That act of grief and love set in motion a chain of events that would make Standing Bear a civil rights hero. On Wednesday, he was honored with a statue representing the state of Nebraska in the U.S. Capitol’s National Statuary Hall.
Standing Bear was born sometime between 1829 and 1834 in the Ponca tribe’s native lands in northern Nebraska. A natural leader, he became a chief at a young age, according to the Nebraska History Museum.
By 1858, the Poncas were forced to cede most of their land except for a small area by the Niobrara River, where they became farmers rather than buffalo hunters. But they did well, growing corn and trading with white settlers often.
Ten years later, as described by Dee Alexander Brown in the classic “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” the remaining Ponca land was mistakenly included in a treaty between the United States and the Sioux tribes.
“Although the Poncas protested over and over again to Washington, officials took no action. Wild young men from the Sioux tribes came down demanding horses as tribute, threatening to drive the Poncas off the land which they now claimed as their own,” Brown wrote.
The U.S. government finally took action in 1876 but not in the way the Poncas had hoped. Congress declared that the Poncas would be moved to Indian Territory in Oklahoma in exchange for $25,000. Though the bill stated clearly this would all happen “with the consent of said band,” when the Poncas declined the inferior land they were offered in Oklahoma, they were forced to leave anyway.
By the time they arrived in Oklahoma in 1878, it was too late in the season to plant; they also didn’t get any of the farming equipment the government had promised them. More than a third of the Poncas died of starvation and disease — including Standing Bear’s sister and his beloved son.
Standing Bear and his burial party evaded capture while they traveled home but were caught and detained after visiting relatives at the Omaha reservation.
The man who caught them, Brig. Gen. George Crook, had been fighting Native Americans for decades, Brown wrote, but he was moved by Standing Bear’s reasons for leaving the Indian Territory and promised to help him.
Crook went to the media, which spread the story of the plight of Standing Bear and his fellow prisoners nationwide. Then two lawyers offered to take up their case pro bono, and asked a judge to free the Poncas immediately.
Though Crook was sympathetic to Standing Bear, since he was the official carrying out the federal government’s orders to detain them, the civil rights case that resulted was called Standing Bear v. Crook.
The U.S. attorney argued that Standing Bear was neither a citizen nor a person, and as such did not have standing to sue the government.
On the second day, Chief Standing Bear was called to testify, becoming the first Native American to do so. He raised his right hand and, through an interpreter, said: “My 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. The same god made us both. I am a man.”
The judge agreed, ruling for the first time in U.S. history that “the Indian is a ‘person’ ” and has all the rights and freedoms promised in the Constitution. The judge also ordered Crook to free Standing Bear and his people immediately.
Despite the landmark decision from the judge, his opinion still drips with prejudice, calling Native Americans a “weak, insignificant, unlettered, and generally despised race.”
Standing Bear returned to the land by the Niobrara River and buried his son alongside his ancestors. When he died there in 1908, he was buried alongside them, too.
A few decades later, in 1937, the state of Nebraska sent two statues to the U.S. Capitol. Each state is allowed to pick two historical figures to represent them in National Statuary Hall, and Nebraska chose politician William Jennings Bryan and Arbor Day founder Julius Sterling Morton.
(This provision is also why there are at least eight statues of Confederates in the Capitol. Neither Congress nor the Architect of the Capitol has the power to remove them; it must be done by the states that sent the statues.)
In recent years, Nebraska lawmakers voted to replace both statues. Bryan was replaced by Chief Standing Bear; soon, Morton will be replaced by a statue of author Willa Cather.
At the dedication ceremony Wednesday, which included Ponca tribal leaders and members of the House and Senate, Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts said it was an honor to recognize “one of the most important civil rights leaders in our country that almost nobody knows about.
“And we hope to be able to correct that today and tell his story,” Ricketts said.
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