Chief Standing Bear’s Victory for Civil Rights

Standing Bear (Ma-chu-nah-zha), a chief among the Ponca Tribe in the mid-19th century, found himself imprisoned illegally for leaving Indian Territory to take his only son’s body home. The tribe was moved from their homeland by military force in 1877, though the Ponca had full ownership of their land in what is now Nebraska.

The Ponca people were a law-abiding, intelligent people who met most governmental requests with some form of accommodation. But the government was intent on moving Native Americans to areas that opened land for white settlers.

A black and white photograph of Standing Bear. His face is weathered. He proudly wears the bear tooth necklace he inherited from his father.  istockimage

A father taking his son’s bones home to be buried became a cause white men could identify with, and eventually two pro bono attorneys helped Standing Bear make a legal case against the government.

Federal Judge Elmer Dundy decided in Standing Bear’s favor. He wrote that there was nothing wrong with [Native Americans] wanting to maintain their homeland on which they held title. He summarized saying that citizen’s rights “extend to the Indian as well as to the more fortunate white race.”

This was a landmark legal case and the first time a Native American was recognized as a citizen. It was a strong first step for the tribes, but it was not until 1924 and the passage of the Indian Citizenship Act that all Indians born in the United States were declared citizens.

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About the Ponca Tribe

The Ponca were once a part of the Omaha Tribe, from which they separated amicably. The Ponca homeland in the mid-1800s was in a fertile area along the Niobrara River near what eventually became the state line between Nebraska and South Dakota.

They lived in earth lodges and raised much of their own food. During the cold winter months, they went on buffalo hunts on the plains north of their homeland.

Governance of the tribe was accomplished by a group of chiefs, each of whom assumed specific responsibilities.  Standing Bear’s father had been a chief and Standing Bear (1829-1908) became one of the ten chiefs when his father died. He also had a brother, Big Snake.

The Ponca Tribe believed in peaceful transactions with others, including their neighbors and the U.S. government.

Like most other tribes, the Poncas were being moved around by the U.S. government during the 19th century. In 1858, the Ponca granted the government access to their hunting grounds, and in turn, they received title to their homeland on the Niobrara River.  However, by 1865, the government had already violated that agreement, moving the Poncas down river to a less desirable spot.

Desire for Land by the Government

As early as 1854 and the Kansas-Nebraska Act, an increasing number of white settlers were moving West. The federal government had long discussed plans for relocating the Native Americans to land that could be considered their own (reservations). Some of the land was rich and fertile like the Black Hills were, other land was deemed theirs because it was less desirable than land the white settlers might want.

In 1875, Indian Agent A.J. Carrier spoke with President Ulysses Grant about moving the Ponca Tribe to Indian Territory (modern day Oklahoma). Carrier knew the Ponca were not pleased with having been moved off the land agreed to in the Treaty of 1858. He thought perhaps Indian Territory would solve this problem.

Indian Camp at Omaha

But other matters were more pressing. After the Battle of Little Bighorn, the government continued to fight with the Sioux for access to the gold in the Black Hills.  Eventually a settlement was reached giving certain additional land to the Sioux and the Lakota who had helped them. The Lakota Tribe was given the land that legally was still assigned to the Ponca.

It was up to Indian agent Carrier, soon joined by Indian Inspector E.C. Kemble, to begin moving the Ponca off the land along the river. Initial discussions went badly for the government. The Ponca chiefs were clear and in complete agreement with each other. They were not going to move.

Agent Meeting with the Chiefs

The Ponca had done as the government asked. They built houses like the White men’s homes, and they continued farming as they had done for many years. They were good neighbors to the nearby tribes as well as the white settlers. There was no reason for them to move on.

After a three-month stand-off by the chiefs, the agents finally got the men to agree to visit Indian Territory to look at the land.

The chiefs signed an agreement that they would accompany the agents to survey the new territory. The government agent, however, reported to Washington that the men had signed a document saying they would visit and then begin to relocate.

Journey to Indian Territory

After an arduous winter journey accompanied by the government agents, the Ponca chiefs arrived in Indian Territory and saw the barren land. They also met with other tribes that were relocated. These people shared how their tribes were decimated by malaria, which prevailed in the area.

After viewing several potential properties, the chiefs told the Indian agent they were not going to continue. They planned to return to their homeland and remain there. 

Refused to Continue

The Chiefs’ refusal angered the agents who feared for their jobs. They had told the men in Washington that the Ponca would move—it was just a matter of time. Inspector Kemble refused to give the Chiefs money for train tickets to go home.

