This Date in Native History: On May 12, 1879, 138 years ago, Ma-Chu-nah Zah or Chief Standing Bear was declared a man in the federal courts of the United States. In the first American Indian civil rights case, Indians were acknowledged to possess all human rights.
By 1876, the Ponca tribe had a long history of living peacefully with whites and Standing Bear had received many letters from government officials that testified to that fact.
Ironically, one of those letters was written by the same Indian Commissioner that later testified in court that Standing Bear was a nuisance, mischievous, and impossible to please. However, when Standing Bear told the story of what happened to his family, the judge said the case could have been won on sympathy alone.
So, what happened?
The Ponca had been living and farming on 96,000 acres of their ancestor’s land when the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty gave away their land to the tribes in the Dakota Territory. This was done without consulting the Ponca, who knew nothing about the loss of their land until they were told to move, according to the book The Ponca Chiefs by Thomas Henry Tibbles, editor of the Omaha Daily Herald.
Tibbles's book details the hardships the Poncas endured, and describes how white men showed up at the Ponca Agency and insisted the Ponca go and see how much better it was in Indian Territory, 10 men went and found nothing but rocky land and sickness. The agents in Indian Territory refused to help them return home, so they made their way barefoot, on a 50-day trek, without food or a place to sleep. When they returned, the white men were still there, without any credentials, harassing them to relocate and give up their land.
After traveling 1,000 miles, the angry Standing Bear called them rascals and liars. “I want you off my land. If you were treating a white man the way you are treating me, he would kill you and everybody would say he did right. I will harm no white man, but this is my land, and I intend to stay here and make a good living for my wife and children. You can go.” This scene is detailed in Tibble’s book, which he wrote after a number of interviews and traveling with Standing Bear.
The men had Standing Bear and another man, Big Snake, arrested and sent to Yankton, in Dakota Territory. There, the officers took Standing Bear’s side and one officer said, “When a white man has land he can stay on it, and if anybody else wants it they have to pay him money for it… I don’t see why the same law will not apply to an Indian who has land,” Tibbles book reported.
By the time they returned from Yankton, it was clear that steps were in place for the Ponca to relocate to Indian Territory. “They were forced to go with no food, tools, clothing, except what they had on,” Randy Teboe, Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the Ponca Tribe, said. He added that they were also forced to abandon their Native spirituality, leaving behind items significant to their culture.
They left for Indian Territory in May of 1877 and arrived in Oklahoma on July 9, traveling in torrential rains and thunderstorms. When they arrived, there were no rations for them, and for months they had to beg from the other tribes. They had been farmers in Nebraska, but in Indian Territory, “We had nothing to work with… We said we would go back; that we did not like it here. Then they informed us that we were prisoners, and if we wanted to go away from the agency we would be punished,” Standing Bear told Tibbles.
“When they left (the Ponca Agency), there were 769 members who were forced out, and there were only 681 when they arrived. Once they arrived in Indian Territory, more died from smallpox and malaria,” Teboe said. Some estimate that one-third of the tribe died within months of arriving in Indian Territory.
“My son died, my sister died, my brother there was near dying. We had nothing to do but sit still, be sick, starve and die,” Standing Bear said, according to Tibbles's book.
Standing Bear gathered 36 of those closest to him, and they left Indian Territory, believing no punishment could be worse. It took 10 weeks to reach the Omaha Agency, where they were encouraged to stay. Yet, once again, word came that soldiers would take them back to Indian Territory.
General Crook, the agent in Omaha, arrested the Poncas, but contacted Tibbles, of the Omaha Daily Herald, about the Ponca’s plight.
On March 31, 1879, a meeting was held with Tibbles, Crook, Standing Bear and Buffalo Chip, another Ponca. Buffalo Chip told Tibbles, “I sometimes think that the white people forget we are human, that we love our wives and children, that we require food and clothing, that we must take care of our sick… Look at me. Am I not a man? I am poor. These clothes are ragged. But I am a man.”
He continued, “When I worked my farm, my wife, my children and myself had three meals a day. When I am forced to live on the government, I get one. Why does the government insist on feeding me?... It would be better for the government to stand us all out there in a line and shoot us.”
When Standing Bear was asked why he left the territory, he told the reporter he had promised his dying son he would bring him back and bury him by the Niobrara river. “When he died, I and those with me put his body into a box and then in a wagon, and we started North.”
The editor sent the story denouncing the treatment of the Poncas to newspapers all over the country, and the story ran in major cities and small towns.
Tibbles also contacted Attorney John L. Webster, and another famed attorney, A. J. Poppleton, who filed a lawsuit: Standing Bear v. Crook. Poppleton recognized that Natives were viewed by the courts as wards of the nation, but said, “It does not follow from that that the guardian can imprison, starve or practice inhuman cruelty upon the ward. The courts have and will always interfere in such cases.”
Over the next two days, in a courtroom packed with army officials, their wives, and local residents, Standing Bear and Buffalo Chip explained their situation. The trial is detailed in Tibbles’s book, The Ponca Chiefs.
G. M. Lambertson, attorney for the U.S. government, said, “Standing Bear is not entitled to protection of the writ of habeus corpus, not being a person or citizen under the law.”
Indian Commissioner E.A. Hyatt’s position was as wards of the government, Indians did not have the same rights as citizens but as children, could not sign contracts, and were dependent on the government.
The two attorneys, who provided their service to Standing Bear for free, proved the Poncas had been completely self-sufficient and that under the 14th Amendment, were entitled to be treated like all other people.
Judge Elmer S. Dundy said his decision could not be appealed, and ruled that an Indian is a person under constitutional law and has the right of habeus corpus in a federal court; that no law existed that forced the removal of the Ponca to Indian Territory; that the Poncas had as much right to leave their tribe as any other immigrant; that they were entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, as long as they obeyed the laws; and finally, that custody of the Poncas by the United States was in violation of the law, and they were to be discharged.
One of the deciding factors in the case was that Standing Bear had begun to live as a white man. His record of attending church, sending his children to school, and farming played a part in his winning the trial but made him a traitor to some. However, as the first civil rights case for Natives and the court’s decision that Standing Bear was a man, he was very important, Teboe said.
Indian Reform followed as Tibbles and Standing Bear toured major cities to speak out against the abuses in Indian Territory. Massachusetts Senator Henry Dawes heard Standing Bear’s passionate speech of land loss, government dependency, and the lack of rations, and he was moved to develop the 1887 Allotment, or, Dawes Act.
This story was originally published May 12, 2014.