Standing Bear (1834 (?) - 1908)Death date: l908
Category: Frontier life
Contribution to state: Trial clarified status of Native Americans
Years in Nebraska: Approximately 68 years
National Contribution: Trial outcome declared Indians to be citizens under the law; speaker for Indian rights.
The trial of Standing Bear, a Ponca Indian chief, in a United States District court in Omaha in l879, led to a decision by Judge Elmer Dundy that native Americans are "persons within the meaning of the law" and have the rights of citizenship.
Standing Bear was born on the Ponca reservation in what is now Nebraska around 1834 (some sources say 1829). His Indian name was Ma-chu-nah-zah. Because he showed unusual abilities, he became a chief at an early age.
In early times the Ponca were driven southward by the Sioux. By the time Standing Bear was born they had settled in an area around the mouth of the Niobrara River. In 1858 the Ponca relinquished all land they had claimed except for a small reserve along the Niobrara. They tried to change from nomadic buffalo hunters to farmers. In the Treaty of 1868, the government mistakenly included the Ponca's land in the territory assigned to the Sioux. Following this the Sioux raided the area claimed by the Ponca and many lives were lost. The government's proposal to end the raids was to move the Ponca to Indian Territory (present day Oklahoma).
In 1876 when the Ponca were told they were to be moved to Indian Territory, they sent ten chiefs with a United States agent to look over the land and its prospects. They were to make a decision for the Ponca tribe. However, based on what they learned, the chiefs could not make a favorable report, and the tribe voted not to go to Indian Territory. The government then decided to send the Ponca to Indian Territory with or without their consent. So the Ponca left on foot for Indian territory, escorted by the U.S. Army.
Inhospitable surroundings there caused many deaths. Standing Bear and thirty others tried to return to their home on the Niobrara. They were stopped on the Omaha Reservation and arrested on orders from the Secretary of Interior at Washington, D.C. General George Crook detained Standing Bear and the others at Fort Omaha. Although they were ordered back to Indian Territory at once, a delay was obtained so they could rest and regain their health. During this time their story was told to the public by Thomas Tibbles of the Omaha World-Herald.
With the help of Thomas Tibbles and two lawyers, John L. Webster and A.J. Poppleton, (and probably General Crook), Standing Bear petitioned the court by a writ of Habeas Corpus. He appeared before Judge Elmer Dundy. The government's lawyer was G.M. Lambertson.
Judge Dundy had to rule on whether an Indian had the rights of freedom guaranteed by the Constitution. The government tried to prove that an Indian was neither a person nor a citizen so couldn't bring suit against the government. On April 30, 1879 Judge Dundy stated that an Indian is a person within the law and that the Ponca were being held illegally. He set free Standing Bear and the Ponca. A government commission, appointed by President Rutherford B. Hayes, investigated and found the Ponca situation to be unjust. They arranged for the return of the Ponca from Indian Territory and allotted land to them along the Niobrara River.
Between 1879 and 1883 Standing Bear traveled in eastern United States and spoke about Indian rights. He was accompanied by Tibbles, Susette (Bright Eyes) LaFlesche, and her brother Francis LaFlesche. Standing Bear won the support of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and other prominent people.
After he returned from the East, Standing Bear resided on his old home on the Niobrara and farmed his land. He died in 1908.