Fort Report: Standing Bear

Apr 24, 2017
Fort Report

In the opening chapter of the book I Am a Man: Chief Standing Bear’s Journey for Justice, author Joe Starita vividly describes the heroic, harrowing story of Standing Bear and the forced relocation of his Ponca Tribe from their Nebraska homeland to “Indian Territory” (present-day Oklahoma). The degradation and disease endured by the Ponca in extreme conditions makes for a heart-wrenching saga. Along the way, tribal elders die, children die—Standing Bear’s own children die. And just think: merely walking this route today, even under kinder skies, is no easy task.

The most famous parts of Chief Standing Bear’s life merit retelling. In the 1800s, the Ponca tribe, which had settled in the Niobrara River valley in northeast Nebraska, was pressured by the United States Government to relocate to Indian Territory. In 1877, not wanting to subject his people to a brutal confrontation with the government, Standing Bear led them on a forced march to the new and inhospitable land. Starvation and illnesses killed nearly a third of the tribe, including Standing Bear's daughter Prairie Flower, and, later, his son Bear Shield.

In the winter of 1878, Standing Bear fulfilled a promise he made to Bear Shield: returning to bury him in his homeland in the Niobrara River Valley. When Standing Bear reached the Omaha Reservation, where the people welcomed him as one of their own, during this return journey, the United States Army arrested him for leaving Indian Territory without permission. His plight attracted the attention of the Omaha Daily Herald, the predecessor of today’s Omaha World-Herald, during his pre-trial imprisonment at Fort Omaha. At the conclusion of the two-day trial, Standing Bear raised his hand and said:

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

By expressing the ideal of the inherent dignity and rights of all people, regardless of color or ethnicity, Standing Bear convinced U.S. District Court Judge Elmer S. Dundy, in an unprecedented move, to rule that “an Indian is a person” within the meaning of habeas corpus. Standing Bear had won his right, and the right of all Native Americans, to be recognized as "persons" under the law. That such a glaring injustice could exist is almost unimaginable to us today. The Ponca chief had prevailed in one of the most important civil rights court cases in the history of our nation.

Many years later, blind and in declining health, attorney Andrew J. Poppleton, who worked pro bono on behalf of the Ponca Chief, reflected on his final court plea for Standing Bear: “I cannot recall any two hours' work of my life with which I feel better satisfied.”

In Congress, we continue to recognize Standing Bear’s remarkable life and achievement on behalf of his people. The House of Representatives passed legislation in the past two congresses to start a process for declaring a historic trail in his memory. In addition, I am in conversation with the Department of the Interior regarding the best way to realize the potential of this project.

In a little over a week, from April 29 to May 11, many persons will follow Chief Standing Bear's footsteps on the Ponca Remembrance Walk. Present-day Ponca elders will begin the trek from Niobrara to south of Beatrice, retracing an epic journey that set an initial marker for justice and the possibility of a more humane future for Native Americans and all people.

If you are interested in joining the Ponca Remembrance Walk or for more information, please click on the following link: