Standing Bear Updated November 2017


The Story of a Ponca Chief
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Prologue: During the 1800's the United States government established Indian Territory in what is now Oklahoma, and Indians from different tribes moved on to it. Some tribes, however, settled on land that was reserved for them in other parts of the country as part of treaty agreements. Sometimes a treaty was broken and a tribe was forced to move. An important event that was to effect all Indians was the Supreme Court case of Standing Bear vs. Crook..........

Standing Bear was a chief of the Ponca Indians, a small peaceful tribe. The Poncas had migrated from the east and settled in the lowland of the Missouri River Valley on a reservation that the United States had given them by treaty in 1858. In January, 1877, the government ordered the Poncas to move to Indian Territory in Oklahoma because their reservation had been included in land given to another tribe by treaty. Standing Bear did not think it was right for his people to have to leave their reservation. In spite of his protests, he and a group of other chiefs were taken south to Indian Territory to choose a new place for the tribe to live.

Standing Bear and the other chiefs did not like the land and refused to choose a place. They asked to be returned to their reservation but they were told they had to stay in Indian Territory and were left there with no interpreter or money. Standing Bear and the other chiefs started walking back to their reservation in the north. When they reached the Otoe Indian Reservation in Southern Nebraska, they were given horses and food. Then they continue north, stopping briefly at the Omaha Indian reservation. During their journey, they sent a telegram to the president of the United States asking for his help. After returning to his reservation, Standing Bear continued to object to moving his people.

In May, however, the tribe was forced to leave their reservation and go to Indian Territory leaving behind their farm equipment, livestock, houses, and most of their household goods. The new land was difficult to farm and the winters were severe. Many Indians died of hunger, disease, and exposure. Standing Bear I asked to return to his old reservation but his request was denied. He and a group of other Indians went to see the President of the United States and were told they had to stay in Indian Territory, but that they would be given better land and their belongings would be sent to them.

During their second winter in Indian Territory, more Indians died, including all but one of Standing Bear's children. In January 1879, Standing Bear decided to take some of his people back to their old reservation before they all perished. Accompanied by his wife and child, and several men with their wives and children, Standing Bear set out for the north. In the middle of March, they arrived at the Omaha Reservation, destitute and starving. The Omahas welcomed the Poncas and gave them food and shelter and land on which to plant seed. When the government heard that the Poncas were living on the Omaha reservation, orders were sent to General George Crook to return them to Indian Territory.

General Crook had dealt with Indians for many years and was aware that they were sometimes treated unfairly. It was with reluctance, therefore, that he sent soldiers to arrest Standing Bear and his followers and bring them to Fort Omaha. General Crook listened to Standing Bear's story about the unjust treatment of the Ponca tribe. He was sympathetic with Standing Bear and because several of the Poncas were sick he held up the orders to return them to Indian Territory.

This delay gave the assistant-editor of a newspaper in Omaha time to publish the plight of the Ponca Indians in newspapers across the country. He decided to see if Indians had any rights and was able to convince two prominent lawyers to volunteer their services and represent Standing Bear in a suit against the government. On April 8, 1879, a Writ of Habeas Corpus was filed in the District Court of the United States for the District of Nebraska.

The hearing began on May 1, 1879 in Lincoln, Nebraska and lasted two days and one evening. A United States District attorney represented General Crook. The first person to testify was the interpreter for Standing Bear. He answered questions about the condition of the Poncas when they arrived at the Omaha reservation, and said that although many were sick those who were able were working. He also said they no longer had a chief and wanted to live as white men. The next person to testify was the officer who arrested Standing Bear and his followers. He answered questions about the condition of the Poncas at the time of their arrest. Standing Bear was the third and last person to testify. He answered questions about the events of the two years previous to his arrest. No testimony was given on behalf of General Crook.

In his closing statement, one of Standing Bear's attorneys gave several reasons why the government could not claim title to the Ponca land. He also claimed that there was no law for the removal of the Poncas to Indian Territory. The attorney for General Crook claimed that Standing Bear was not entitled to the protection of the Writ of Habeas Corpus because he was not a person under the law. The other attorney for Standing Bear claimed that the writ applied to every human being and that the position taken by the government undermined the very foundation of human liberty. Standing Bear was then allowed to speak on his own behalf and pleaded with great emotion for fair treatment of his people. The courtroom was filled with many who were sympathetic with the Indians, and Standing Bear received continual rounds of applause. At the conclusion of his speech, court was adjourned.

On May 12, the Judge Elmer Dundy filed his decision. He had been impressed with what Standing Bear said and ruled in his favor. He stated an Indian was a person within the meaning of the law and had the right to a writ of habeas corpus. He further stated that although General Crook had the right to remove Standing Bear and his followers from the Omaha reservation, he did not have the right to force them to move to Indian Territory and they were being held in violation of the law. He then ordered that they be released.

A few days later, General Crook received orders from the government to release Standing Bear and his followers, and they went to live on the Omaha reservation. The Ponca Indians who were still in Indian Territory sued to be reunited with Standing Bear. Their suit was denied and the tribe was split apart.

The chief of the Omaha tribe and his daughter, Susette LaFlesche, a teacher at the government school on the Omha reservation, had become involved in Standing Bear's struggle for justice. They arranged for him to tell his story in the east where he won the attention and sympathy of many important people. The government was asked to investigate and confirmed Standing Bear's story. In 1881 better lands were given to those Indians who stayed in Indian Territory and payment was made to those who had lost property. A home was provided for Standing Bear and his followers at their old reservation. Standing Bear died in 1908 and was buried on a hill overlooking the village site of his ancestors.

A 22 foot statue of Standing Bear stands just south of Ponca City in Northern Oklahoma.

In 1978 Standing Bear was inducted into the Nebraska Hall of Fame.