On their journey westward in 1804, Lewis and Clark learned about the Ponca, a small tribe living on the west bank of the Missouri River and along what are now the lower Niobrara River and Ponca Creek in northeast Nebraska. The two did not meet as the tribe was on a hunting trip to the west.
Early Life And Movement To Reservation
Standing Bear was born around 1829 in the traditional Ponca homeland near the confluence of the Niobrara and Missouri rivers. About thirty years later, the tribe sold its homeland to the United States, retaining a 58,000-acre reservation between Ponca Creek and the Niobrara River. On this reservation the Poncas lived a life of hardscrabble farming and fear-the United States did little to protect them from attacks from the Brule Sioux.
When the federal government created the Great Sioux Reservation in 1868, the Ponca Reservation was included within its boundaries, depriving them of title to their remaining lands.
Eviction And Removal
In 1877, the federal government decided to remove the Poncas to Indian Territory. Standing Bear, a tribal leader, protested his tribe's eviction. Federal troops enforced the removal orders, with the result that the Poncas arrived in Indian Territory in the summer of 1878. Discouraged, homesick and forlorn, the Poncas found themselves on the lands of strangers, in the middle of a hot summer, with no crops or prospects for any as the time for planting was long past.
Since the tribe had left Nebraska, one-third had died and nearly all of the survivors were sick or disabled. Talk around the campfire revolved around the "old home" in the north. The death of Chief Standing Bear's sixteen-year old son in late December 1878 set in motion the event which was to bring a measure of justice and worldwide fame to the chief and his small band of followers.
Honoring A Son's Wish
Wanting to honor his son's last wish to be buried in the land of his birth and not in a strange country where his spirit would wander forever, Standing Bear gathered a few members of his tribe-mostly women and children-and started for the Ponca homeland in the north. They left in early January 1879 and trekked through the Great Plains winter, reaching the reservation of their relatives, the Omahas, about two months later. Standing Bear carried with him the bones of his son to be buried in the familiar earth along the Niobrara River.
The Court Case - Standing Bear v. Crook
Because Indians were not allowed to leave their reservation without permission, Standing Bear and his followers were labeled a renegade band. The Army, on the order of The Secretary of the Interior, arrested them and took them to Fort Omaha, the intention being to return them to Indian Territory. General George Crook, however, sympathized with Standing Bear and his followers and asked Thomas Henry Tibbles, an Omaha newspaperman, for help. Tibbles took up the cause and secured two prominent Omaha attorneys to represent Standing Bear.
The lawyers filed a federal court application for a writ of habeas corpus to test the legality of the detention, basing their case on the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. The government disputed the right of Standing Bear to obtain a writ of habeas corpus on the grounds that an Indian was not a "person" under the meaning of the law.
The case of Standing Bear v. Crook began on May 1, 1879 before Judge Elmer S. Dundy in U.S. District Court in Omaha and continued into the evening of the following day. On May 12, Judge Dundy ruled in favor of Standing Bear, reasoning that he and his band were indeed "persons" under the law, entitled to sever tribal connections and were free to enjoy the rights of any other person in the land. The government appealed Dundy's decision, but the Supreme Court of the United States refused to hear the case, leaving Standing Bear and his followers free in the eyes of the law.
Death And Commemoration
Standing Bear died in 1908 and was buried alongside his ancestors in the Ponca homeland. At the eastern end of the 39-mile reach of the Missouri National Recreational River is a relatively new bridge. It links the communities of Niobrara, Nebraska, and Running Water, South Dakota. The official name of the structure is the Chief Standing Bear Memorial Bridge.
Living History Audio
Civil Rights Activist Thomas Tibbles (1840-1928) led a colorful life fighting for the rights of others even before meeting Chief Standing Bear and becoming a full-time advocate for Indian rights. The setting:
It is 1883;Tibbles and others have spent two winters on a lecture circuit of the eastern states, raising funds and awareness for the cause of helping Indians adapt to and be accepted by 19th century America. Today's presentation is the type of speech he may have made on these speaking tours. Epilogue:
Tibbles, Helen Hunt Jackson, and other activists supported the Dawes Act to put tribal land into individual Indian ownership. However, this well-intended legislation was manipulated to further reduce Indian land holdings and fragment cultural continuity.
