Native American cultures, traditions, and histories of the over 500 Native American tribes in the United States, are as varied as those among any geographic group. But the countless stories of the struggle for basic civil rights are struggles that are mirrored in the disability community. For this post, we wanted to present one such story. It is a story about a father honoring his son, about a man standing up for what's right, and about a people fighting for the rights we all deserve. This is "Standing Bear's Footsteps."
Chief Standing Bear: Defining An American In 1877 the U.S. government forcefully displaced the peaceful agrarian Ponca tribe from its Nebraska homeland on the Niobrara River to Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma). The exile of the Poncas was the U.S. government's solution to its own mistake in 1868 of including Ponca land in territory assigned to the Sioux, who then conducted raids against this "tribe of farmers." Chief Standing Bear was one of the Ponca chiefs who protested his tribe's removal to the inhospitable southern reservation. After his son Bear Shield fell ill and made a deathbed request of his father that he be buried on the Niobrara, Standing Bear headed out on a grueling 600-mile journey north. En route he was arrested for leaving the reservation and imprisoned at Fort Omaha. He was on the verge of being returned to the "death country" when he decided to fight back-with words and lawyers instead of weapons and warriors Claiming he had as much right as any white man to move freely about this country, he took his case to court in May 1879. Thanks to newspapers from The Omaha Daily Herald to The New York Times, Standing Bear drew nationwide support and became an early symbol in the fight for American Indian rights. In his final statement to the court, Standing Bear stood up, raised his hand before Judge Elmer Dundy and said directly to him: "My hand is not the same color as yours. If I pierce it, I shall feel pain; if you pierce your hand, you too will feel pain. The blood that flows will be the same color. I am a man. The same God made us both." General George Crook, who had detained Standing Bear at Fort Omaha, immediately approached the chief and shook his hand.
On May 12, 1879, Judge Dundy ruled that "an Indian is a person" with rights of habeas corpus. He stated that the federal government had failed to show a basis under law for the Poncas' arrest and captivity and that Standing Bear "must be discharged from custody."
The army immediately freed Standing Bear and his followers. But t he decision did not mean an end to trouble for the Poncas. In fact, soldiers shot Standing Bear's brother Big Snake for defying authorities, prompted in part by the court victory. In 1881 Congress compensated the Poncas for their losses and allowed some of them to acquire homesteads back in Nebraska.
Standing Bear vs. Crook was a landmark case, recognizing that an Indian was a "person" under the Constitution and entitled to its rights and protections. "The right of expatriation is a natural, inherent, and inalienable right and extends to the Indian as well as to the more fortunate white race," Judge Dundy concluded. After the legal victory, Standing Bear spent four years traveling in the eastern United States and Europe, speaking about Native American rights in forums sponsored by former abolitionist, Wendell Phillips. During his lecture tour, Standing Bear won the support of poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and other prominent Americans. Following the tour, Standing Bear returned home to Nebraska where he raised a family and worked as a farmer until his death in 1908. Despite Standing Bear's 1879 victory, Native Americans were not granted citizenship for another forty-five years. Chief Standing Bear had won a significant legal battle. He was the first Native American judicially granted civil rights under law. He helped to redefine what it meant to be "an American." This September, he was honored by having a statue representing the state of Nebraska unveiled in the U.S. Capitol's National Statuary Hall. At the dedication ceremony, which included Ponca tribal leaders and members of the House and Senate, Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts said: "It is an honor to recognize one of the most important civil rights leaders in our country that almost nobody knows about. We hope to be able to correct that. We hope this statue will help tell his story. A story that needs to be told." Click here to view the "Standing Bear's Footsteps" documentary.