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Chief Standing Bear and His Landmark Civil Rights Case

The National Statuary Hall of the United States Capitol has a number of statues of indigenous Americans—Will Rogers, Kamehameha I, Washakie, Po’pay, Sequoyah, Sakakawea, and the newest—Chief Standing Bear, just donated to the hall by Nebraska and installed in September 2019. If a legal scholar wanted to study an inspiring legal figure for Native American Heritage Month, Standing Bear is a great historical candidate.

             Statue of Chief Standing Bear, National Statuary Hall [photo by Geraldine Dávila González]

Chief Standing Bear (Ma-chú-nu-zhe) was the leader of a band of about 82 Ponca people, living near the banks of the Niobrara River.  With the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, Eastern farmers were eyeing the cheap land that the government was planning to put on offer. The indigenous tribes, including the Ponca, were being urged to sell up and remove themselves to “Indian Territory”.

In 1876, the U.S. government told the Ponca they were being moved to Indian Territory (now Oklahoma). The Ponca did not like the lands assigned to them in Indian Territory, and decided to return to their traditional homelands. However, the U.S. government had other ideas, and, “[w]hen the 8 Ponca chiefs reached their homeland, they found that since the Ponca had refused to go to Indian Territory of their own free will, a government order had been issued on 12 April 1877 to force their removal. Federal troops were called in to enforce the removal orders, and by May 1877, the Ponca had begun their forced migration to “the hot country.”

The trip was grueling for the Ponca, and on the way, Standing Bear’s wife, Shines White, and his daughter, Prairie Flower, died, as did many in the party. Shortly after their arrival in Oklahoma, Standing Bear’s oldest son Bear Shield died. Ponca historians say that Standing Bear was “unwilling” to bury his son in Oklahoma. Standing Bear and a party of his people traveled some 600 miles in the middle of winter back to Nebraska and their traditional lands with his son’s body, intending to bury Bear Shield (Starita, 130). However, the U.S. government would not allow the Ponca to leave Indian Territory without permission. The Secretary of the Interior, Carl Schurz ordered General George Crook of the U.S. Army to arrest and return Chief Standing Bear and his party to Indian Territory.

After Crook caught up with Standing Bear and his people, Crook imprisoned them in Fort Omaha Barracks. There was a groundswell of public sympathy for Standing Bear and his people, given the reason he left and his recent past practice of staying in one place and farming. A federal judge with relevant experience, Elmer Dundy, agreed to hear the attorneys representing Standing Bear, John L. Webster and Andrew J. Poppleton, who asked him to grant a writ of habeas corpus. Ultimately, Dundy did so. Standing Bear’s case, United States, ex rel. Standing Bear, v. George Crook, started in May 1879. The U.S. government argued, “that [Standing Bear] was neither a citizen, nor a person, so he could not sue the government.”  Standing Bear’s lawyers argued that under the Fourteenth Amendment, Standing Bear and his fellow Ponca were both citizens and people and entitled to the same constitutional rights as other citizens of the United States. Judge Dundy’s opinion fundamentally agreed with their argument; he wrote, “That an Indian is a PERSON within the meaning of the laws of the United States…”

   Standing Bear (Ponca) Quote from his Testimony on Pedestal [photo by Geraldine Dávila González]

The judge released Standing Bear and his people, and they returned to their lands by the Niobrara. Standing Bear finally buried his son there. Scholars have compared the case in its civil rights impact to the Dred Scott decision and to Brown v. Board of Education (Starita, 146, and Nagle, 456). Native American history is American history, and Chief Standing Bear’s pursuit of his freedom is a landmark point in that story.

Bibliography

E99.P7 S837 2009  Starita, Joe.  “I am a man” : Chief Standing Bear’s journey for justice.

E99.P7 S833 2004  Dando-Collins, Stephen.  Standing Bear is a person : the true story of a Native American’s quest for justice.

E99.P7 H43 2020 Headman, Louis. Walks on the ground : a tribal history of the Ponca nation.

E99.P7 M17 2003 Mathes, Valerie Sherer. The Standing Bear controversy : prelude to Indian reform.

E99.P7 S836 2013  Sneve, Virginia Driving Hawk. Standing Bear of the Ponca.

KF228.S78 T5  Tibbles, Thomas Henry. The Ponca chiefs;  an account of the trial of Standing Bear. Edited with an introd. by Kay Graber.

KF228.S78 T54 1995  Tibbles, Thomas Henry, 1840-1928. Standing Bear and the Ponca Chiefs.

E77 .V59 2019  Vizenor, Gerald Robert.  Native provenance : the betrayal of cultural creativity.

Thomas Henry Tibbles Papers “Standing Bear vs. Crook: Argument of G.M. Lambertson, 1879” (Box 2, Folder 07).

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