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Author compares Ponca Chief to Gitmo inmates

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OMAHA, Neb. – A new book about Standing Bear addresses the importance of habeas corpus in the Ponca chief’s historic court case. The case, Standing Bear v. Crook, legally established that “an Indian is a person.”

“This story resonates loud and clear in our world right now in 2009,” said Joe Starita, author of “I am a Man.” “Standing Bear had to be considered an enemy combatant of his time, and yet, as the enemy combatant of his time, he got access to the federal court through a writ of habeas corpus, something that the enemy combatant 130 years later can’t do.”

At a book signing Jan. 25, Starita said his book does not reference U.S. military action in the Middle East or the controversial prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. However, habeas corpus is as central to Standing Bear’s story as it is for many complaints against detainment of enemy combatants at Gitmo.

Habeas corpus is Latin for “you have the body.”

A writ of habeas corpus prevents indefinite imprisonment by forcing a civil court to decide whether a person is lawfully imprisoned. According to Article One, Section Nine of the U.S. Constitution, “The privilege of the writ of habeas corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in cases of rebellion or invasion, the public safety may require it.”

Standing Bear was arrested March 27, 1879 after he arrived at the Omaha Reservation. He was imprisoned at Fort Omaha. His crime? Walking 500 miles from an Oklahoma reservation to fulfill his dying son’s wish. His son, Bear Shield, had asked to be buried in their ancestral homeland near the confluence of the Niobrara and Missouri rivers in Nebraska. The boy, and one-third of the tribe, died after the forced march to Oklahoma known as the Ponca Trail of Tears.

When Standing Bear and 30 others fled the reservation in the “Warm Country,” as the tribe called Oklahoma, the clandestine Poncas exhibited clear insubordination to the federal confinement policy. Starita said that, only three years after the Battle of the Little Bighorn, some Americans might have considered Standing Bear to be a terrorist.

Starita was twice a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. The most recent nomination came for his book “The Dull Knives of Pine Ridge,” which chronicled five generations of a Lakota Sioux-Northern Cheyenne family. He is an associate professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln College of Journalism and Mass Communications.

The recent book signing in Omaha was Starita’s first stop on a promotional tour. He spoke to a crowd at the General Crook House located within the historic Fort Omaha.

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General Crook was one of 19th century America’s most infamous Indian fighters. In Crook’s military career he campaigned against the Paiute, Apache and Sioux. Nevertheless, in Omaha, he stood against the country’s flawed Indian policy – the general became the catalyst for a nationwide media campaign to exonerate Standing Bear.

When Starita spoke about his book, he stood in the same residence where Crook lived, within the same fort that served as Standing Bear’s prison.

Energy flowed from the author as he shed his “manacles of journalistic objectivity” and waxed poetic on the reasons why he loves this story (now the subject of at least four books and numerous dramatic interpretations). Aside from being a compelling narrative born from his home state of Nebraska, Starita said the story exemplifies the American legal system at work.

“Between the smallpox epidemics of 1803-04, when Lewis and Clark were starting their journey and Wounded Knee, there wasn’t a hell of a lot of good things that happened to the American Indian,” he said. “But Standing Bear sticks out for one moment.”

Starita’s comparison between Standing Bear and terrorists held in Guantanamo found skepticism from some members of the audience.

One man in the front row contested the author’s opinion. After a brief back-and-forth, the man said, “I don’t think it’s a parallel, I think it’s a parallelogram.”

An attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union explained the distinction between Standing Bear and the “enemy combatants” imprisoned in Guantanamo.

“In both cases, you have the government either trying to defend or create a category of human beings who did not have access to courts to challenge their detentions,” Ben Wizner said. “But I think it’s somewhat different. In the so-called War on Terror detentions, the legal status that the government tried to create was at least purportedly defined by actions that detainees were alleged to have carried out.”

Wizner is a national security expert and has visited Gitmo on seven occasions for his work with the ACLU.

“We don’t have this concept anymore of whether someone is a person or not,” he said. “We don’t have that kind of legal fiction anymore, and that’s not the kind of argument that was being made in Guantanamo.”