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Standing bear: American: after his people were unjustly evicted from their homeland in Nebraska, Chief Standing Bear--aided by one of the Army's most renowned Indian fighters--mounted a legal challenge to prove what should have been obvious: Indians were people under the law.

In the murky pre-dawn hours of October 30, 1879, Lieutenant Stanton Mason and a detachment of 12 soldiers arrived at the Ponca reservation in Oklahoma's Indian Territory. After concealing their horses behind a small general store, the troops quietly met with William Whiteman, the Indian affairs agent assigned to the Poncas.

For several months, Whiteman had barraged Interior Secretary Carl Schurz with telegrams describing the supposed threat posed by Big Snake, one of several men recognized as chiefs by the Poncas. The dispatches described Big Snake as "extremely sullen and morose" and accused him of having "a very demoralizing effect upon the other Indians." Just a few days before Lt. Mason and his men arrived, Whiteman had sent a panicky telegram demanding that Big Snake be arrested and sent to Fort Reno to be imprisoned "for the remainder of his natural life."

The irony of Whiteman's request was that Big Snake--like the rest of the Poncas--was already serving a life sentence in prison.

The Imprisoned Poncas

That the Poncas were demoralized was obvious, as was the immediate cause of their dejection. Two years earlier they had been uprooted from their ancestral lands at the point of the bayonet and sent on a forced march more than 600 miles south to Indian Territory. Of the fewer than 800 Poncas who left their homeland in northern Nebraska, a little less than one-quarter had died on the march from disease, hunger, and fatigue. E.A. Howard, the Indian Agent who supervised the relocation, was alarmed at the fatality rate (primarily because of how it reflected on his administration). In a letter to Washington after the Poncas had been settled in Indian Territory, Howard predicted that "a great mortality will surely follow among the people when they have been here for a time and been poisoned by the malaria of the climate."

In their new "home," the Poncas were treated as prisoners. They couldn't leave the reservation without permission from the Indian Agent, upon whom they depended for food, seeds, and other essential goods. In early 1879, Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) Commissioner Ezra Hayt subdivided the Ponca reservation to make room for 370 members of Chief Joseph's Nez Perce tribe, which had surrendered to the U.S. Army just shy of reaching free territory in Canada.

The Poncas were agrarian; the Nez Perces were capable warriors, but not hostile. These tribes had nothing in common, beyond the mistreatment they had experienced at the hands of the federal government. However, as an editorial in the local Arkansas City Traveler noted at the time: "With the addition of the Nez Perce, trade will be increased considerably." As Indian Agent. Whiteman received subsidies from Washington based on the total population under his supervision.

It was standard practice for Indian Agents to pad expense vouchers for Indian welfare distribution and to receive kickbacks from corrupt dry goods merchants. Many agents profited so handsomely from this corrupt trade that they could take a very small salary and live very well. This engine of corruption, commonly called the "Indian Ring," propelled many figures into politics, both locally and nationally.

While the Indian Ring prospered, Indians were left destitute. In an 1862 letter to Abraham Lincoln, George A.S. Crooker, a critic of the Indian system, denounced "the cohesive power of public plunder [that] cements rogues together stronger than party or any other ties." By abetting the misery of the Indians and fomenting conflict, Crooker wrote, the Indian Ring's corrupt activity "not only cost a large sum of money but has deluged our western border in blood." Episcopal Bishop Henry Whipple of Minnesota, mortified by the wretched condition of the Indians and the arrogant corruption of federal Indian Affairs officials, similarly warned that the Indian system "'commences in discontent and ends in blood."

Discontent, Defiance, and Murder

By October 1879, Big Snake's discontent had become sufficiently pronounced to throw a scare into Indian Agent Whiteman. The most unbearable indignity came when his only son was numbered among the Ponca children forcibly wrested from their families and sent to an Indian boarding school in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. "He and his wife were pining for their boy," recalls historian Stephen Dando-Collins. "But more than that, Big Snake wanted to know what right the government had to take his son away from him."

Big Snake was a man who insisted on being treated as one. Although peaceful by disposition, he was a head taller than practically anyone in the territory--a prodigious physical specimen and a natural leader. Big Snake was therefore a threat to Agent Whiteman and the unfathomably corrupt bureaucracy he served. Accordingly, Whiteman laid a trap for Big Snake.

The Indian Agent announced that on October 30, he would be disbursing payment --more than six months late--to those Poncas, including Big Snake, who had done work for the agency. When Big Snake arrived at the general store to receive his pay, he would be arrested by Lt. Mason and hauled off in chains to Ft. Reno.

