908.
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