Standing Bear vs. the Indian Ring
In this audio reenactment, Thomas Tibbles tells the story of Standing Bear and the Ponca Tribe.
Speaker: Before the law, all men are equal. Ladies and gentlemen, that is one of the basic principles upon which the great nation of ours was founded. And its an idea that seems to have gotten stuck in my head from a very young age. My name is Thomas Tibbles. I was born on the frontier, I have no proper raising, and I do not pretend to be civilized. But despite that, or perhaps because of it, something led me to follow a sense of what’s right, regardless of what’s legal. For example, just 20 years ago, in some states, one person could own another. Was that legal? It certainly was in those states. But was it right? Well in answer to that I would like to quote the great negro abolitionist, Mr. Frederick Douglass who said, “For one man to own another one must first rest title from God himself.” Now standing up for the rights of others has proved to have its risks. I suppose I started in what we called the Bleeding Kansas wars where I met up with a gentleman by the name of Mr. John Brown and we made raids into the state of Missouri that we called “Freeing the Negro Slaves.” Folks on the other side of the river called it “Nigger Stealing.” Well as a result of my involvement in this little affair, by the age of 16 I had twice escaped hanging and acquired several bullet scars as well. And I did realize later that there was something about Mr. Brown that was just not quite right. Now I certainly agreed with his idea of ending slavery. When I last saw him back in ’59, I saw that look in his eye as he told me how he would capture and free the state of Virginia, well, I decided this was a gentleman from whom I should keep my distance in the future.
I suppose the first time I found myself defending Indians was back in 1856, it was in the Nebraska Territory, right on the Missouri River. At one of the steamboat landings there was an Indian woman selling roasted corn. She had a basket of corn and next to it was a bowl for people to make a payment. She didn’t know what the value was of each of the coins that people put in there, so they were just bound by honor to pay her what they thought the corn was worth. Well as I was watching, I saw a man take a dozen ears, put in 25 cents and take out 50 cents. Well, I felt obligated to point out this indiscretion to him. Well he chose to become testy at that, and whereupon I felt further obligated to knock him down and pound on him until he put a dollar in the bowl and left the corn.
Shortly after that I found myself living with a band of Omaha and Oto Indians, for about a year. I feasted and starved with them, I burned and froze with them, I hunted game and enemies with them but I saw the pride that they had even though they had a hard life, they were content and proud people. But as for me, I realized, that I am not an Indian and I did return to the white man’s world.
I went to Mount Union College in Ohio, studying law and religion. It was there I met my first wife and became a journalist. But in 1871 I felt another calling and I became a preacher. Writing a circuit, bringing the word to remote settlements and outposts in Missouri, at that time an area teeming with outlaws and unreconstructed rebels. I carried a bible in my saddle bag, telling me to turn the other cheek. I also carried a pair of six shooters on my hips, if per chance I should run out of cheeks. But finally, I swore off the guns and became pastor of a congregation in Omaha and began working for The Herald as an associate editor. It was during that time that I made the acquaintance of an interesting gentleman, General George Crook. He once asked me to advise to Sioux Chief Spottedtail in asserting his people’s treaty rights. Knowing that old Spot and General Crook were both avid poker players, I suggest to Spottedtail that he bluff. And bluff he did. He told the Indian agents that if his people were not on wheels, and their entire camp was not on wheels, and moving within ten days to their home territory, he would no longer be able to control his young men and they would lay waste to the entire eastern half of the territory. Well it took considerably less than the ten days for the agents to get the entire outfit moving. But in this, I saw yet another operation of what I have come to call “the Indian Ring.” This conspiracy of politicians and profiters oppressing, exploitation and out and out stealing from the Indians, some of these people even seeking the extermination of the Indians. Now I understand that there are some folks who just consider Indians to be uncivilized savages, something less than human. But let me tell you, I have seen white men, black men and red men at their best and at their worst. And I have seen no race qualified to call itself civilized nor to judge another race as savages.