Shortly before noon, Big Snake arrived in the company of a friend named Hairy Bear. Whiteman asked the Indians to take a seat, and briefly departed--returning in the company of Lt. Mason and a dozen soldiers, as well as a civilian interpreter.

"Tell Big Snake to come along," Mason told the interpreter. "Tell him to get up and come with us."

Big Snake remained seated, radiating composure tinted with contempt. "Tell me what I have done," he calmly replied through the interpreter. "I have killed no one, I have stolen no horses, I have done nothing wrong."

"You tried to kill two men," replied Mason, regurgitating an unsubstantiated charge from Whiteman. Big Snake simply shook his head and remained resolutely seated. Whiteman, who had already taken care to ensure that Big Snake would remain incarcerated for life, promised the Indian that he would learn more about the charges when he reached Ft. Reno. But Big Snake knew, from abundant experience, that such assurances from a federal official were worse than useless.

Standing and throwing open his red blanket to show he was unarmed, Big Snake towered defiantly over Mason and his men. "I have done nothing wrong," he repeated. "I will die before I go." Worried for his friend, Hairy Bear pleaded with Big Snake to relent, to think of his wife and children. "I do not want to go," he reiterated. "If they want to kill me, let them do it, right here."

"There is no use talking," snapped Lt. Mason. "I came to arrest you, and I want you to come with me." Brandishing a pair of handcuffs, Mason--with the aid of one of his men--attempted to arrest Big Snake. The Indian tossed them aside effortlessly. Mason angrily ordered four of his men to pin Big Snake's arms while the handcuffs were applied; the Indian blithely swatted all four of them to the floor.

Big Snake then calmly resumed his seat, his defiance now alloyed with a touch of amusement. Mason ordered his sergeant and five of his men to swarm the Indian and handcuff him. A fierce struggle ensued, after which Big Snake rose to his feet and heaved all six of the men to the ground. This prompted two troopers to club him across the temples with their carbines. Bloodied and staggering, Big Snake refused to relent. Finally one of the troopers, standing just a few feet away, shot Big Snake in the chest.

Hours later, news of Big Snake's murder reached his brother Standing Bear in Boston. Standing Bear was at dinner with a close friend named Bright Eyes and former newspaper publisher Henry Tibbles when the telegram arrived. Standing Bear had traveled to Boston as part of a campaign to win legal recognition of the personhood of American Indians under law. Already, thanks to help he had received from prominent citizens, attorneys, Christian leaders, and one of the U.S. Army's most noted Indian fighters, Standing Bear had won a key court decision upholding his claim to personhood. But his brother's death at the hands of a minion of the federal Indian Ring demonstrated that legal victories alone would be of little value.

Seizing the Homeland

Nearly everybody who knew Big Snake referred to the kind-tempered Ponca chief as a gentle giant. A photograph of Big Snake, taken about two years before he was murdered, displays a sinewy figure standing at least 6'5" tall at a time when the average American male was nearly a foot shorter. While his face is set in the proudly impassive gaze made familiar in many Indian portraits, eyewitness accounts attest to the fact that Big Snake's deep-set eyes often glittered with mirth, or radiated affection for his family and friends.

The photograph was taken in February 1877 during a visit to Washington by nine chiefs of the Poncas (a name meaning "those who lead"). Big Snake, Standing Bear, and seven of their colleagues had been brought to Washington to play out what had become a familiar script. The federal government had discovered that its plans to bestow favors on politically connected interests were impeded by Indian property claims supposedly protected by treaty. Thus Washington had decided to renege on the treaty.

Acting on the orders of Secretary of the Interior Carl Schurz, Bureau of Indian Affairs Inspector Edward C. Kemble and Indian Agent James Lawrence had informed the Ponca chiefs that their people were to be evicted from their homeland in northern Nebraska and relocated 600 miles south to Indian Territory--an infertile stretch of land in what would become Oklahoma. The news was delivered by Lawrence to the Ponca chiefs during a meeting on their homeland near the Niobrara River --known to the Poncas as "Swift Running Water."

White Eagle, the paramount chief of the Ponca people, broke the stunned silence by pointing out that his people had lived on the banks of the Niobrara for generations. The Poncas were settled, peaceable, and devoted to agriculture. While they had occasional conflicts with the neighboring Sioux, the Poncas enjoyed friendly, mutually beneficial relations with the neighboring white Americans in Niobrara City. Furthermore, a large portion of their tribe (including Standing Bear and his family) had converted to Christianity, and voluntarily sent their children to study in American schools. Uprooting the Poncas would sever their connection to their homeland and leave them destitute.

