Lawrence A. Dwyer is an attorney at law in Omaha, Nebraska. He is a member of the Nebraska Bar Association and served on the board of directors of the Douglas County Historical Society. He is the author of Standing Bear’s Quest for Freedom: The First Civil Rights Victory for Native Americans (Bison Books, 2022).
On May 12, 1879, Federal Judge Elmer Dundy issued a ruling, unprecedented in American History. He declared Standing Bear and his Ponca companions to be “persons” under the law, free to live independently, just as all other Americans could. The first civil rights victory for Native Americans had been achieved. Today, 144 years later, the United States Postal Service is issuing a commemorative stamp in his honor. This recognition of Standing Bear is justly due.
Growing up on the land of his ancestors near the Niobrara River within the Nebraska/South Dakota border, Standing Bear listened to his grandparents relate stories of the history and traditions of the Poncas. These stories enhanced the pride he carried in his heart for the bravery and determination his ancestors displayed as they defended their land, supported their families and lived their way of life under their own system of law. And then the Americans came, bringing their own system of law, and the two systems collided.
Forty years prior to the 1879 trial, the U.S. Supreme Court issued decisions that embedded into the American Legal System two principles which had disastrous effects for all Native Americans. First, it determined Native Americans had no right to own the land they occupied, but simply the right to possess it. Second, the Court determined Native Americans were not to be considered persons under American law, but were better described as wards of the government. In effect, Native Americans were pieces on a chessboard who could be moved from their homeland, at any time, to any place, at the will of the government. They were not free.
In April 1877, the government issued an order to remove the Ponca Tribe from their ancestral homeland. Standing Bear told the government agent they would not leave their homes saying: “This is our land; we were born here. We have lived here all our lives. We are growing old here and we hope to die here.” For his courageous NO, he was arrested. For 10 days he was interrogated and then released and taken back to his village where he found the women and children surrounded by armed soldiers. The Poncas were ordered to take all of their possessions to the government agency building. Standing Bear described some of the property he lost:
One house – I built it with my own hands. It was 20 x 40 feet with 2 rooms, 1 table with 4 chairs, 2 bedstands, 2 cooking stoves. I also had 4 cows, 3 steers, 8 horses, 5 wagon loads of corn, 100 sacks of wheat, and many other things. These things were mine. I had worked for them all. The soldiers locked them up. I have never seen any of them since.
The 710 members of the Ponca Tribe were forced by the government to walk 500 miles to Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma). Along the way, nine Poncas died including Standing Bear’s daughter Prairie Flower. After the Poncas left Nebraska, the soldiers tore down all of the Poncas 235 log homes, all of their barns, cattle sheds, the tribal grist mill, sawmill, schoolhouse and even their church. The Poncas had lost everything.
In less than 2 years after leaving their homeland, nearly one-third of the Poncas had died from malnutrition or malaria. Standing Bear said that they had nothing to do in Indian Territory but sit still, be sick, starve and die. He knew someone must take action.
Then in December 1878, Standing Bear’s teenage son, Bear Shield, died. In his final words, he asked his father to take him home to be buried alongside the bones of his ancestors, an important Ponca tradition. Standing Bear, a loving father, promised his son he would take him home.
On January 2, 1879, a few days after Bear Shield’s death, hungry, sick, and facing death themselves, Standing Bear and 29 men, women and children began their journey home in the midst of a blizzard and below-zero temperature. Standing Bear’s quest for freedom began that day. All he ever wanted was the right to live and die with his family on his own land – a free man.
Sixty-two days later, Standing Bear and his companions arrived near Decatur, Nebraska, at the village of their cousins. The Omaha tribe gave them food, clothing and medicine as the Poncas were sick, malnourished and exhausted.
General George Crook, Commander of the Department of the Platte, was ordered by his superiors to arrest the Poncas for leaving Indian Territory without government permission (a federal crime). He held them prisoners at Fort Omaha for the next 55 days. A terrible wrong had been committed against Standing Bear and the Poncas. It needed to be corrected. The Poncas had never broken a treaty and had never taken up arms against the military; they were unarmed and defenseless. Compassionate and dedicated people in Omaha, led by newspaper editor Thomas Tibbles, and attorneys John Webster and Andrew Poppleton, devised a plan to challenge the government’s right to hold the Ponca prisoners, by filing in Federal Court an Application for a Writ of Habeas Corpus inserting language from the newly enacted 14th Amendment to the Constitution.
A trial of historic significance convened in the Federal Courthouse in Omaha, in May 1879. For the first time in American history, a lawyer stood in a federal courtroom representing a client who was a Native American; a client who was not a “person” under American law. This was a case of “first impression,” meaning it had no precedent for lawyers or judges. It had never been done before in a federal courtroom anywhere in America. Standing Bear was the first Native American to testify as a witness in a Federal Courtroom, and the first to be granted the opportunity to address the Court at the end of the trial proceedings giving his memorable “I am a Man Speech.”
So, when Standing Bear left Indian Territory that bitterly cold day in January 1879 knowing the dangers facing him and the fact that the entire American legal System was against him and his people – we can truly see why the US Postal Service is honoring him today. Despite any fears or anxieties, he boldly took a step forward and changed American history.
After Judge Dundy issued his historic decision, Standing Bear buried his son Bear Shield in Ponca ancestral grounds. He had kept his promise. He then built a new home for his family, fenced his pasture for cattle and raised corn, wheat, squash and potatoes. He lived his last years surrounded by his wife Susette and their children and grandchildren on the land he loved. He died on September 3, 1908 at the age of seventy-nine. He achieved all he had ever wanted: to live on his own land; to be buried on his own land; to live and die in peace, a free man.
The door to the administration of justice in America was barred shut to all Native Americans until the Standing Bear decision. But because of Standing Bear’s courage, that door is open!