- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 19, 2005


By Stephen Dando-Collins

Da Capo, $26, 252 Pages


When Lewis and Clark came up the Missouri River in 1804 they encountered a minor Plains tribe in present Nebraska called the Poncas. Unlike their more numerous and nomadic neighbors the buffalo-hunting Sioux (who frequently raided them), the Poncas combined elements of a hunting and agricultural economy.

When the Corps of Discovery found them they were recovering from a smallpox epidemic and numbered only a couple of hundred, yet they continued to increase in both population and prosperity through the first half of the 19th century. They defended themselves against their enemies, notably the Sioux and Pawnees, but there is no recorded instance of military aggression against the United States.

Starting in 1858 the Poncas began to lose their land to government treaties, and in 1877 Washington ordered them to move to a reservation in the Indian Territory of present Oklahoma. A prominent Ponca chief named Standing Bear (“Machunazha”) initially protested so vociferously that he got temporarily locked up in prison. Standing Bear’s and the Poncas’ plight are the subject of Stephen Dando-Collins remarkable history, “Standing Bear Is a Person: The True Story of a Native American’s Quest for Justice.”

The Poncas forced six week march to Oklahoma occurred in rainy weather, resulting in a half dozen deaths, mostly of children from pneumonia. Standing Bear was released from custody, but was soon arrested again after leading some Poncas back north to bury his dead son in the Nebraska homeland.

Gen. George Crook, the regional military commander, sympathized with the Poncas’ troubles and had not supported their removal. He told Standing Bear that he’d do all he could to reverse Washington’s orders and allow them to return home. He enlisted the help of an Omaha newspaper editor named Thomas Tibbles, who soon got Standing Bear’s case national exposure. And two lawyers, John Webster and Andrew Poppleton, volunteered to represent the Poncas for free. With Crook’s blessing, a writ of habeus corpus was issued against himself, requiring him to show cause as to why he held Standing Bear and other Poncas prisoners.

The resulting civil rights case, Standing Bear v. Crook began on April 18, 1879. Standing Bear’s legal counsel argued that an individual Indian was indeed “a person,” entitled to enjoy the “rights of freedom” found in the United States Constitution.

The U.S. attorney, Genio Madison Lambertson, argued that the Poncas were subject to the laws which the government had passed pertaining to all Indians. But Webster and Poppleton countered that Indians had the right to separate themselves from their tribes and be protected by the Constitution. Standing Bear testified on his own behalf and concluded an eloquent speech by imploring the court to “Take pity on me, and help me to save the lives of the women and children. My brothers, a power, which I cannot resist, crowds me down to the ground. I need help. I have done.”

Judge Elmer Dundy ruled that ” … Congress intended to give every person who might be unlawfully restrained of liberty under color of Authority of the United States the right to the writ and a discharge thereon.” In other words, Standing Bear was a “person.”

The judge ordered that the chief and his small band be released from custody, and returned to their home on the Niobrara River in Nebraska, where a small reservation would be established for them. Gen. Crook, who supported this idea, was the first to congratulate the chief at the end of the proceedings.

Although it turns out that Standing Bear had won only half a victory. While he and a few hundred members of his band went to the Nebraska reservation, another 500 Poncas were left behind in Oklahoma, and bureaucratic stonewalling on the part of the government kept them there.

When these Oklahoma Poncas requested permission to return to Nebraska, they were refused by Indian Agent William Whiteman. The gist of the government’s dilemma was that to grant permission would set a precedent leading to the unravelling of the reservation system.

General of the Army William Tecumseh Sherman followed up with an order to Gen. Philip Sheridan, the regional commander responsible for Oklahoma: “The honorable Secretary of the Interior [Carl Schurz] requests that the Poncas … held at Fort Reno in Indian Territory … be sent to the agency of the Poncas [there in Oklahoma]. You may order this be done … . The release under writ of habeus corpus of the Poncas in Nebraska does not apply to any other than that specific case.”

With this order Sherman was playing with judicial fire that could have caused him to be hauled before the federal courts, but in the end his blatant disregard of Judge Dundy’s ruling cost him nothing. It was a ruling without teeth in Indian Country.

In Oklahoma, Standing Bear’s brother, Big Snake — a notoriously belligerent and physically strong man — was shot and killed in a brawl with some soldiers for resisting arrest after an argument with Agent Whiteman over Ponca repatriation and supposed threats on Whiteman’s life.

In the end, it seems that Standing Bear was the only Ponca “person” to get justice. His own followers were permitted to remain on the reservation in Nebraska, where the old chief died on Sept. 3, 1908. He was buried on his little homestead on the Niobrara, the river of his forefathers.

The publication Stephen Dando-Collins’ book marks the 125th anniversary of this first legal precedent in the history of Native American civil rights, however hollow its judicial import.

Bill Croke is a writer in Cody, Wyoming.

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