Ponca Trail of Tears
Chief Standing Bear
In January of 1877, the Poncans were peaceful tribe of farmers living along the Niobrara River in northeast Nebraska. Soon this was all to change when they were ordered by Indian Agent, Edward Kemble, to move into the Indian Territory. With resistance, the Ponca Chiefs, along with their main chief, Standing Bear, were transported by train to inspect this land which was said to be their new home. They became unaccustomed to the climate and became ill and demanded to return home. Their reply was to abandon the chiefs, forcing them to stay in this land which the government had chosen for them.
But return home they did! Thus began a 500 mile winter trek without food and only one blanket and a pair of moccasins for each person. Standing Bear stated about this journey:
"It was winter. White men were suspicious of us. They thought we were vagabond Indians, who will travel round to beg and won't work. Very few of them would give us anything. Everyday we traveled on we grew weaker, and had to go slower. We got a few pieces of bread. What we lived on was corn. We would take it and pound it between stones. We slept out on the prairie without shelter. A few times we found haystacks to sleep in. It took just 50 days to reach the Otoe Agency in southern Nebraska. When we got there, we found that these men had sent word to the Agent there to have nothing to do with us. But when the Agent saw how nearly starved we were and the looked at our bleeding feet, for our moccasins wore out the first ten days, he took pity on us. The Otoes gave us horses and provisions and we made the journey to the Omaha Agency, our home."
Here they were met by soldiers with the word that they would have to return to the Territory, by force if necessary. Standing Bear was arrested and imprisoned for ten days. On May 21, 1878, they started the dreaded journey back to the Indian Nation. The soldiers formed a line at one end of the village, and drove the people like cattle before them reaching the Territory on July 9th, but life in the new land hadn't changed. Standing Bear stated:
"I went back to the Indian Territory and selected some land that looked good, and we moved the tribe on it. It was now in the fall, and the sickness was worse than ever. The whole family would be sick, and no one would know it. In some of these families persons would die and the others would not be able to bury them. They would drag them with a pony out on the prairie and leave them there. Men would take sick while at work and die in less then a day."
Soon Bear Shield, the 12 year old son of Standing Bear was one who fell ill and died. Before his death, he asked to be buried in the land of his grandfathers, so Standing Bear, along with 29 others kept his promise and started on the long trek home, for the second time to bury his own son. Ten weeks later, they reached the Omaha Reservation in Nebraska. The Poncans were considered renegades and were ordered to be arrested and placed under the command of General George Cook.
General Cook, a humanitarian, was so outraged by the band's plight, that he enlisted the help of Thomas Tibbles in raising support for their cause. He concluded that a case should be brought to trial asking for the protection under the Fourteenth Amendment...."nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law."
Tibbles solicited the help of an attorney, John Webster and Andrew J. Poppleton, Chief Counsel for the Union Pacific Railroad, and filed a lawsuit invoking a writ of habeas on Standing Bear's behalf.
The Trial of Standing Bear lasted only two days, with Judge Dundy ruling in his favor. Standing Bear had won his battle for himself and for all American Indians to be considered "persons" under United States law. The words of Standing Bear should be remembered as he stood before the court and stated:
"My hand is not the color of yours, but if I pierce it I shall feel pain. If you pierce your hand, you also feel pain. The blood that will flow from mine will be the same color as yours. I am a man. The same God made us both."
In 1881, a small portion of their land along the Niobrara was returned to the Northern Poncans. There, Standing Bear returned to farming. In 1908, Standing Bear, the first Native American Civil Right Leader, died,and was laid to rest in the land of his grandfathers. Today a statue of him stands in Ponca City, overlooking the Arkansas River valley. Here his story will forever be told.
Statue of Chief Standing Bear
Standing Bear Park
Ponca City, Oklahoma