Ponca Indians were agrarian, peaceful, self-sufficient and taught their
children to speak English. But in the eyes of the law, none of them were “persons”. Standing Bear is a Person
is the true story of the one Ponca man who challenged the federal government on
behalf of his people.
Lewis and Clark met the Poncas as early as 1804, and even then found them
friendly and well-settled in permanent houses. When the Poncas were rounded up
in 1877, they numbered less than 1,000 people in three settlements in Dakota
territory (later within Nebraska’s boundaries), clustered around a Bureau of
Indian Affairs government outpost. The outpost was commanded by General George
Crook, one of the army’s most successful Indian fighters.
June of 1876, at Montana’s Little Big Horn River, George Armstrong Custer and
266 soldiers of the 7th Calvary were killed in battle against the Lakota Sioux
and Cheyenne Indians. The Poncas had absolutely no part in this bloodbath. In
fact, for years the Poncas themselves had been victims of Sioux aggression, a
dispute created by the federal government in the 1860s when it drafted
conflicting legal descriptions into separate treaties with the two peoples.
taking advantage of anti-Indian sentiment after Custer’s last stand, and conveniently
able to invoke “war” as justification, the federal government ignored the
Constitution by confiscating the Poncas’ property — farm equipment, homes, school,
church, workshops and household goods — and forcing them to vacate their
fertile Dakota homelands. Families were broken up if one spouse was not a
Ponca. In the harshest of Great Plains’ weather conditions — tornadoes,
floods, high winds and heat — the Poncas were force-marched southward 600
miles to Indian Territory, located in what is now known as Oklahoma. Some said
the real motive may have been the discovery of gold close by, or the pressure
to make their fertile ground available to settlers.
in any forced march, a very large percentage of the Poncas and their livestock
died en route and in the ensuing months. Two years after resettlement, 600 of
700 horses were dead or stolen and 25 yoke of oxen were all dead. Of the Poncas
themselves, 158 had died of 766 who began the march. Standing Bear lost his
sister, his daughter and his English-speaking teenage son. The Poncas were left
on undesirable land, without adequate farming equipment, livestock, money, or housing.
The government gave them rations of one meal a day, or sometimes none at all.
Bear was one of several Ponca chiefs. They had listened to government and
military officials, negotiated in good faith, trusted officials until the lies
became too obvious to ignore, and then resisted peacefully. Standing Bear led a
small group of Poncas out of Indian Territory back to their Dakota lands. They
avoided roads, towns and authorities by travelling northward through western
Poncas were almost to their homeland when they accepted sanctuary from a
neighboring tribe, the Omahas. Hearing of this, the government in Washington
set into motion another crackdown. The Secretary of the Interior called the
Secretary of War, who demanded that the Army’s commanding general, William T.
Sherman, order the “arrest” of the Poncas at the Omaha reservation.
Sherman handed the order on to General Phillip Sheridan, who handed it on to
his former West Point classmate, General George Crook. In his years as a
victorious Indian fighter, Crook had gained friends in the corridors of power.
He also gained deep admiration for his Indian opponents, and considered them
his equals. Standing Bear and the Poncas could not have found a better friend
than General Crook.
young woman, Bright Eyes, who had been friends with Standing Bear’s daughter since
childhood, convinced her father, an Omaha chief, to join her in appealing to
General Crook on the Poncas’ behalf. Crook noted he was only ordered to “arrest,”
not relocate, the Poncas. Before his superiors discovered the loophole, he
quietly introduced Bright Eyes and her father to his friend, Thomas Henry
Tibbles, newspaper editor, preacher and former anti-slavery activist.
network included churches, locally and back East, and two prominent local
attorneys, John Lee Webster and Andrew Jackson Poppleton. Tibbles publicized the
case across the country, generated popular sympathy for the Poncas, and convinced
the two lawyers to take the case pro bono. They argued, in front of District
Court Judge E.S. Dundy, Jr., that under the federal habeas corpus statute,
Standing Bear was a person under the Constitution, entitled to be free.
this point in the book, what had seemed another tragic but inevitable victory
of brute force begins to unravel. One by one, individuals peacefully took their
places to defeat the government through the power of reason and law, not the
force of violence. Their courage, altruism and belief in peacefully seeking
justice represent the quintessential stuff of American idealism, identity and
faith in a system of justice.
Stephen Dando-Collins crafts strong descriptions of each protagonist and a
compelling narrative based primarily on the words of the participants reported
in official records and newspaper accounts. He has included actual transcripts
of the trial testimony, a summary of the lawyers’ arguments, and Judge Dundy’s
written opinion. These sources, along with black and white photographs of the
key figures, bring the entire drama to life.
passage of more than a hundred years helps demonstrate the significance of
courage and peaceful response to injustice. In our day, when “war” is the
justification for ignoring the Constitution’s protections in ever increasing
circumstances, and when the lives of unborn humans are unprotected simply because
they are not considered “persons”, Standing Bear’s story will strengthen and
inspire anyone who seeks to right what is wrong by peaceful means.
Rebecca R. Messall is a lawyer in Denver, Colorado.
She was president of the National Lawyers Association 2007-2008.