The Standing Bear vs. Crook court case began with the last request of a dying son and ended with a ground-breaking legal decision. For the first time, Native Americans were considered human beings under U.S. law.
In 1877, the U.S. government told Chief Standing Bear (Machunazha) and his Poncas that they must move from their Nebraska reservation to the Indian Territory (Oklahoma). The government sent several tribal leaders to examine their new land, promising the Ponca that they could return to Nebraska if they were dissatisfied. The chiefs rejected the land as being barren, full of rocks, and unsuitable for farming. However, they were told they had no choice; the tribe was moving.
Many Ponca died en route. By the end of 1878, only 430 of the 710 Poncas who had been sent to the Indian Territory were still alive; the rest had been lost to starvation and disease. One of the last to die was Standing Bear's sixteen-year-old son. He asked that his body be buried with those of his ancestors. Standing Bear promised, and, in January 1879, he headed north with a small burial party. They traveled by hidden trails and reached the Omaha Indian Reservation before soldiers caught up with them. General George Crook was ordered to arrest and return the Ponca. When he saw them, Crook was saddened by their pitiable condition and impressed with their stoicism. He contacted the Omaha Daily Herald's assistant editor, Thomas Henry Tibbles, and enlisted his help. Crook believed his removal order was cruel but felt powerless to do anything about it himself. He encouraged Tibbles to use his newspaper to " . . . fight against those who are robbing these helpless people" (Brown, 1970, 340–341).
Tibbles was able to enlist the help of two prominent attorneys, A. J. Poppleton and J. L. Webster. Using the Fourteenth Amendment as the basis of their case, they persuaded Judge Elmer S. Dundy to grant an application for a writ of habeas corpus. Webster quoted from the amendment, which states that all persons born or naturalized in the United States are citizens of the United States and cannot be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law. Webster inferred that the Indians must then be citizens since they were born "on our soil." "If they are not citizens," he said, "what are they? Are they wild animals, deer to be chased by every hound?" (Omaha Herald, 1879, 8).
The second day of the trial climaxed with Standing Bear's testimony: "You see me standing here. Where do you think I come from? From the water, the woods or where? God made me and he put me on my land. But, I was ordered to stand up and leave my land . . .? When I got down there it seemed as if I was in a big fire. One-hundred and fifty-eight of my people were burned up; now I stand before you. I came away to save my wife and children and friends. I never want to go back there again. I want to go back to my old reservation to live there and be buried in the land of my fathers" (Omaha Herald, 1879, 8).
The trial ended with Judge Dundy declaring Standing Bear "a person under the law" and thus entitled to basic human rights (Omaha Republican, 1879, 1). When the news reached the Ponca still in Oklahoma, Standing Bear's brother, Big Snake, decided to test the law and headed north with thirty of his followers. However, Dundy had written the law to apply only in the case of Standing Bear, so orders were sent to arrest Big Snake. He was bayoneted and killed while resisting arrest.
The first attempt by Indians to fulfill the high hopes created by Judge Dundy's decision had ended in the tragic death of an innocent man. Standing Bear, who had started the entire process by his simple desire to return his dead son to the land of his birth, now had a brother to bury as well. It had only been a few months since newspapers across the country had called for citizenship rights for peaceful Indians, but it was not until 1924, forty-five years later, that those citizenship rights, which had seemed so attainable in the spring of 1879, would finally be given to the First Americans.
Hugh J. Reilly
Omaha Bee. 1877–1879. June 20, 1877–May 21, 1879.; Omaha Herald. 1879. April 1–May 22.; Omaha Republican. 1877–1879. June 2, 1877–May 12, 1879.; Berkhofer, Robert F., Jr. 1979. The White Man's Indian. New York: Random House Vintage Books.; Brown, Dee. 1970. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West. New York: Bantam.; Coward, John M. 1995. "Creating the Ideal Indian: The Case of the Poncas." Journalism History 21 (Autumn): 112–121.; Knight, Oliver. 1960. Following the Indian Wars. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.; Martin, John L., and Nelson, Harold L. 1956. "The Historical Standard in Press Analysis." Journalism Quarterly 33: 456–466.; Tibbles, Thomas Henry. 1957. Buckskin and Blanket Days: Memoirs of a Friend of the Indians. New York: Doubleday.