In the late 19th century, the Ponca people were forced off their last remaining sliver of land in Nebraska to Indian Territory in Oklahoma. No food or shelter had been provided for them there, and many of the Ponca died of disease and starvation, including the son of Chief Standing Bear. The chief’s efforts to return his son’s body to their ancestral lands transformed him into a civil rights icon. And now, as Gillian Brockell reports for the Washington Post, Standing Bear has been honored with a towering statue in the U.S. Capitol’s National Statuary Hall.
Each state is represented by two statues within the hall; in 1937, Nebraska opted to honor former Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan and former Secretary of Education Julius Sterling Morton. But last year, according to Alex Gangitano of the Hill, Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts signed a bill to replace both monuments with tributes to different historical figures: author Willa Cather, whose statue is forthcoming, and Standing Bear, whose bronze monument was unveiled last week with Nebraska’s full Congressional delegation and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi looking on.
Standing Bear was born in what is now Nebraska some time between 1829 and 1834. The Ponca sought to establish an amicable relationship with the United States government, and in 1858, agreed to surrender all of its claimed territory with the exception of a patch of land around the Niobrara River. The move required them to shift from a nomadic lifestyle to a farming one, but according to Brockell, they did well growing corn and trading with white settlers.
Then, a U.S. government error threw the Ponca into turmoil. In 1868, U.S. officials mistakenly included the Ponca’s territory in a land agreement with the Sioux. The Sioux began raiding the land, and the government decided to end the conflict by sending the Ponca to Oklahoma. Standing Bear was among the Ponca leaders who went to survey the proposed relocation sites, but they found the land arid and refused to agree to the move. Ultimately, though, their protests proved futile; in 1877, six hundred Ponca were escorted by the military to Indian Territory in Oklahoma.
After his son’s death, Standing Bear was determined to return home, in spite of the relocation order. He and 30 others set out on a trek back to Nebraska, in the middle of winter. Near Omaha, they stopped to visit relatives at the Omaha reservation. On the orders of the Secretary of the Interior, Standing Bear and his party were swiftly arrested.
Fortunately, they ended up in the custody of General George Crook, who had spent decades battling Native Americans but proved sympathetic to the group’s plight. “Crook went to the media, which spread the story of … Standing Bear and his fellow prisoners nationwide,” Brockell writes. “Then two lawyers offered to take up their case pro bono, and asked a judge to free the Poncas immediately.”
More than their personal liberty was at stake. When Standing Bear petitioned the court for his right to return home, the judge was left to decide whether Native Americans had the same rights of freedom as the rest of the nation under the Constitution. The U.S. attorney argued that Native Americans had no right to sue the government, because “an Indian was neither a person nor a citizen.” In 1879, Standing Bear refuted this notion, becoming the first Native American to give testimony in federal court.
“That hand is not the color of yours, but if I pierce it, I shall feel pain,” he famously said. “If you pierce your hand you also feel pain. The blood that will flow from mine will be of the same color as yours. I am a man. The same god made us both.”
Though the judge branded Native Americans as a “weak, insignificant, unlettered, and generally despised race,” he ultimately ruled that “an Indian is a ‘person’ within the meaning of the laws of the United States” and that “no rightful authority exists for removing by force any of the relators to the Indian Territory.” He ordered the Ponca to be released from custody.
Standing Bear returned to the Niobrara River and buried his son there. He continued to live on Ponca lands in Nebraska, where he died in 1908.
“He was a man dedicated to his family and his people,” Nebraska U.S. Senator Ben Sasse said at the unveiling of the new statue, according to KETV. “His legacy has lived on and I am proud to welcome his statue to our Nation’s Capitol.”