Chief Standing Bear
Chief of the Ponca
Orator and Civil Rights Leader
The 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie incorporated the northeastern Nebraska homelands of the Ponca tribe within a newly created “Great Sioux Reservation.” A decade of Sioux raids against the Ponca ensued, after which the federal government removed the Ponca 600 miles south to Oklahoma in 1878. As a result of this forced migration, nearly a third of the Ponca people perished from starvation and malaria.
Among the casualties were three of Chief Standing Bear’s children. Determined to bury his eldest son, Bear Shield, among his ancestors, the chief and about thirty Poncas returned to Nebraska with his bones in January 1879. Brigadier General George R. Crook was ordered to forcibly return them to their reservation in Oklahoma. Crook took the Ponca into custody but, moved by their story, brought them to Fort Omaha instead. There he introduced them to sympathetic reporters and pro bono attorneys.
On April 8, 1879, attorneys for Chief Standing Bear and his companions petitioned the U.S. District Court for the District of Nebraska. They asked for a writ of habeas corpus, alleging they had been detained without due process. Despite objections from the U.S. district attorney, who argued that Indians were not citizens and therefore not entitled to constitutional rights and protections, the writ was issued the same day. Trial was held on May 1 and 2, 1879.
Just before adjourning at 10 p.m. on May 2nd, Judge Elmer Dundy permitted Chief Standing Bear to address the court. Speaking through an interpreter he told the judge, “I am a man. The same God made us both. I never committed any crime. If I had, I would not stand here to make a defense. I would suffer the punishment and make no complaint.” It was the first time an American Indian was allowed to testify in federal court.
Judge Dundy decided that “An Indian is a 'person' within the meaning of the laws of the United States, and has, therefore, the right to sue out a writ of habeas corpus in a federal court, or before a federal judge.” He found that the Ponca had been confined without due process in violation of the Constitution and released them. Although Standing Bear v. Crook extended constitutional protections to American Indians for the first time, they were not accorded full citizenship until 1924.
Following the trial, Chief Standing Bear went on a lecture tour. (His translator, Francis La Flesche, later became the Smithsonian Institution’s first ethnologist.) A presidential commission appointed by Rutherford B. Hayes in 1880 found that the government had mistreated the Ponca and recommended that they be allowed to decide where they wanted to live. About half the tribe returned to Nebraska, where 40 square miles of land were eventually restored to them. To this day, the tribe remains split into Northern (Nebraska) and Southern (Oklahoma) bands.
Chief Standing Bear died in Nebraska in 1908, aged about eighty.
Veteran stamp illustrator Thomas Blackshear II created the portrait of Chief Standing Bear used on this 2023 stamp from a photograph taken in 1877, the year before he was arrested. He is shown in formal attire with a warrior’s feather and bear claw necklace which, based on contemporary newspaper accounts, is very similar to how he appeared in court.
The Chief Standing Bear stamp was issued May 12, 2023 in Lincoln, Nebraska.