Standing Bear and the other chiefs were not deterred. They made plans for several of the chiefs to leave together in the middle of the night. They had few provisions, no map, and little money for buying train tickets to ease their journey. All they knew was to try to follow the railroad tracks. The weather was poor, and they sometimes had to retrace their steps, but the chiefs were angry and determined.

Telegram to the President

As part of wanting the Native Americans to assimilate, the government encouraged tribes across the land to learn English. This gave the Ponca a tool they would use well.  

As they left Indian Territory, they sent a letter to a local newspaper explaining how they had been treated. President Rutherford B. Hayes was now President. They also spent some of their funds to send a telegram to President Rutherford B. Hayes, who was now president. The telegram outlined what they had been through. They did not believe the great white father would expect them to give up their rights to an area they called home.

They received no response from President Hayes, but Hayes took some action. He met with the government administrators in charge of the West to see if there were any better options for the Ponca. No conclusion was reached.

Panic Among the Government Agents

The Indian agents were alarmed when they saw that eight of the chiefs departed. They did not want these men to reach their people to tell their side of the story.  The agents sent word to the military to begin moving the Ponca off their land.

The chiefs arrived home amidst the chaos, and many tears were shed among their people. Standing Bear and his brother were imprisoned for a brief period of time. But the agent was soon told he could not hold the Indians without cause.

But the Indian agents were determined. The tribe had to move. The Ponca were to use their own wagons, loading up what they could. They had to leave behind farm equipment, and many household possessions. They sadly closed the doors on the homes they built where they expected to spend the rest of their lives.

The tribe was marched at bayonet-point to Indian Territory.  As many as one-third of the tribe died during the march. For many the trip was too arduous. Others came down with tuberculosis and no medical help was available. Among those who died were Standing Bear’s wife and also his grown daughter, Prairie Flower.

Indian Territory

When the Ponca were brought by the agents to their assigned land in Indian Territory, it was mid-summer. It was too late to plant crops, and there was very little wood for building shelters. The government provided tents, but those were soon in tatters from the high winds and rain.  During the winter of 1878, Standing Bear’s son, Bear Shield, died.

Bear Shield’s Wish

Before he died, Bear Shield asked his father, “please take me home to be buried in our homeland.” No father would want to deny their child’s final request.

Standing Bear and several other tribe members packed up quickly to carry Bear Shield’s body home to the sacred ground where other Ponca family members were interred. They did not ask for governmental permission as they were returning to their former land.

Again, the weather was horrendous, making the travel difficult.

Brigadier General Crook

When the Secretary of the Interior Carl Schurz heard that Native Americans left their new reservation without permission, he ordered Brigadier General George Crook to follow and catch them. The orders were to force them back to Indian Territory.

General Crook had achieved a fearsome reputation as an Indian fighter, but he had been in the West so long that he began to see things differently. He witnessed how heartless the government was to the various tribes and took pity on them. But Crook was an obedient military man and was not going to openly defy his superiors.

By the time, the military caught up with the Chiefs, the Ponca had stopped for a brief respite with friends in the Omaha tribe, helping where they could.

General Crook saw the sad state of the chiefs—several were in poor health, and no one had adequate clothing. Crook decided to imprison the men in the Omaha Barracks to give them time to recover.

Standing Bear was said to have been working in the fields when he was arrested.

“It seems to me an odd feature of our judicial system that the only people in this country who have no right under the law are the original owners of the soil: an Irishman, German, Chinaman, Turk, or Tartar will be protected in life and property, but the Indian commands respect for his rights only so long as he inspires terror from the rifle.”

Brigadier General George Crook

Crook’s Next Move

This is a formal black-and-white portrait of T.H.Tibbles, who did so much to aid Standing Bear. His hair is white and he dressed in a suit and tie.
Thomas Henry Tibbles, newspaper editor who aided Standing Bear.

According to Joe Starita, Indian expert and author of I am a Man: Chief Standing Bear’s Journey for Justice, General Crook took steps that would change the nature of events. One night after the arrest, Crook stopped in at the Omaha Daily Herald newspaper to pay his respects to the editor, Thomas Henry Tibbles. According to Starita, Crook explained to Tibbles about the Ponca unfair imprisonment. He suggested there was a story there about a father being denied his right to take the bones of his son home for burial.

 The next day, Tibbles (1840-1928) paid a call to Fort Omaha to visit the tribe members.  That night he went back to his office and began writing. But his story would not be published for a couple of days. It was a Sunday, and as a pastor, he knew the power of the pulpit. He spent Sunday going from church to church in Omaha, explaining the Ponca plight.