And over the years I have acquired many friends among the Indians, which is what led to my involvement in the story I am about to tell you today. The story of Chief Standing Bear and the Ponca tribe. My friends, the Poncas, have never made war against the United States. They are a peaceful people, they are farmers, they’re adapting to modern farming, and succeeding about as well as anyone can out on the prairie. But in 1877, they were forcibly removed from the land that they owned, and thieved simple the very same way that you hold title to your farm or to your house. Their houses, their farm equipment, their livestock, and their person belongings were unlawfully seized by the United States government and they were removed to Indian Territory, a land of deprivation, disease, and death. And that death began even before they reached that foul country.
Standing Bear’s young adult daughter and several others died on the way. Now I would like to quote Indian Commissioner Ezra Hates report of 1877 regarding the death rate in Indian Territory. Quote: “Pawnee lost 800, Cheyenne have suffered severely and Poncas have already lost 36. In this connection, I recommend the removal of all Indians in Colorado and Arizona to the Indian Territory” end quote. To me, this is a clear statement of an intent to eliminate the Indian question by attrition.
One of those who died in Indian Territory was Standing Bear’s 16-year-old son, Bear Shield, an educated young man who could read and write English, read the bible to his friends, a great help to his father and the other leaders. But he died of fever in that territory. But before he died Standing Bear promised his son that he would not be buried in a strange land, but would be returned to Nebraska, to the Niobrara Country, to be buried among the bones of his ancestors so he would not wonder eternity alone. And so, in the middle of winter, Standing Bear and a group of his people returned to Nebraska and stopped at the Omaha reservation. Their friends in the tribe gave them land to farm, gave them seed, and loaned them farm equipment. But the Poncas departure from Indian Territory did not go unnoticed, and the Secretary of Interior, Mr. Carl Schurz, ordered their arrest which was carried out by General Crooks soldiers from Fort Omaha. The Poncas left their work in the fields and went with the soldiers to the fort. But a few days later, Iron Eye, Chief of the Omahas, and his daughter Bright Eyes slipped away from their reservation to visit General Crook at the fort. And at 1:00 am, March 30th, I was working in the editorial room of The Herald when I received a visit from General Crook. He told me how the Poncas were robbed of their lands and their goods by the Indian Ring and he said if we can do something for which good men will remember us when we’re gone, that’s the best legacy we can leave. And he asked me what we could do to help these people. Well, I thought about it as I worked the rest of the night, went home, got myself a couple of hours of sleep then walked the four miles to Fort Omaha to visit with Standing Bear. Standing Bear did not want to speak with me initially. He did not feel it would be proper to speak to anyone else before he made a statement to general Crook.
But years before when I had lived with the Indians, I became a member of their soldier lodge and I showed Standing Bear some secret lodge signs. And then he recognized me, not as a stranger but as a brother. And he told me the story of what had happened to him and his people. And then he asked, “Are there different laws for Indians and for white men?”
Well I couldn’t give him an answer on that, but I knew I was going to find an answer and I knew I wanted it to be the right answer. So, I ran back to Omaha to reach the Churches in time for Sunday evening Services. I spoke before several of the congregations. These congregations then drafted and telegraphed a letter of protest to the Secretary of the Interior. The next day, Monday, when Standing Bear went with General Crook and Lieutenant Bork, whom the Indians called Ink Man for his constant note taking, I was there as he told his story. He spoke of his desire to stay, raise food for his family. He appealed to the officers as brothers, for the sake of the woman and the children, not to send them back. But Crook replied that disagreeable as it was, his orders were to send them back south. Once again, I returned to my office. I wrote stories and I telegraphed them to Chicago, New York, and other cities. These papers published my stories, accompanied by editorials supporting the Poncas and their cause. However, after several days there was still no word from the Secretary of the Interior.
And so, as I had 24 years before, I saw that I had to again fight for the equality of all men before the law. This time, not with a gun, but with a pen. Not in defiance of the law, but to use the law to fight for justice. But editorials can only do so much. I knew the matter would have to be tested in court. But lawsuits are expensive. A newsman’s salary of $20.00 per week, well meet the needs of him and his family, but with little to spare. Still, I was determined to help these people by shear audacity if nothing else. And from my previous study of law, I believed that writ of habeas corpus could free them.
