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Chief Standing Bear

Chief Standing Bear (c. 1829–1908) is best remembered as the first Indian to win a civil rights victory in U.S. federal court.

Standing Bear was born around 1829 in the traditional Ponca homeland near the confluence of the Niobrara and Missouri rivers. About thirty years later, the tribe sold its homeland to the United States, retaining a 58,000-acre reservation between Ponca Creek and the Niobrara River. On this reservation the Poncas lived a life of hardscrabble farming and fear-the United States did little to protect them from attacks from the Brule Sioux.

When the federal government created the Great Sioux Reservation in 1868, the Ponca Reservation was included within its boundaries, depriving them of title to their remaining lands.

Eviction And Removal

In 1877, the federal government decided to remove the Poncas to Indian Territory. Standing Bear, a tribal leader, protested his tribe's eviction. Federal troops enforced the removal orders, with the result that the Poncas arrived in Indian Territory in the summer of 1878. Discouraged, homesick and forlorn, the Poncas found themselves on the lands of strangers, in the middle of a hot summer, with no crops or prospects for any as the time for planting was long past.

Since the tribe had left Nebraska, one-third had died and nearly all of the survivors were sick or disabled. Talk around the campfire revolved around the "old home" in the north. The death of Chief Standing Bear's sixteen-year old son in late December 1878 set in motion the event which was to bring a measure of justice and worldwide fame to the chief and his small band of followers.

Son's Burial

Wanting to honor his son's last wish to be buried in the land of his birth and not in a strange country where his spirit would wander forever, Standing Bear gathered a few members of his tribe-mostly women and children-and started for the Ponca homeland in the north. They left in early January 1879 and trekked through the Great Plains winter, reaching the reservation of their relatives, the Omahas, about two months later. Standing Bear carried with him the bones of his son to be buried in the familiar earth along the Niobrara River.

Standing Bear v. Crook

Because Indians were not allowed to leave their reservation without permission, Standing Bear and his followers were labeled a renegade band. The Army, on the order of The Secretary of the Interior, arrested them and took them to Fort Omaha, the intention being to return them to Indian Territory. General George Crook, however, sympathized with Standing Bear and his followers and asked Thomas Henry Tibbles, an Omaha newspaperman, for help. Tibbles took up the cause and secured two prominent Omaha attorneys to represent Standing Bear.

The lawyers filed a federal court application for a writ of habeas corpus to test the legality of the detention, basing their case on the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. The government disputed the right of Standing Bear to obtain a writ of habeas corpus on the grounds that an Indian was not a "person" under the meaning of the law.  


The case of Standing Bear v. Crook began on May 1, 1879 before Judge Elmer S. Dundy in U.S. District Court in Omaha and continued into the evening of the following day.

Standing Bear’s Statement


When he got to the front [of the court], he stopped and faced the audience and extended his right hand, holding it still for a long time. After a while, it is said, he turned to the bench and began to speak in a low voice, his words conveyed to the judge and the large crowd by the interpreter.

“That hand is not the color of yours, but if I pierce it, I shall feel pain. If you pierce your hands, you also feel pain. The blood that will flow from mine will be of the same color as yours. I am a man. The same God made us both.”

Then he turned and faced the audience, pausing for a moment, staring in silence out a courtroom window, describing after a time what he saw when he looked outside.

“I seem to stand on the bank of a river. My wife and little girl are beside me. In front, the river is wide and impassable.” Standing Bear sees there are steep cliffs all around, and the waters are rising rapidly. At last, he sees a path to safety. “I turn to my wife and child with a shout that we are saved. We will return to the swift running water that pours down between the green islands. There are the graves of my fathers.” So they hurriedly climb the path, getting closer and closer to safety, the waters rushing in behind them.” But a man bars the passage. . . .If he says that I cannot pass, I cannot. The long struggle will have been in vain. . . . My wife and child and I must return and sink beneath the flood. We are weak and faint and sick. I cannot fight.”

He stopped and turned, facing the judge, speaking softly. “You are that man.”. . .

Court Decision

On May 12, Judge Dundy ruled in favor of Standing Bear, reasoning that he and his band were indeed "persons" under the law, entitled to sever tribal connections and were free to enjoy the rights of any other person in the land. The government appealed Dundy's decision, but the Supreme Court of the United States refused to hear the case, leaving Standing Bear and his followers free in the eyes of the law.

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