Chief Standing Bear: the best true story author Joe Starita has ever heard
The author of "I Am a Man": Standing Bear's Journey for Justice talks to C&I about the chief, his historic journey, and the landmark trial that changed American Indian history.
It came down to a dictionary definition. In 1879, a grizzled frontier federal district court judge in Omaha, Nebraska, picked up his copy of Webster's and looked up person.
James E. Taylor, Smithsonian Institution National Anthropological Archive
Portrait of Chief Mo-Chu-Non-Zhin (Standing Bear). John Bourke once noted that the chief "was a noble looking Indian, tall and commanding in presence," whose most striking feature was "a necklace of claws of the grizzly bear, of which he appeared highly proud."
"Webster's describes a person as 'a living soul; a self-conscious being; a moral agent; especially a living human being; a man, woman, or child; an individual of the human race,'" wrote Justice Elmer Dundy in his decision in United States ex rel. Standing Bear v. Crook. "This is comprehensive enough, it would seem, to include even an Indian."
And with that, American Indians were granted legal rights under the law as "persons" for the first time in U.S. history. They now had the protections granted by the 14th Amendment and were entitled to the same life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness as were white citizens. They could leave Indian Territory without threat of arrest, they could no longer be held indefinitely without being charged, and, if the government violated their rights, they could sue in federal court.
It was the culmination of a saga that began because of a promise a Ponca Indian chief named Standing Bear had made to his dying son. Award-winning writer Joe Starita relates the important but little-known story in "I Am a Man": Chief Standing Bear's Journey for Justice (St. Martin's Press, 2009).
C&I caught up with Starita to talk about the chief, his historic journey, and the landmark trial that changed American Indian history.
Cowboys & Indians: Who was Standing Bear?
Joe Starita: Standing Bear was a chief of a little-known, somewhat obscure, peaceful tribe of Ponca Indians who for decades had minded their own business along the Niobrara River between Nebraska and South Dakota. The U.S. government decided that they should be swept out of the way and moved to what later became Oklahoma. The tribe was marched from the Nebraska border to Oklahoma and moved to a place that was an abstract concept to them — they had no idea what it was.
C&I: What happened when they got to Oklahoma?
Starita: Despite government promises, no arrangements had been made for their arrival. The Ponca were a northern people and were not equipped to deal with the heat or humidity. The river was infested with mosquitoes and malaria wiped out one-third of the tribe the first year. Standing Bear was grooming his son, Bear Shield, to become the chief and lead the tribe into the 20th century. But Bear Shield became ill and lay dying in the winter of 1878. He extracted a promise from his father that Standing Bear would take his body and return it to the land of their ancestors. So Standing Bear loaded his son's body in the back of a wagon and, with a band of 29 — including women and children — he headed out in a fierce blizzard. They walked from Oklahoma to South Dakota to honor the promise. Along the way, the band was captured in Nebraska and marched to Fort Omaha, and Standing Bear found himself caught in the crosshairs of a landmark legal decision that ultimately determined that an Indian is a "person" under the laws of the United States. A grizzled bear-hunting federal judge who had no particular liking for Native Americans ruled in Standing Bear's favor that he was a person and was free to continue his journey.
James E. Taylor, Smithsonian Institution National Anthropological Archives
Gen. Crook, long regarded as the Army's most experienced Indian fighter, later opposed the government's actions and tipped off the press about the plight of the Ponca.
C&I: Why does Standing Bear's journey have such a deep resonance for you?
Starita: To me, what this uniquely American story does, is it freezes a particular historic moment, a moment that encapsulates one of the very few times that anything good happened between Indians and whites. This one man's plight — trying to rescue an obscure, peaceful tribe — and the sheer injustice of his circumstances inspired bankers, businessmen, prominent lawyers, and journalists to all come to his defense. You can ransack the entire run of the 19th century and you cannot find so many layers of white society rallying behind one man. They saw America as a better place than the treatment of this one man, and they weren't going to stand for it. The Jewish community took up a collection for lawyers; the Baptist bishop sent a plea to the secretary of the interior not to send these freezing, starving Ponca back to Oklahoma. You can see for the first time an Indian who sued the most powerful government general west of the Mississippi and walked out a victor. It hadn't happened before and it hasn't happened since.
C&I: You are a Pulitzer Prize finalist for an article you wrote on the exploitation of Haitian immigrants, you exposed unethical doctors and lawyers as a former member of The Miami Herald investigations team, and you now teach depth reporting as a tenured professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. I guess it's no surprise that this latest book is another kind of exposé. What inspired you to write a historical account of Standing Bear's trial?
Starita: If you hang around this part of the country and you are interested in the history of the American West, particularly its Native inhabitants, sooner or later you are going to get a whiff of this story. But it is shocking to me how few people know the details. Because once you start to take a look at it — and this is not hyperbole but fact — this is the best story I know, and I know a lot of stories. The fact that it is all true makes it even more incredible to me.
Charles Milton Bell, Smithsonian Institution National Anthropological Archives
Ten Ponca chiefs, along with their two interpreters, were photographed during a visit to Washington, D.C., in November 1877. Chief Standing Bear is seated third from left; his brother Big Snake is standing far left.
C&I: What ultimately happened to the Ponca Indians?
Starita: It came to pass that two tribes were created from this event: the Southern Ponca and Northern Ponca. The Southern Ponca have had a large reservation in southern Oklahoma for 130 years. Most of the Southern Ponca have stayed there and remained intact. Standing Bear's part of the tribe was the Northern Ponca. Along with many other tribes, the Ponca were terminated by the government in the 1960s so they no longer had status as an official tribe and were scattered to the four winds. As of the early '90s their status as a federally recognized tribe was restored, but it was a Faustian bargain: In return for restoring their status, they were told they would not be given a reservation. They currently have a small parcel of land in northern Nebraska but nothing close to what the Southern Ponca have in Oklahoma.