Displaying the determined indifference to human suffering so typical of centralized bureaucracies, Inspector Kemble dismissed White Eagle's recitation as irrelevant. The decision had been made to remove the Poncas, he reiterated, pulling from his briefcase a document intended to apply a flimsy veneer of legality to the betrayal.

In 1875, under siege by riled-up Sioux, the Poncas had petitioned Washington to allow them to seek asylum with the Omaha, a kindred tribe whose reservation was located to the southeast. Through either incompetence or opportunism, the BINs translator had used the expression "Indian Territory," rather than "the native people's country" to refer to the Poncas' preferred sanctuary. Kemble was very much aware of the true import of the 1875 request, but as a careerist in the most corrupt branch of the federal leviathan, he wasn't a slave to principle.

The Poncas, tragically, had been caught in the backwash of the Federal government's campaign to "pacif'y" the Sioux. Beginning immediately after the War Between the States, Washington began a campaign to remove the Plains Indians "in order to make way for the government-subsidized railroads," writes historian Thomas DiLorenzo. "We are not going to let a few thieving, ragged indians check and stop the progress of the railroads," wrote General William Techumseh Sherman in an 1866 letter to President U.S. Grant. "'We must act with vindictive earnestness against the Sioux, even to their extermination, men, women, and children."

Of course, private railroads--notably James J. Hill's Great Northern paid for the use of Indian lands, to the mutual benefit of both parties. But the federal government and its corporatist railroad combine had no use for peaceful commerce, preferring instead to evict the Indians by force. This led to decades of needless bloodshed and terror.

"During an assault [on an Indian community] the soldiers cannot pause to distinguish between male and female, or even discriminate as to age," declared General Sherman, chief of the Indian removal campaign, in instructions to his subordinates. "As long as resistance is made, death must be meted out." Sherman, who presided over the rapacious "march to the sea" during the Civil War, delegated much of the Indian campaign to Philip Sheridan, who had orchestrated the similarly murderous campaign to destroy Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. To Sherman and Sheridan is assigned the eternal infamy of a joint statement pronouncing that "the only good Indian is a dead Indian."

Although the Poncas didn't live on land coveted by the railroad combine, their 1875 troubles could be considered collateral damage from Washington's campaign of "vindictive earnestness" against the Sioux. An 1868 clerical error in Washington assigned Ponca lands to the Sioux, leading to seven years of armed conflict as the Poncas staved off raiding parties while trying to get Washington to reverse its mistake.

When gold was discovered in the Black Hills in 1874, Washington turned a covetous eye on the Ponca territory, located on a fertile delta between the Missouri and Niobrara rivers. With waves of miners and settlers flooding into the Dakota Territory, politically connected interests sought the seizure of the Ponca land for the purpose of agricultural development--something that, once again, could have been accomplished through honest commerce, rather than bureaucratic theft.

Forced March and Escape

On May 19, I877. U.S. Army troops descended on the Ponca village to evict its owners. Under orders from Indian Agent Howard, the troops seized all personal property as well as livestock and farming implements. Every log house was demolished, along with barns, the sawmill and grist mill, and the tribe's Christian church and schoolhouse. The Poncas were loaded onto wagons or marched off their land on foot.

Within days, the Ponca children began to die from exposure. As a chief, Standing Bear did what he could to offer comfort. His first concern, obviously, was to take care of his wife, Susette, and their three children an adult daughter named Prairie Flower, a teenaged son named Bear Shield, and an infant daughter, Fanny. By the time the pitiful column reached Milford, Nebraska, in early June, Prairie Flower had contracted pneumonia.

"When the Christian ladies of Milford heard that the chief's daughter was dying, they came hurrying out from the town and prayed with Standing Bear and his people," records Dando-Collins. "Under their auspices, Standing Bear and his wife intetTed Prairie Flower in a Christian cemetery in Milford."

Scores of other Ponca children perished before they reached Indian Territory. Once there, the Poncas spent several weeks awaiting the arrival of Agent Whiteman (the future murderer of Big Snake), who was their only source of rations. Summer in the mosquito-choked reservation brought malaria, which devastated the Poncas, killing dozens of people and even claiming many of their horses. October brought another round of sickness. Among those who took ill was Bear Shield, Standing Bear's only son.

Standing Bear had lost another son to disease a few years earlier. Now, with his people consigned to a distant land and no medical help available, his last remaining heir was dying. "Like his father, Bear Shield was a Christian, and to his father's great pride he had often taken aside members of their tribe and read to them from the Holy Scriptures," writes Dando-Collins. "But as he felt his life slipping away, Bear Shield began to worry about the afterlife."