Tibbles Was Moved by the Predicament

Thomas Tibbles also tapped into the legal community. As editor of the newspaper, he knew almost everyone in town. He stopped in to visit John L. Webster, a friend and an attorney. Webster was interested in what Tibbles told him, so he reached out to another local attorney, Andrew J. Poppleton, chief attorney of the Union Pacific Railroad.  

While Standing Bear and the other chiefs fully understood that wrong had been done them on multiple occasions, Tibbles and the attorneys met with Standing Bear and explained the legal steps that could be taken. The three men felt a strong case could be made for unfair imprisonment and coercion of the tribe. Webster and Poppleton agreed to work pro bono. With Standing Bear’s agreement, Webster and Poppleton prepared a writ of habeas corpus and filed it with the U.S. District Court in Omaha.

Not Just Any Judge

Tibbles also knew that not just any judge should hear the case. The judge he wanted, however, was bear hunting. Tibbles worked his local network among frontiersmen and mountain men, and soon Judge Elmer Dundy was located. He agreed to return to Omaha to hear the case. 

Serving as Standing Bear’s interpreter was Susette LaFlesche, the eldest daughter in the La Flesche family (Omaha tribe) and sister to the first woman doctor, Susan La Flesche Picotte

The Trial

Susette La Flesche dressed in clothing that a white woman would have worn when she accompanied Standing Bear on his lecture tour. She wears a bonnet and suit.
Susette La Flesche, interpreter. Nebraska State Historical Society

In late April of 1879, the trial known as United States ex rel. Standing Bear v. Crook took place. (Though Crook was sympathetic, he was also the one who carried out the government order.)

The attorneys argued that the Native Americans should be covered by the Fourteenth Amendment.

No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

The courtroom was packed. Local people and reporters from distant newspapers were there. As the trial was ending, the judge announced that Standing Bear had requested speaking on his own behalf.

With Susette La Flesche serving as interpreter, Standing Bear held out his right hand as if with an offering and spoke quietly but forcefully:  

That hand is not the color of yours, but if I pierce it, I shall feel pain. If you pierce your hand, you also feel pain. The blood that will flow from mine will be of the same color as yours. I am a man. We are made by the same God.

Landmark Decision

It was after 10 p.m. when Judge Dundy closed the courtroom, announcing that it would take a few days for him to review all the material. Dundy had treaties to review, government reports, and of course, all the testimony to re-read.

On May 12, 1879, Judge Dundy ruled that the federal had failed to show a basis under law for the Poncas’ arrest and captivity and that “an Indian is a person” within the meaning of the law. It was a landmark case, establishing that the Ponca were people and entitled to its rights and protections.

When the decision was announced, author Starita wrote that General Crook stood and went over and shook Standing Bear’s hand.

Among the newspapers covering the trial was the Kenosha, Wisconsin Telegraph. The reporter wrote: “Judge Dandy…said that before the case was tried, that during his 15 years of judgeship he had never been called on to decide a case ich excited so much sympathy in his heart. On the one side was the poor Indian asking for liberty and on the other side a Christian nation trying to send him back to the Indian Territory.” (Kenosha Telegram, May 29, 1879.)

Dundy’s Decision

With that, General Crook set the tribesmen free. Standing Bear wanted to continue his trip as soon as possible, but he owed a debt to Tibbles and the two attorneys. Because he had no money, he selected several of his possessions to present to Tibbles and the two attorneys in appreciation.

He and the Ponca then started for their homeland.

But after they left, Tibbles realized the ruling left some details unresolved and that Standing Bear may not have fully grasped some legal issues. He needed to follow them to explain.

He went to the Omaha people and asked to borrow two of their fastest horses.  Eight hours later, he and his companion caught up with Standing Bear’s group who had paused for the night. Tibbles explained that while they could no longer be held prisoner, they did not yet have a place to go. Their former land—though now abandoned by the Lakota—was not yet theirs. If they were to set foot on it, they could be re-arrested.

With that, Standing Bear and his people set up camp along the Niobrara River opposite the land that had been theirs.  Soon they identified an island in the river that was owned by no one. They moved their camp there.

The Poncas That Remained in Indian Territory

The Ponca that remained in Indian Territory were doing the best they could, but it was a struggle. Big Snake, Standing Bear’s brother, tired of the area, and decided he would live with the Cheyenne. 

Beutiful color view of the Missouri River. Blue skies and a winding river.
View of the Missouri River from Niobrara State Park.

