The story of Standing Bear and the Ponca tribe stands as one of the most significant Native American ordeals in United States history. In 1879, Standing Bear v. Crook cemented the rights of Native Americans into U.S. law. This event is one of the most undervalued and lesser-known happenings in our nation's history. The fight for equality by minorities is a well-known American narrative, dating back centuries. For Native Americans, Standing Bear v. Crook was a monumental moment in their struggle for freedom and equality. Through his journey, Standing Bear forced the United States government to acknowledge the undeniable, that Native Americans are humans. This truth lay the groundwork for the landmark case.
Standing Bear's legacy is one of love, fortitude, and determination. His love of family and homeland guided him on a path aimed at the Niobrara River Valley and into a complex legal battle with the United States government. This legal battle directly took on the controversial practice of Native American removal and forced cultural assimilation. Simultaneously, it redefined the status of thirty Ponca and the lives of all Native Americans. To bring to light the importance of Standing Bear v. Crook, this paper shall begin by outlining Standing Bear and the Ponca's pathway to the courtroom. It will then analyze the arguments presented by both parties, followed by the court's rulings, and to conclude it will detail contributions made by Standing Bear and his lawyers.
Background of the Ponca Tribe
To truly understand the Standing Bear v. Crook case, one must be familiar with the history, culture, and reputation of Standing Bear's tribe, the Ponca. In their native language, which is rooted in the Thegiha language tree, (1) the name Ponca means Sacred Head. (2) The tribe worshipped Wakanda, or the Great Spirit, throughout much of its history. (3) The Ponca were not originally from the Niobrara River Valley; they were once located on the East Coast in the vicinity of Virginia and the Carolinas. There they were a part of a much larger tribe that migrated inland around the fourteenth or fifteenth century. (4)
In addition to the Ponca, this larger tribe was comprised of other tribes known today as the Omaha, Osage, Quapaw, and Kansa. (5) Their shared ancestral lineage is an important factor throughout many parts of the Ponca story. If the United States government had allowed for these close relations to assist one another, the controversy and hardships of this process may have been prevented. Standing Bear sought assistance and refuge from these relatives as he attempted to return to his homeland.
Around 1500, the Omaha and Ponca members separated themselves from the larger tribe and continued their migration northwest. (6) Eventually, these two tribes separated as the Ponca moved farther north, eventually settling in an area marked by the Niobrara River's connection to the greater Missouri River. (7) The current Niobrara River derived its name from the Ponca who called it Ni obhatha ke, or Running Water. (8) This location straddled the yet-to-be-formed Nebraska-South Dakota border.
Once reached, this region became the homeland of the Ponca tribe. They lived on, farmed, and hunted this area for centuries. Traditionally, the Ponca were a seminomadic tribe that built permanent housing and agricultural areas in the Niobrara River Valley before relocating to the Black Hills for buffalo hunts. (9) Typical Ponca housing consisted of a large igloo-like structure made of earth materials, such as clay. (10) They grew crops such as corn, squash, pumpkins, beans, and tobacco. (11)
Nine different bands comprised the Ponca tribe. Each band had its own leader and responsibilities. These nine leaders reported to the Head Chief who was responsible for the tribe in its entirety. (12) A common misconception is that Standing Bear assumed the role of Head Chief, however he was in charge of one band, the Bear Clan. A tribal member known as White Eagle held the role of Head Chief. (13) During the court case, tribal structure and Standing Bear's role within the tribe became an important point of argument.
Two events of note occurred within the Ponca tribe in 1804. First, the tribe came into contact with smallpox. This disease decimated tribal numbers; half of the tribe perished. (14) As a result, only two hundred Ponca remained to experience the arrival of the Lewis and Clark expedition, which also took place in 1804. (15) Like many tribes, soon after this experience the Ponca saw accelerated contact with the white settler population and their culture.
