Stephen Dando-Collins. Standing Bear is a Person: The True Story of a Native American's Quest for Justice.
In Buckskin and Blanket Days: Memoirs of a Friend of the Indians, Thomas Henry Tibbles introduces his chapter on Standing Bear with a prophetic passage. He predicts, "Someday a historian will take up the tale of those years scientifically examining the United States court decisions in the cases which I was the means of bringing to trial, and searching the records in Washington and the newspaper files which told the daily events. Finally, he will write a permanent, reliable account of a very vital chapter in our nation's history" (Doubleday and Co., 1957, 193). Attempting to answer this call, Stephen Dando-Collins relates the story surrounding the watershed trial and its immediate consequences.
One of the few Plains tribes never to militarily engage the United States, the peaceful Ponca Tribe of Nebraska suffered alongside the Sioux at the close of the Indian Plains Wars. By May 1877 the punitive reality of removal penetrated the Poncas reservation, and the tribe was reluctantly relocated to arid lands in Indian Territory adjacent to the Quapaws. Plagued by disease and death, a delegation of twenty-seven Poncas led by Standing Bear secretly escaped and trekked west to bury the chief's recently deceased son and reestablish themselves on their confiscated Niobrara River homelands. While resting at the Omaha reservation, the Poncas were arrested by General George Crook on orders from Washington.
Omaha Daily Herald editor Thomas Tibbles took up the small band's cause, finding pro bono lawyers and launching a major media campaign. Defended by constitutional lawyer John Webster and renowned railroad attorney Andrew Poppleton, Standing Bear won a ground-breaking court case centered on the chief's recognition as a living person. Judge Elmer Dundy ruled that the right to habeas corpus, as well as to other inalienable rights, must be extended to any individual abandoning his origin nation for participation in the American system. Funded by the Omaha Ponca Committee and later the Boston Ponca Committee, Tibbles embarked on a series of public tours. They featured not only the editor but also the Ponca chief, a young Omaha woman named Bright Eyes (Suzette La Flesche), and her brother Frank La Flesche. Meanwhile, eastern newspapers came into conflict with each other in defending either Standing Bear or the U.S. government. Finally, after reviewing rival reports from a presidential inquiry and Secretary of Interior Carl Schurz, Congress offered the Poncas their choice of lands in Nebraska or Indian Territory in March 1888.
In reconstructing the events surrounding Standing Bear's trial, Dando-Collins relies heavily on works by Henry Tibbles, who produced Ponca Chiefs (a collection of relevant documents strung together by his own narrative), Buckskins and Blanket Days (an autobiography), and numerous Omaha Daily Herald articles. Tibbles's clear self-promoting nature and overt propaganda campaign is now reintroduced with disturbingly little discretionary filtering. Tibbles's high regard for his allies and disgust for the opposition surfaces throughout Standing Bear is a Person. Dando-Collins even employs many of Tibbles's dramatic adjectives and certainly maintains the same characterizations of participants. In total the Omaha editor accounts for just over half of Dando-Collins's footnotes (50.3 percent). Consequently, opposing sources such as the Omaha Daily Bee newspaper, perspectives of Secretary Schurz, and intensions of "half-breeds" who originally accepted removal are either minimized or completely ignored.
While a few grammatical problems surface in the text, the bulk of its problems arise from the overdependence on Tibbles as Dando-Collins revitalizes the Omaha editor's unintentional Eurocentric interpretation and romanticization. Indians are regularly described in misplaced contexts, such as the embellishment of Bright Eyes as a "princess" or the description stating that Chief Iron Eye "possessed an intelligent round European face" (8). Poncas "progressed" from earth lodges to wooden cabins, and elsewhere Indians "grunted with approval" (18, 29). Further, the tale's heroes are romanticized to nearly moral and physical perfection, while Tibbles's enemies are relegated to repeated negative descriptions. There is a clear-cut line of "good guys" and "bad guys" that defies the diversity of reality. From the introduction onward, Dando-Collins imagines an exceptional story of "an army general who was considered America's greatest Indian fighter, a crusading newspaper editor who was once a gun-toting frontier preacher, a young attorney who had a brilliant idea but doubted the case could be won and another lawyer who hadn't appeared in court in sixteen years, and a shy Indian princess who became world famous" (x).
This engaging read also stimulates curiosity by introducing several issues that ultimately lack a sense of closure. First, the Ponca chief had to give up his tribal affiliation in order to live in former Ponca lands. Standing Bear's false claim of intended dissolution from the tribe ironically earned him some justice--an intriguing and overlooked quagmire. A second point begging additional discussion is the explanation of Tibbles's quick-developing relationship with Standing Bear through their supposed mutual membership in the Ponca Soldier Lodge (warrior society). Dando-Collins's colorful exposition of the induction ceremony is inconsistent with ethnographic evidence and better describes a Sioux ritual rather than an Omaha or Ponca practice. The basis of their early relationship may be more likely founded in the broader experience of the winter season that Tibbles spent with a mixed Omaha-Ponca band, which goes unmentioned in the text. A third underdeveloped but frequently recurring topic is the author's constant portrayal of Bright Eyes as "shy;' particularly regarding public-speaking opportunities. This may simply be a misunderstanding of Indigenous culture rather than an accurate description of the bold young lady. Even today, Omaha schoolgirls are often misunderstood as shy because cultural cues discourage attention-drawing initiative. Further, it remains uncommon for an Omaha woman to authoritatively address a crowd. Bright Eyes's wide-ranging accomplishments imply that she was far from shy.
A final concern is the uneven distribution of information at the book's close. Of the twenty-two chapters, the second to last is disproportionately dense, covering expansive material in significantly fewer pages. During that chapter Dando-Collins's engaging and comprehensive description narrows substantially. Here readers may be dissatisfied by the author's departure from his previously more explorative style and overwhelmed by the abrupt and fast-moving narrative.
Given the author's sensational approach, many readers will find Standing Bear a fascinating page turner. Empowered by Tibbles's detailed notes, Dando-Collins weaves a thrilling story of sadness and romance, corruption and justice, heroes and villains. He clearly explains the complicated court proceedings and responding governmental policy. Intensely complicated circumstances are consistently illuminated with clarity throughout the text. The book successfully demonstrates the dual nature of the trial---its legal repercussions and immediate practical impotency. In doing so the text profoundly constructs a context for understanding the origins of the Dawes Act.
While Standing Bear is a Person does not bring forth the broad sources anticipated in Tibbles's prediction, Dando-Collins does offer a vivid story sure to revitalize interest in this fundamental piece of Indigenous legal history. High school teachers may find it an excellent read to stimulate young minds, as it is sure to provoke thought among even the most apathetic students. Published in conjunction with the 125th anniversary of Dundy's ruling, this work will promote renewed attention and understanding of the trial's significance. And although Nebraska Governor Dave Heineman recently rejected the Ponca chief's image for the U.S. mint's recent series of state-representative coins, Standing Bear's legacy is sure to live on and is certain to be revisited in future works.
Matthew Garrett, University of Nebraska
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|Publication:||The American Indian Quarterly|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2007|
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