Telling the Story of Chief Standing Bear
July 27, 2022 | View PDF
One of America’s greatest civil rights heroes is from Nebraska. Yet nationally, almost nobody knows about him. As Nebraskans, we’re changing that by telling Chief Standing Bear’s story.
In the 1800s, Chief Standing Bear’s tribe — the Ponca — peacefully hunted and farmed on land in northeast Nebraska along the Niobrara River. In 1868, the federal government signed a treaty with the Sioux tribe, mistakenly granting them much of the Ponca’s territory. This led to conflict between the two tribes over the land.
In 1876, the federal government tried to convince Ponca leaders to move to Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma). Ten Ponca chiefs, including Standing Bear, traveled to Indian Territory to see the land. Together, they decided it would not be a suitable home for the Ponca tribe.
The federal government chose to move the Poncas anyway, deploying U.S. Army troops to force their relocation to Indian Territory in the spring of 1877. The journey — known as the Ponca Trail of Tears — was arduous. Many Poncas suffered from illness as they traveled south along muddy paths soaked by heavy spring rains. Signs of the hardship they endured are still visible today. In Neligh, a marble headstone marks the gravesite of White Buffalo Girl, one of the children who perished on the journey. Each Memorial Day, residents of Neligh decorate it with flowers to honor her. Chief Standing Bear’s own daughter, Prairie Flower, succumbed to illness and is buried near Milford. Seward County and the Nebraska State Historical Society have placed a historical marker a half-mile south of her gravesite.
Within two years of arriving in Indian Territory, Chief Standing Bear’s teenage son — Bear Shield — became gravely ill. His dying request to his father was to be buried in the Poncas’ homeland in Nebraska. The federal government had ordered the Ponca to remain in Indian Territory, but Chief Standing Bear was determined to fulfill his son’s final wish. In January 1879, he led a small group back to northeast Nebraska. They trekked 500 miles on foot through the bitter cold to carry Bear Shield’s body home.
In March 1879, federal soldiers arrested Chief Standing Bear and other Poncas for leaving Indian Territory without official permission, imprisoning them at Fort Omaha. U.S. Army General George Crook was tasked with detaining the Poncas.
He felt they were being treated unfairly and sought the help of local journalist Thomas Henry Tibbles, an editor with the Omaha Daily Herald. Tibbles wrote an editorial on behalf of the Poncas and recruited two Omaha attorneys — John L. Webster and A.J. Poppleton — to take their case. They agreed to represent Standing Bear pro bono in a lawsuit against the federal government for wrongful detainment.
The trial started on April 30, 1879 and lasted two days. The federal government’s lawyers argued that Chief Standing Bear was not legally a person or citizen, and thus had no grounds to sue the government. Chief Standing Bear responded to their arguments with a stirring courtroom speech. Rising to his feet, and extending his hand toward the judge, he said: “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 the same color as yours. I am a man. God made us both.”
His compelling testimony led to a landmark decision. District Court Judge Elmer S. Dundy (namesake of Dundy County) ruled that Chief Standing Bear was “a ‘person’ within the meaning of the laws of the United States” and deserved the same civil rights as anyone else in the United States. The decision reaffirmed the basic human dignity of Native Americans, entitling them to equal protection of the law.
Chief Standing Bear’s dedication to his family, his tribe, and the principle of equal human dignity changed history. Every American should learn the story of his courage and perseverance in seeking justice.
As Nebraskans, we’re working to bring greater visibility to Chief Standing Bear.
On October 15, 2017, we unveiled a statue of him at Centennial Mall in Lincoln as part of the State’s 150th anniversary celebration
On April 11, 2018, the Ponca Tribe dedicated a statute of Chief Standing Bear in Niobrara during its 25th annual powwow
On April 23, 2018, I signed LB807 to authorize Chief Standing Bear being one of two Nebraskans represented with a statue in the U.S. Capitol
On September 18, 2019, I joined U.S. Congressional leaders, Ponca tribal leaders, and fellow Nebraskans for the official unveiling of Chief Standing Bear’s statue in Washington D.C.
This year, Senator Tom Brewer sponsored a legislative resolution at my request to rename the State office building at 521 S. 14th St. as the Chief Standing Bear Justice Administration Building. We’re officially rededicating it this week. Artist Sarah Harris has created a mural of Chief Standing Bear’s life to adorn the inside of the building. Ben Victor — who sculpted the statues at Centennial Mall, Niobrara, and the U.S. Capitol — worked on a bust of Standing Bear for display outside of the building. Thank you to the members of the Ponca tribe, artists, State teammates, educators, and community supporters whose contributions have helped us tell the story of this great Nebraskan.
If you have questions about the State of Nebraska’s work to honor Chief Standing Bear, please email [email protected] or call 402-471-2244. I hope you’ll join us in spreading the word about his life and legacy.