Like other Indian communities, the Poncas believed that those not buried with their ancestors would be deprived of their company in the afterlife. In December, as Bear Shield's life ebbed away, he pleaded with his father to take his body and bury it along the banks of the Niobrara. Sobbing as he held his dying son, Standing Bear promised that he would.

A few weeks later, Standing Bear led a party of 27 Poncas on an unauthorized trek to their homeland. Facing arrest if they were found outside the reservation, the Poncas chose a route across the barren plains of western Kansas, far away from most white settlements. Fortunately, many of the white farmers and settlers scattered along their route--some of them nearly as impoverished as the Indians offered food and what comforts they could.

While Standing Bear's tiny group continued its desperate journey, Secretary Schurz, informed by Whiteman via telegraph that a band of "renegades" had left the reservation, had dispatched the Army to hunt them down. More than a few of the soldiers considered the duty thoroughly dishonorable. One of them, Lt. John Bourke, later wrote that the Poncas were "molesting nobody, and subsisting on charity. Not a shot was fired at anyone; not so much as a dog was stolen."

What Is a Man?

At the end of" February, Standing Bear and his charges arrived at the Omaha reservation in northeastern Nebraska. For several weeks the Poncas recuperated in the company of their kinfolk, before embarking on the last leg of their journey home. Among those who tended to the weary Poncas was Bright Eyes, who had been educated in the East and was superintendent at the Omaha Indian school. In May, acting on orders from Secretary Schurz, General George Crook sent out a party of soldiers from Fort Omaha to take the Poncas into custody and return them to Indian Territory.

General Crook, who was regarded as the most accomplished Indian fighter of his time, was among the most honorable men to wear the uniform of the U.S. Army. He was also renowned for his administrative skills and personal discipline. Most importantly, General Crook had seen the cost, in blood and anguish, of fighting the Indians, and was disgusted by Washington's cavalier disregard for peace treaties that had been bought at such a price.

Shortly before Crook was to seize the Poncas and return them to Indian Territory, he received a visit from Bright Eyes and Reverend J. Owen Dorsey, the Episcopal missionary who had converted Standing Bear to Christianity eight years earlier. The visitors offered the general a detailed description of the injustices visited on the Poncas and appealed to his sense of honor. Wanting to help, but constrained by military discipline not to disobey nominally lawful orders, General Crook undertook a brilliant flanking maneuver: he leaked news of the situation to Thomas Henry Tibbles, editor of the Omaha Daily Herald.

Tibbles was irresistibly drawn to moral crusades. As a young (and, by his own account, foolish) man, he had enlisted with John Brown, the notorious terrorist-cum-abolitionist. After fighting in the War Between the States, Tibbles became a circuit-riding preacher. He had nothing but contempt for official corruption. Thus he was eager to lend what aid he could after General Crook--in the company of Standing Bear and his wife, Susette--paid a visit to the offices of the Daily Herald after midnight on a Sunday morning. The next day, Tibbles published an expose that was picked up by wire services across the country.

A few weeks later, Tibbles recruited noted attorneys John L. Webster and Andrew J. Poppleton to stage a legal challenge on behalf of the Poncas. The strategy settled on by the team was to file a Habeas Corpus petition against General Crook, the official who held the Poncas in custody. Their legal argument would be based on the 14th Amendment, ratified a scant 11 years earlier, which forbids government to imprison any individual without "due process of law."

There was one significant catch: an 1870 Senate Judiciary report insisted that the 14th Amendment applied only to Indians who had sundered their relationships with their tribes. By laying claim to their rights and immunities under the amendment, Standing Bear and his party were renouncing allegiance to their tribe. They would also run the risk of being arrested as "intruders" if they appeared on any reservation without official permission.

Having this explained to him, Standing Bear decided that the trade-off was necessary--not only to fulfill a sacred promise to his dying son, but to establish the legal principle that an American Indian was a person worthy of constitutional protection.

"I Am a Man"

On April 8, 1879, a writ was filed on behalf of Standing Bear and his party with federal District Judge Elmer Scipio Dundy. A hearing into the writ commenced 12 days later. Over the objections of the federal attorney, who insisted that an Indian had no standing as a "competent witness," Judge Dundy permitted Standing Bear to testify, via an interpreter, of the treatment his people had received.

