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The Legendary Chief Standing Bear

October 8, 2007
Weekly Columns

Last week I had the privilege of attending the Standing Bear Museum and Education Center dedication in Ponca City. The museum, which will house an extensive collection of Native American artifacts, is named for the Ponca tribe's Chief Standing Bear, a brave man who fought for Indian civil rights many years ago. His story, which has become legend, deserves to be retold.

The Poncas were a peaceful farming and hunting tribe originally from Northeastern Nebraska. Their serene home was disrupted in 1878, when Indian Inspector Edward C. Kemble told the tribe that they had to relocate to Indian Territory in Oklahoma. Despite resistance from tribal leaders, the government forced the Ponca people, against their will, to go to Indian Territory immediately.

Unfortunately, when they arrived, harvesting season had passed and they were unable to grow crops for the winter. Hundreds of Ponca Indians died from the cold and from starvation that winter, including Chief Standing Bear's twelve-year-old son. Honoring a promise to his departed son, Chief Standing Bear and thirty other tribesmen traveled over 500 miles through a blizzard, while eluding the U.S. Army, in an effort to return the boy's remains for burial in Nebraska.

When they arrived in Nebraska the United States Interior Secretary called for the arrest of Chief Standing Bear and his fellow Poncas. These orders were carried out by General George Crook, who followed the letter of his orders, though not necessarily the spirit. General Crook sympathized with the Ponca's circumstances and asked an editor from the Omaha Herald to raise public support for the tribe. Shortly after the story broke, two attorneys volunteered to take Chief Standing Bear's case to court and file for a writ of habeas corpus on his behalf.

Chief Standing Bear petitioned the court for his right to return home. Remarkably, the government argued that an Indian was neither a person nor a citizen and therefore did not have the right to petition the United States government. But, on May 12, 1879, Judge Elmer Dundy ruled that an Indian is a person within the law, and entitled to the rights of freedom guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. After proving that the Poncas had been held illegally, Chief Standing Bear and his fellow Ponca Indians were freed. The government then arranged for their long-awaited return home to Nebraska. Chief Standing Bear spent the rest of his life telling others that civil rights of Native Americans should be respected and upheld by the U.S. government.

Oklahoma has a rich history that cannot be separated from our distinction as the relocation area for thousands of Native Americans. And, since that time, the Poncas, as well as many other tribes have maintained a home for their people in our state. As an enrolled member of the Chickasaw Nation, I take great pride in remembering the achievements of great Native American leaders such as Chief Standing Bear. His fight for equal treatment under the law for America's native people helped pave the way for many more remarkable achievements that have been made by Indians in Oklahoma and across America.