This week, I’m traveling to Washington, D.C. to celebrate the unveiling of a statue of Chief Standing Bear at the United States Capitol. The statue will be on display for years to come, and I encourage Nebraskans to look for it when they next visit the U.S. Capitol.
Standing Bear was born in the northern part of our state, where the Niobrara and Missouri Rivers come together. He was a chief of the Ponca tribe, a peaceable nation of hunters and farmers. The Ponca tribe signed treaties with the U.S. government in 1858 and 1865. The treaties ceded much of the Poncas’ land in northern Nebraska, but reserved 96,000 acres for the tribe in present-day Knox and Boyd counties. However, in 1868 federal negotiators gave much of this same land to the Sioux Nation as part of a separate treaty. The overlapping land claims resulted in ongoing conflict between the Ponca and Sioux.
Because of the tensions, the federal agent to the Poncas urged the U.S. government and tribal leadership to relocate the Poncas to Indian Territory (in what is now northern Oklahoma). Standing Bear and other Ponca chiefs agreed to travel with federal officials to scout out new lands for the tribe. During their trip, however, the Ponca leaders did not find any place suitable for their people. Unhappy that the Poncas had not selected land in Indian Territory, federal agents refused to grant them travel back to Nebraska. So the chiefs set out on foot, journeying several weeks to get home.
However, by the time they returned, the U.S. government had determined that the Ponca would be relocated to Indian Territory — with or without their consent. A month later, Chief Standing Bear was again traveling across the Plains, this time on a forced march with his family and many others from his tribe. A number of Poncas died along the way, including Standing Bear’s daughter, Prairie Flower. She is buried near Milford.
Less than two years after the Poncas were resettled in Indian Territory, Standing Bear’s young son, Bear Shield, also passed away. During his final days, Bear Shield had communicated one last wish to his father: to be buried in the Ponca tribe’s Nebraska homeland. To honor his son’s request, Standing Bear embarked on yet another journey from Indian Territory to Nebraska in the winter of 1879, transporting his son’s body. A few weeks after Standing Bear arrived, government troops arrested him and detained him at Fort Omaha, claiming that he had left Indian Territory without official permission.
Gen. George R. Crook, head of the Department of the Platte headquartered at Fort Omaha, strongly believed that Standing Bear was being treated unjustly. He contacted a local journalist with the Omaha Herald, Thomas Tibbles, and told him Standing Bear’s story. Tibbles then enlisted two attorneys, John L. Webster and A.J. Poppleton, to represent Standing Bear free of charge. Together, they filed suit against the government for having wrongfully detained the Ponca chief.
Standing Bear’s trial lasted two days. Gen. Crook was listed as a defendant in the case (Standing Bear v. Crook) since he was the ranking U.S. officer at Fort Omaha, but he testified at the trial on behalf of Standing Bear. The federal government’s lawyers argued that Standing Bear was neither a person nor a citizen under the law and thus had no grounds to file a lawsuit.
Standing Bear responded directly to arguments from the government’s legal team in compelling testimony. Rising to his feet, and extending his hand toward the judge, 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. God made us both.”
In a landmark decision, the judge ruled that Standing Bear was entitled to the same civil rights as any other person in the United States. The ruling affirmed the human dignity of Native Americans and upheld their right to equal treatment under the law. Standing Bear’s courage, dedication to his family and tribe, and eloquent appeal for recognition of his basic human rights have already qualified him for Nebraska’s Hall of Fame. Now, he will stand tall in the U.S. Capitol, representing our State and its core principle of “equality before the law.”
Nebraska has been home to a number of remarkable women and men, like Standing Bear. If you would like to learn more about them, I encourage you to visit the Nebraska Hall of Fame at the State Capitol or online at https://history.nebraska.gov/NebraskaHoF.