One of Nebraska’s own, Chief Standing Bear, deserves to be recognized with great Americans in history, a large audience was told in Memorial Hall at Chadron State College on Thursday night.
The speaker was Joe Starita, author of “I Am a Man — Chief Standing Bear’s Journey for Justice.” Starita said he ranks the famous Ponca leader with Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks as being among those who helped bring equality and justice to the American way of life, even though there are still lessons to be learned in this regard.
Starita was a bureau chief for the Miami Herald and a Lincoln Journal Star editor before becoming a journalism professor at the University of Nebraska. He opened the annual Mari Sandoz Heritage Society Meeting at CSC by giving the Pilster Great Plains Lecture.
Starita said he found Standing Bear’s story so compelling that he often began working on it at 3 o’clock in the morning. He said the story contains universal themes such as love of family, country and homeland along with courage and persistence.
He added that the chief’s testimony helped bring equality of all people and caused Americans to “take a mirror and look at themselves.”
“He made the people ask what is our democracy all about and who is our God?” Starita said. “He made Americans better than they thought they could be. He raised the bar and made them ask ‘Who am I and what is it that I really value.’”
Starita said the Ponca tribe had been living in northeastern Nebraska near the Missouri River for about 200 years before white settlers began arriving there. He said the tribe was proud that it had “bent over backwards” to help their new neighbors, often providing food to keep them from starving, and had never harmed or killed a white person.
But in the spring 1877, the federal government forced the Poncas to move to Oklahoma. When they resisted, Standing Bear was among the chiefs who were placed in the stockade at Fort Randall in what is now South Dakota, while the government withheld food and water from the rest of the tribe. Finally, the Poncas relented and began the 550-mile journey on foot.
They arrived in “Indian Territory” in July when the heat and humidity was much higher than they were accustomed to and where no provisions had been made for them to live, Starita said. Within a year, a third of the tribe had died.
In December 1878, Standing Bear’s only son, Bear Shield, who was 16, died of malaria. Realizing that a “new world order” was occurring, the chief had sent his son to school to learn English and to become familiar with Christianity and white man’s history.
Before he died, Bear Shield made his father promise to take his body back to their homeland for burial. Thus on Jan. 2, 1879, Standing Bear and 29 others began the trek on foot with very little money, food or clothing. In Kansas, they encountered what Starita described as a fierce blizzard with temperatures of 19 below. Many of them suffered from severe frostbite, he stated.
Word of their arrival in Nebraska eventually reached the secretary of interior, who also headed the Bureau of Indian Affairs. He ordered Brig. Gen. George Crook, the highest ranking military official west of the Mississippi River, to arrest the Ponca and send them back to Oklahoma.
Crook delayed their return so Standing Bear and his entourage could rest and regain their health. Two attorneys, including Andrew Jackson Poppleton, chief attorney for the Union Pacific Railroad, filed a writ of habeas corpus in U. S. District Court in Omaha, giving Standing Bear and his people the right to have their story told to a judge.
When the chief was allowed to speak, he held up his right hand and said, “That hand is not the color of yours, but if I prick it, the blood will flow, and I shall feel the pain. The blood is of the same color as yours. God made me, and I am a man.”
The judge, Elmer Dundy, ruled on May 12, 1979 that “an Indian is a person” and said the government had failed to show a basis for the Poncas’ arrest and captivity.
Starita said during this time period, Gen. Crook was so bothered by the miscarriage of justice that was occurring that he “did something unthinkable.” Crook saddled his horse at midnight and rode to the home of Thomas Tibbles, editor of the Omaha Daily Herald, knocked on the door and told him “I’ve got a story for you.”
Tibbles listened and his stories about the plight of the Poncas were soon published in most of the nation’s leading newspapers. Starita said many who read the stories were furious with the government and relayed their thoughts to elected officials. Food and clothing drives also were organized and a defense fund for American Indians was begun.
“White people across the nation rallied around the flag for a 52-year-old chief who was following the promise to his own son,” Starita noted. “He brought the U.S. government to its knees without using a gun, a bow and arrow or a scalping knife.”
But, Starita suggested, even after 236 years the U.S. government is not certain how to deal with American Indians.
After the trial Standing Bear and his followers were immediately freed. While some of the Ponca people remained in Oklahoma, the chief and other members of the tribe returned to the Niobrara valley in Nebraska.
Standing Bear died in 1908 at about age 74. He was inducted into the Nebraska Hall of Fame in 1977-78. The bridge which crosses the Missouri at the Nebraska-South Dakota border was named in his honor in 1998 and a new elementary school in Omaha was named for him in 2005.
Starita said a documentary, “Standing Bear’s Footsteps,” will be shown on public television at 7 p.m. (MDT) on Oct. 12.
Starita autographed dozens of his books following the talk. Most of the proceeds go into a scholarship fund that Starita established 14 months ago for Native Americans who graduate from Nebraska high schools.
—Con Marshall, CSC Information Services