But I needed a lawyer. The honorable John L. Webster, whom I had met and befriended in Omaha, had gone to the same college as I had, I spoke to him. Now he was apprehensive that a writ would hold due to the status of Indians as wards of the government rather than citizens. But he was interested in trying to pursue it. He requested assistance from A.J. Poppleton. Now in case you’re not familiar with the honorable Andrew Jackson Poppleton, he is a very prominent citizen of Omaha, he is a very competent attorney, and at that time he was under retainer as head council of the Union Pacific Railroad. And Poppleton felt that it might be a good case because even wards cannot be imprisoned, starved, or inhumanely treated by their guardians, and they both agreed to represent Standing Bear and his people pro bono.
And so, the suit was filed, the writ was issued, and now, General Crook was blocked from sending the Poncas back regardless of orders from the War Department or the Interior. The government of course filed responses and various other statements, including a false statement inserted by the U.S. attorney over General Crook’s signature. This stated that the Poncas were loyal to the tribe and made no attempt to adopt the, quote: “Habits and vocations of civilized life” end quote. I might remind you that at the time of their arrest the Poncas were farming, exactly what the government wants them to do. Ezra Hate, the Indian Commissioner, published an open letter to the Secretary of the Interior, stating that Standing Bear was quote: “Constantly grumbling, full of discontent, the only one among the Chiefs who showed a bad spirit” end quote. Well, I spoke to Standing Bear about this, he rummaged into a trunk and he showed a letter of confidence from Commissioner Hate himself, dated just 18 months earlier, certifying Standing Bear’s status and good character. Standing Bear showed me several other similar documents dating back to 1865.
It was the end of April when the lawsuit came to trial in the courtroom above the Omaha post office. The attorneys on both sides presented the case before Judge Elmer Dundy. The judge acknowledged that the Poncas had indeed severed their tribal connections. The U.S. attorney claimed that the goods, livestock and equipment seized by the government had been given to the Poncas by the government. But Mr. Webster pointed out that according to treaties, all these goods were given in payment for tens of thousands of acres of the Poncas land.
At the end of the first day, Standing Bear was uncomfortable with the arrangements of the trial. He was used to speaking for himself in tribal councils and meetings and was not comfortable with other people speaking for him. I told him that I would see what I could arrange. And in the morning, I spoke with Judge Dundy before court was convened and he said he would see what he could do. Late in the day, Standing Bear was allowed to speak with Bright Eyes to translate. Now as a Chief, Standing Bear is an eloquent speaker in his own language, and Bright Eyes, graduate of the Elizabeth School for Young Ladies, is a writer and a poet and a skillful interpreter.
In the course of Standing Bear’s speech, he extended his hand toward the Judge and he said, “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 the same color as yours. I am a man. The same god made us both.” He then spoke of a metaphorical dream or vision in which he and his family are trapped between a raging, rising river and a man back by soldiers, soldiers as numerous as leaves on the trees. If the man and his soldiers do let them pass, Standing Bear and his family must retreat, and sink beneath the flood. Standing Bear looked Judge Dundy in the eye and said, “You are that man.” And then we waited. We waited ten days before Judge Dundy finally delivered his lengthy decision that concluded with a five-point ruling. The first point of which being “An Indian is a person.” And so, the Poncas were set free.
Standing Bear buried his son in their homeland. But they had very little. They had the meager supplies they had brought with, they had goods borrowed from the Omaha’s. But the members of the churches and the synagogue in Omaha helped provide clothing and supplies until the Poncas could support themselves. The. U.S. attorney began an appeal of Judge Dundy’s decision, but the Secretary of the Interior halted proceedings. He wished to avoid the probability of a Supreme Court ruling that would affirm Indian Rights and destroy the Indian Ring.
But this was only one case, one small band of Indians. All of us involved knew there was much work yet to be done. Many, many other tribes needing help and I could see the duty falling to me. So, in June of ’79 I left on lecture tour of the eastern states speaking on the atrocities committed against the Indians, against the injustices committed. Raising funds for legal representation and recruiting all upstanding citizens to urge their congressmen and senators to support a bill to give Indians full citizenship and individual land ownership.
