Standing Bear of the Ponca

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In changed the course of American Indian legal rights. Bury me in the earth of my Ponca ancestors near the great bluffs that look down on Running Water, Bear Shield pleaded. He was a Christian just like his father, but Bear Shield's heart beat strongly as a Ponca. Bear Shield feared if he was not returned to his homeland, his spirit would wander forever in the afterlife.

Native History: Court Rules Standing Bear Is a Man With Rights

It was on the second dawn of that this year-old, middle management Ponca chief called Ma-chu-nah-zhe began one of the great journeys of the human spirit, carried on by a father's love for his son. Standing Bear was one of nearly 10 chiefs under White Eagle, but on Jan. He led nearly 30 other Poncas on a treacherous cross-country trek home, joined by the wagon tht carried the bones of his son. They endured extreme blizzards and prairie winds. They survived starvation through the kindness of Nebraska farmers along the way. Standing Bear's relentless quest was halted just miles from home when soldiers arrested the cold and hungry Indians resting on the Omaha Reservation.

William T. Sherman who ordered their capture and return to Oklahoma. After a two-day march, the sickly Indians arrived at Fort Omaha on March Many soldiers took pit on the Poncas. No one seemed sadder than their general. There are enough fascinating characters in Standing Bear's struggle to fill out a Hollywood script, including the man who hel him prisoner at Fort Omaha, the famed Indian fighter Gen. George Crook. He know that a march back to Oklahoma would be a death sentence, so Crook became a secret ally of the chief. A few days later, the commander of the Department of the Platte plotted Standing Bear's release in a midnight meeting at the Omaha Daily Herald with a rough-and-ready newspaperman named Thomas Tibbles.

Tibbles' flamboyant frontier adventures rivaled Davy Crockett, and as an abolitionist fighter with John Brown he twice made dramatic escapes from hangings just as the noose was literally being places upon his neck. He schemed with the general to come up with a lawsuit to block the Oklahoma return, ironically named Standing Bear v. Tibbles' fiery writings won support from local ministers, and a judge allowed the Poncas to remain at the fort for Standing Bear's trial.

The chief waited for his judgment day, and he waited with his son's wagon for their final journey. You are currently logged in as. In the mids Standing Bear and his Ponca people lived in what is now northeast Nebraska. As more settlers moved west, the tribe faced increasing pressure to give up their land.

Ponca Tribe Of Nebraska

To avoid clashes with the government, the tribe agreed to move to what it believed was the nearby Omaha reservation. The agreement, which had been mistranslated, actually forced the tribe to relocate to Indian Territory in present-day Oklahoma, far from their hallowed farming and burial grounds.

Standing Bear: A Ponca Indian Cantata in Eight Tableaux

In the spring of , the tribe begrudgingly left behind their homes, land and farming equipment. The mile journey was challenging and fraught with risks. More than Ponca died on the trail. When they finally arrived in the sweltering summer of , planting season had ended.

The ground was rocky and unfertile, yielding little hope for future crops. His dying wish was to be buried in his homeland of Nebraska. Upon reaching Omaha, they were promptly arrested for leaving Indian Territory without permission by a sympathetic general who was under orders to return them to Oklahoma. Instead, he shared their story with an Omaha journalist.


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The case quickly gained the attention of a pair of prominent Omaha attorneys who agreed to represent Standing Bear. They lived quietly along the banks of the Niobrara, growing beans, squash, Ponca gray corn, and fruit trees. Twice a year, the men hunted buffalo, doing their best to avoid contact with the larger, warlike Sioux tribes to the north. An even greater threat than their neighbors was smallpox brought by early European traders. In the s a French missionary estimated that eight thousand people lived near the Ponca Fort in the center of their homeland.

By the time Lewis and Clark stopped there in , the Ponca numbered only a few hundred. Standing Bear around Photo courtesy Nebraska Historical Society. Standing Bear was born in and learned to hunt, fish, and follow the ways of his people. But events a thousand miles away would dramatically affect his life: in Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act and later the Homestead Act, which brought a flood of settlers into the area.

The Ponca were forced to sign a treaty giving up two million acres and then in a second treaty reduced their reservation to , acres. The mills and schools promised by the U. Nor were the Ponca protected from continuing raids by the Sioux. Three years later, a third treaty again guaranteed the Ponca their traditional farming and burial grounds, but shortly after the government signed the Treaty of Fort Laramie to end the war with the Oglala Sioux chief Red Cloud, giving away the Ponca land to the Sioux. In the tribe was forcibly removed from their farms, and their homes and farming tools destroyed.

They lost nearly a third of the people from malaria and starvation. Standing Bear himself would later recall those painful days. When he was dying he asked me to promise him one thing. He was my only son now; what could I do but promise? I promised. When he died, I and those with me put his body in a box, and then in a wagon, and we started north. By the time they reached their Omaha cousins, they were starving and sick. George Crook soon caught up with the Ponca and arrested them for leaving the reservation. Crook was a tough Army officer who had commanded divisions and then entire corps during the Civil War, fighting at Manassas, Antietam, Chickamauga, Shenandoah, and finally Appomattox.

Crook is generally considered the greatest of the Indian fighters.

Standing Bear's Footsteps

Before and after the Civil War, he led Army troops against the Indians in Oregon, Arizona, and the Dakota Territory, although in , after a battle on Rosebud Creek when his soldiers ran low on ammunition and other supplies, Crook had been unable to reach the Little Bighorn in time to support Custer and his men. Unlike most other officers in the Army, Crook had sympathy for the Indians.

Crook was appalled when he heard the plight of Standing Bear. He had been ordered by Carl Schurz, Secretary of the Interior, to take the Ponca back to Oklahoma territory immediately. Crook was ordered to arrest Chief Standing Bear and return him to the Ponca reservation.

Chief Standing Bear - Missouri National Recreational River (U.S. National Park Service)

Luckily for Standing Bear, Crook appealed for help to a local newspaper editor, Thomas Tibbles, one of the most remarkable journalists of the 19th Century. The efforts of Tibbles to help the Ponca would change history. In the s, his memoir, Buckskin and Blanket Days, was discovered and published posthumously. Thomas Tibbles, photographed later in life, was one of the most extraordinary journalists of the 19th Century. As a young man he fought with anti-slavery forces in Kansas, lived with the Indians, and later crusaded on behalf of Standing Bear.


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