After describing his people's forced removal from their homeland, the loss of 158 of their number during the exodus, and the dismal conditions in Indian Territory, Standing Bear described the promise to his dying son. "1 wanted to go to my own land, land that I had never sold," he explained. "My son asked me when he was dying to take him back and bury him there, and I have his bones in a box with me now. I want to live there the rest of my life and be buried there."

"What have I done?" exclaimed Standing Bear to the courtroom audience. "It seems to me as if I have no place on earth. I want a place where I can work and support my family, and when done with life, die peaceably!"

Unmoved by this plea and determined to perpetuate the legal fiction that Indians were not "persons" under the law, U.S. attorney G.M. Lambertson strove to wring from Standing Bear an admission that he was still affiliated with the Ponca tribe --but the former chief evaded the trap. Lambertson was also surprised to discover that the defendant, General Crook, was a hostile witness, as were several of Crook's subordinates who had carried out the Interior Department's orders by arresting the Poncas.

After closing arguments were delivered on May 2, Judge Dundy gaveled the formal proceedings to a close. He then permitted Standing Bear to offer, albeit informally, a summation of his own.

Arising with his red blanket around his shoulders. Standing Bear held out one hand to the gallery, standing in silence for at least a full minute. With Bright Eyes as his interpreter, the former chief began to speak.

"I see a great many of you here," he stated. "I think a great many are my friends." He asked the crowd where they thought he had come from--the woods? From the water? No, he continued, God had made him, just as He had made all of them. After briefly pausing, he again raised his reddish-brown hand.

"That hand is not the color of yours," Standing Bear observed. "'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. The same God made us both."

Many in the courtroom were in tears. General Crook, a man who had seen many battles, whose body had been callused by long campaigns and hardened by daily weight lifting sessions, sat hunched forward in his chair, a hand covering his eyes.

Rights Established

Roughly two weeks later, Judge Dundy issued his decision. He ruled that Standing Bear and other Indians were indeed persons who enjoyed the protection of the Constitution and laws of our country, and that they had the right to dissociate themselves from their tribes if they chose to. He also ruled that General Sherman, who had issued the order to General Crook, had acted unconstitutionally by taking the Poncas into military custody, rather than remanding them to civilian authorities, where they would have been able to challenge the charges against them in a court of law.

The implications of that decision were obvious to the Indian Ring and its allies. "If the decision of Judge Dundy ... to the effect that Indians have the legal rights of citizens, is sustained, the Indian policy of the government will undergo a revolution," fretted a May 18 editorial in the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

Tibbles knew that defeating the Indian Ring would require widespread public support and a great deal of money. Accordingly, in the summer of 1879 Tibbles organized a speaking tour of the eastern United States. Accompanying him were Standing Bear--who had been permitted, at last, to bury his son on a tract of land near the Niobrara--and Bright Eyes as an interpreter. It was during that tour that Standing Bear learned of the murder of his brother in Indian Territory. (If the federal government had respected Judge Dundy's ruling, Big Snake would have been brought before a civilian judge, rather than confronted with indefinite military detention on the basis of unproven, and unfounded, charges.)

While Standing Bear and his friends toured the country to raise money and educate the public, General Crook lobbied both President Rutherford B. Hayes (a former subordinate in the Union Army) and the Congress on behalf of the Indians. In an official report to the president, Crook urged the federal government to recognize that Indians have legal standing "to appeal to the courts for the protection of their rights and property," writes Dando-Collins. Due in large measure to Crook's efforts, Congress enacted a bill in 1881 permitting the Poncas to return to their homeland and offering modest compensation for their sufferings.

Carl Schurz, formerly a Communist revolutionary in Germany, the primary architect of the Indian reservation system, and the Poncas' unrepentant tormentor, was assigned--as his final duty as Interior Secretary--to supervise the return to the Poncas of lands taken from them by the federal government and reassigned to the Sioux. Schurz "was never brought to account for the misery he visited on the Poncas and other Indian tribes in the name of expediency," notes Dando-Collins. But the exposure of his corrupt dealings left Schurz's reputation so stained that he never again held public office.

One of Standing Bear's most treasured possessions was an unflattering Thomas Nast caricature of Schurz, a cartoon he took with him to his homeland on the Niobrara. In 1906, two years before his death, the aged Standing Bear posed for a photograph and granted an interview to a visiting reporter. When the writer informed him that Schurz was dead, Standing Bear drew a long, reflective puff on his peace pipe. With a smile playing at the corners of his mouth, the chief spoke the only word of English he knew: "Good."
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Author:Grigg, William Norman
Publication:The New American
Article Type:Biography
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 2, 2005
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