When the newly assigned Indian agent, William Whiteman, heard Big Snake intended to move, he ordered the man arrested.  Big Snake was at the agent’s office at the time. He resisted arrest and was shot at close range. He died on the floor of the goverenment office.

After the Verdict

The courtroom had been filled and there was heightened interest from newspapers in the East. Henry Tibbles knew he needed to spread the word. After returning from his mad dash to warn Standing Bear, he set off for the East on a hastily planned lecture tour. He saw that the story was beginning to have some effect.

Tibbles also ran an article in his newspaper, highlighting quotes from a lengthy article about the case by John A. Owen in The Chicago Tribune:

“The Government has so often violated its treaties and contracts with the Indians that such violation creates no surprise in the minds of the American people. We have become so demoralized in our ideas, both of absolute right and of civil law, that the average white man, as he looks over the Western Territories and sees an Indian reservation which is guaranteed to a tribe by as solemn a contract as a sovereign nation can execute, ratified by the august Senate of the United States, and proclaimed as the law of the land by the President, regards all this as but a trifling obstacle in the way of his taking possession of it.”

East Coast Lecture Tour

Tibbles was pleased with the reaction to his brief lecture tour about the case, but he returned to explain to Standing Bear and his interpreter, Susette La Flesche, that they needed to come with him on the next trip.

Though La Flesche was later to marry Tibbles, they were unmarried at the time. Her father reluctantly gave permission for her to go, but only if her brother was part of the traveling group.

With that, Standing Bear, Tibbles, Susette La Flesche and her brother journeyed from city to city along the East Coast telling the story of the Ponca and other tribes.

Standing Bear looked every inch the part, wearing his headdress and his bear tooth necklace. Over time, he picked up some English so that he could tell part of the story on his own.

Return to the Niobrara River

A photograph of the red morning sky with the Standing Bear Memorial Park sign in the foreground. Ponca City. istockphotos
Ponca City, Oklahoma

After several months, traveling from city to city, Standing Bear missed his people and his life along the river. His brother Big Snake was murdered during this time, and he wanted to return to the familiar.

When he got back to the island where the tribe had determined they could live without special permission, Standing Bear was in for a surprise. About 170 Ponca remained in the area and lived on the island. They crossed the river each day. With farm equipment borrowed from the Omaha people, they planted 250 acres of crops. 

Though the land ownership was still uncertain, Standing Bear’s people had outdone themselves doing what the Ponca people do best—being peacefully self-sufficient.

Congressional Investigations

Ultimately, there were two Congressional investigations about the Ponca, including one focused on the death of Big Snake. The government eventually made two separate arrangements. The Ponca who had remained in Indian Territory were given title to their land there. And Standing Bear was finally given back the rights to the Ponca land that the government had given to the Lakota.

And out of all this, came an awareness of the fact that the original landholders in this country were not being well-treated.

As Brigadier General George Crock said: “It seems to me an odd feature of our judicial system that the only people in this country who have no right under the law are the original owners of the soil: an Irishman, German, Chinaman, Turk, or Tartar will be protected in life and property, but the Indian commands respect for his rights only so long as he inspires terror from the rifle.”

Standing Bear

Standing Bear lived in the allotted land in Nebraska for the rest of his life. Since his death from oral cancer did not occur until 1908, he was alive to be aware of some of the ways in which he was honored as waterways and land areas were named for him.

There is now a Chief Standing Bear Memorial Bridge, a Missouri National Recreational River and several other places named in his honor. 

 In the mid-1990s, a memorial park in Ponca City, Oklahoma, was named for Chief Standing Bear. There is a museum there that explains his story.

Statuary Hall in Washington

This is the bronze statue of Standing Bear that now stands in Statuary Hall, representing one of two luminaries from Nebraska.
Statuary Hall

And now, Standing Bear is honored in Washington, D.C. Statuary Hall features two notable people from each state. Standing Bear was added in 2019 to replace William Jennings Bryan. A statue of Willa Cather will soon be the other Nebraskan commemorated. 

In the meantime, a group in Lincoln, Nebraska, wanted a local way to tell Standing Bear’s story. They created a website, filmed a new documentary, and put together a fundraising package to raise money for a Chief Standing Bear Trail that will go from Chief Standing Bear’s homeland in Nebraska through Kansas and into Oklahoma.

The group writes that they see it as a way to expand awareness of this man who gave so much order to fight for citizenship for Native Americans. For more information about this project, click Chief Standing Bear.org.

This map shows the trail that the nonprofit group would like to demarcate as the Trail of Standing Bear.
Standing Bear’s Trail of Tears

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