Unlike many other tribes, the Ponca adapted to the settlers' way of life with relatively little resistance. The Ponca were experienced warriors, whose enemies included the Sioux and Pawnee, (16) however the decision was made to not attack the new settlers. In fact, it was an important point of pride within the tribe that no white had ever been harmed by a Ponca member. (17)
Not only did the Ponca not resist the new way of life, they embraced it. Over time, an estimated 236 wooden houses were built on the Niobrara reservation. (18) Other evidence of white culture was found in the schooling and religious practices of the Ponca tribe. Ponca children attended an agency school and established a Christian church on the reservation. (19) Agriculturally, the Ponca also conformed to the standards of white culture as they shifted towards the planting and harvesting of staple crops such as corn and wheat using modern tools and techniques. (20) So successful were they at using these techniques that surplus crops were sold to white settlers in neighboring towns. (21) With this revenue, the Ponca tribe were able to establish themselves as a self-sufficient reservation where members were able to acquire goods such as livestock, wagons, plows, and stoves without government assistance. (22)
From the settlers' perspective, the Ponca transformation was a model of friendly and efficient assimilation. First Lieutenant William Carpenter referred to the Ponca as the "second most civilized tribe west of the Mississippi." (23) He further explained that the Ponca are only behind the Omaha tribe, who were close relatives of the Ponca. The fact that Standing Bear originated from such a "respectable" and well-liked tribe influenced many sympathetic white settlers to side with him during his battle for the return of Ponca land. The tribe's peacefulness and advancement along the "civilized" pathway played a major role in Standing Bear v. Crook.
This long history of goodwill towards the white world provided the Ponca and Standing Bear with considerable evidence of their civilized and independent behavior. In contrast, the Sioux or Apache tribes would have lacked this evidence if they were in the Ponca spot during the court case. Their histories of conflict with and resistance to the United States would have handicapped their ability to formulate a persuasive argument.
Background on Standing Bear
Similar to the tribe, the history and reputation of the individual at the forefront of this case is also an important factor to consider when analyzing Standing Bear v. Crook. Personal characterization of Standing Bear formulated by both the plaintiff and defense played pivotal roles in the final verdict. Many of the arguments and ensuing rulings were put forth with Standing Bear's reputation as the justification.
Standing Bear, or Machnahzha, was born in the Niobrara River Valley in 1829. (24) From the start, his destiny as a leader within the tribe was sealed by virtue of his father's role as Chief of the Bear Clan. (25) As he grew, the times and circumstances of the Ponca tribe shaped Standing Bear's character. Their much larger enemy, the Sioux, increased attacks as food and resources became scarcer. White settlers also encroached on the Ponca's ancestral lands as America's Westward Expansion pushed farther. (26) With limited resources and therefore limited options, the Ponca gradually began to abandon their way of life in favor of white customs.
Standing Bear followed this trend of assimilation and demonstrated his transformation by wearing western clothing, building a log cabin, using modern farming equipment, and purchasing his own livestock. (27) His outspoken acceptance of Jesus Christ as his savior demonstrated his adoption of the white Christian faith. (28)
Standing Bear, however, remained true to Ponca tradition in a number of aspects. He enhanced his positioning as leader within the Ponca structure, ultimately becoming second in command for the tribe as a whole. (29) Due to his warrior classification, Standing Bear was permitted to have two wives simultaneously. His first wife passed away after giving birth to two daughters. His second wife, Susette, eventually gave birth to his son, Bear Shield. (30) Susette's niece, Lottie Primeau, joined her as a co-wife at the age of twenty-two. (31)
As exemplified by his leadership position within the tribe, Standing Bear was a well-liked and respected man. He garnered a reputation amongst the tribe and white settlers as an earnest and well-spoken individual. (32) Like his tribe, Standing Bear favored peace with the white settlers. This statement can be corroborated through the opinion of Commissioner of Indian Affairs Ezra Hayt, who noted that Standing Bear's influence had been used to "preserve peace and harmony with the United States." (33)
The documentation of these favorable comments proved to be significant. Later on, Commissioner Hayt attempted to sway the public and court opinion against Standing Bear using attacks focusing on his character. (34) Standing Bear v. Crook's outcome relied heavily on Standing Bear's standing as a person through the lens of white culture. Had a Native American of lower status or a more rebellious past been in Standing Bear's situation, the outcome may have been dramatically different.
Standing Bear's dedication to tribal ties and...