When I returned home in September, I found my friends in the Omaha tribe facing imminent removal themselves. And so, in mid-October I left on a new speaking tour accompanied by Standing Bear, Bright Eyes and her brother Frank. We spoke in Chicago, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and when we finally reached Boston on October 29th, several telegrams caught up with us. It was then that we learned that my wife, Amelia, had become ill and died in less than a day. And Standing Bear’s younger brother, Big Snake, head of the Ponca warrior society had been murdered in the Indian Agents office down in Indian Territory. I was ready to quit the tour. I didn’t know what to do. I went to my room. A short time later Standing Bear came to my room, without speaking, he knelt by my bed and prayed silently. And then, Standing Bear, who had just lost his own brother, he reminded me of how many of his people had lost spouses, children, brothers and sisters down in Indian Territory.
And I aimed to believe that my Amelia, who had so fervently supported this cause with me, would have agreed and would have wanted us to continue. So, continue we did. We spoke in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Washington, Baltimore. We met Helen Hunt Jackson who was writing a book she called Century of Dishonor. And we revealed to the public the plan to steal the Omaha’s land. We spoke to reveal the abuses perpetrated by the Indian Ring and to promote an Act of Congress that would grant reservation land to individual Indians to allow them to live as other Americans live.
And though we have been immensely popular with the public, we are subjected to lies and slander by the conspirators of the Indian Ring. We are accused of raising funds for our own gain, though we never touch the donations and our accommodations are provided by our hosts. I am accused of using my Indian friends to this end, even though they themselves started me on this crusade. And Bright Eyes is immensely popular. So popular that she becomes fatigued by the schedule and the demands. Not just of speaking, but shaking hands at receptions, sometimes for hours on end. Twice she has fainted from fatigue yet insisted on continuing. Considering it her responsibility as an educated Indian to win friends for all Indians. Along with that there was the possibility that she could have been arrested at any moment simply for being off of her reservation. Finally, we all had to return home to rest, and to protect her health.
At this time, I completed my first book, called The Ponca Chiefs: An Indian’s Attempt to Appeal from the Tomahawk to the Courts. I visited the Poncas and others in Indian Territory, at least until my presence was discovered by the authorities and I was removed, less than politely I might add. Later, I went north into Dakota Territory, spent some time with the Sioux and visited Sitting Bull and his people where they were being held at Fort Randall. And I met the Indians whom I had known before, whom I had lived with. They had lost their pride; their Indian way was now forbidden to them. The road to the white man’s world was blocked by fear, prejudice and the thievery of the Indian Ring. We went on to another winter on the speaking circuit.
In June of 1881, I published Hidden Power: A Secret History of the Indian Ring¸ which I will admit is propaganda and although it is a work of fiction it contains events that are entirely possible under today’s conditions and attitudes. And, having spent so much time travelling with Bright Eyes, sharing the cause, we were married last June on the Omaha reservation where we now live. This happy event was preceded by and somewhat predicated upon the demise of my once full beard. So, our crusade goes on and even though my pursuit of the cause has turned my hair to gray at 43, we will continue to speak to the nation, even to the world, revealing this conspiracy against our red brothers and sisters. Yes, the Indian Ring is loud and powerful, but the ground swell of public opinion is in our favor and I see the day when all Indians will have their own land and prosper as the rest of us do.
I would like to close with an example of my friend Standing Bear’s true nature as a gentleman and as a gentle man. A man fit for any setting, from the prairie to the city. After the trial, Standing Bear wished to give gifts to his lawyers. To Mr. Poppleton, he gave his feathered headdress, handed down through generations of Ponca chiefs. When we called on my friend Mr. Webster, Standing Bear placed his tomahawk on the floor, stepped back and said, “I lay it down. I have no more use for it.” He then picked it up, gave it to Mr. Webster and said, “I have found a better way.”
Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for your time and attention. I hope you will all see fit to support our cause by contacting your senators and congressman. If you wish to make a contribution to the cause, please see our representative at the back of the hall. Thank you again, and good night.