C&I: It sounds like Standing Bear ended up at the center of a historic convergence of social and political forces the likes of which we haven't seen before or since.
Starita: What I find impressive about this story is that it demonstrates how supremely intelligent the founding fathers were. They came up with a blueprint of how to develop a new democracy with three different branches that each would look over the shoulder of the other. And the Fourth Estate [the press] would look over the other three and make sure nothing went awry. This is the perfect example of the execution of how each branch was supposed to work. The legislative branch conducted an inquiry; the executive branch, President Rutherford Hayes, looked at the evidence and said, "You are right; I am going to repair that wrong by restoring the land that we took from these people." The legal system issued a just decision. And newspapers, editors, and reporters were vigilant in getting the word out, which was their job. To me, that is one of the most impressive displays of taking the game plan that this country was founded upon and not only talking the talk but walking the walk. It is the reason you can get fired up for the story, why you can wake up at 3 o'clock in the morning with a howling blizzard outside because you want to get the paragraph right. Because if you can't tell it right you should burn in hell. Hopefully I have escaped those fires, but I will leave it up to the readers.
Standing Bear Park
The park that bears the famous chief's name is not in the Ponca homeland of the lower Niobrara Valley but in north-central Oklahoma.
Courtesy Standing Bear Foundation
From the moment visitors arrive at Standing Bear Park in Ponca City, Oklahoma, they are encouraged to envision the Ponca chief's long journey "home" to bury his young son — the event that precipitated his arrest and groundbreaking trial.
In this tranquil setting of native grasses, wildflowers, and black poplars, a 22-foot bronze statue of Standing Bear by the Southern Ute and Navajo artist Oreland C. Joe towers over the 63-acre site along the banks of the Arkansas River. At the foot of the statue, a 60-foot-diameter viewing court rimmed by sandstone boulders celebrates the six Native American tribes that call the region home: Kaw, Osage, Otoe-Missouria, Pawnee, Ponca, and Tonkawa.
Inlaid with shades of red, green, brown, black, and white — representing bloodshed, new growth, earth, sorrow, and the peaceful method Standing Bear chose to confront his legal status — the plaza is anchored by a reflection pool. At the center of the pool, atop a limestone boulder that appears to float on water, burns the eternal flame of "Grandfather Fire." A shaded memorial grove with stone benches provides visitors a restful spot for contemplation.
Courtesy Standing Bear Foundation
A trail meanders north from the statue to six circular viewing courts, one for each of the local tribes. Using audio posts and photographs of historic figures etched into black granite, the courts — which were designed by the individual tribes — relate their respective history, language, culture, and "stories."
Located nearby, the Standing Bear Museum and Educational Center, which opened in the park in 2007, contains a hall for traveling exhibits; an art gallery with work from such Native artists as Acee Blue Eagle (Creek-Pawnee), Woody Crumbo (Potowatami), and Woody Big Bow (Kiowa); research and educational materials; and a small gift shop.
Among the museum's permanent exhibits is a display of the making of the 1987 made-for-TV movie The Trial of Standing Bear, as well as illustrator Mike Wimmer's paintings for former Oklahoma governor Frank Keating's book The Trial of Standing Bear (the winner of this year's Spur Award for Best Juvenile Western Nonfiction from the Western Writers of America).
On the last Friday and Saturday in September each year, visitors and participants from Oklahoma and around the country gather at Standing Bear Park for the annual Standing Bear Powwow, which in 2008 was named one of the Top 100 Events in North America by the American Bus Association.
The next powwow will be held September 25-26, 2009.
— Michele Powers Glaze
Standing Bear's speech
At the close of his historic trial, the Ponca chief addressed the judge.
That 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 of the same color as yours. I am a man. The same God made us both.
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, and behind there are perpendicular cliffs. No man of my race ever stood there before. There is no tradition to guide me.
A flood has begun to rise around us. I look despairingly at the great cliffs. I see a steep, stony way leading upward. I grasp the hand of my child. My wife follows. I lead the way up the sharp rocks, while the waters still rise behind us. Finally, I see a rift in the rocks. I feel the prairie breeze strike my cheek. ...
But a man bars the passage! He is a thousand times more powerful than I. Behind him, I see soldiers as numerous as leaves on the trees. They will obey that man's orders. I too must obey his orders. 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. You are that man.
Excerpted from Standing Bear's eloquent plea to Judge Elmer Dundy at the close of his trial, as translated by Bright Eyes (Susette La Flesche) and transcribed by Thomas Henry Tibbles, a reporter for the Omaha Daily Herald.
"I Am a Man": Chief Standing Bear's Journey for Justice
By Joe Starita
St. Martin's Press
In January 1879, defying a federal edict, Chief Standing Bear and 29 relocated Ponca Indians left Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) on a perilous march to return the remains of Standing Bear's dead son to the tribe's homeland in Nebraska.
The party was taken into custody by federal agents at Fort Omaha. With the aid of two prominent attorneys who volunteered their services, Chief Standing Bear sued for a writ of habeas corpus and became the first Native American ever allowed to sit at the plaintiff's table in a U.S. courtroom. Arguing eloquently against the government's case that an Indian "was neither a citizen nor a person," Standing Bear's own address moved a packed courtroom to tears and won a momentous decision that for the first time gave Native Americans recognition as persons under American law.
Part family saga, part Native American history, part courtroom drama, this riveting account of Standing Bear's journey moves with the vigor of a rushing river. Former Miami Herald investigative reporter Joe Starita masterfully weaves powerful description with you-are-there firsthand accounts, creating a minor masterpiece that deserves a wide audience.