In 1879, a case came before a judge in Omaha that asked the question: Are Native Americans considered human beings under the U.S. Constitution?

That the answer to such a question was unclear gives some indication of the tumultuous and fraught relationship at the time between tribes and the U.S. government—a relationship still riddled with challenges and complexities to this day.

“That tension that was playing out on the Great Plains of America in the last quarter of the 19th century is still playing out on the Great Plains of America in the opening decades of the 21st century,” says Joe Starita, a professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the author of “I Am a Man: Chief Standing Bear’s Journey for Justice.”

Standing Bear was a Ponca chief whose tribe had been forced from its ancestral lands and marched 600 miles south to Indian Territory. When his son died, the chief and fellow tribal members made a hard journey north to return his body to their burial ground. They were intercepted near Omaha and he was arrested. His case, in that Nebraska courtroom, marked an important turning point in granting civil rights to Native Americans under U.S. law. His story is the focus of the second episode of The Washington Post’s new “Constitutional” podcast.

Listen to the episode here.

Episode guests include Starita, as well as Ponca Tribe Chairman Larry Wright Jr., and Lindsay Robertson, the Chickasaw Nation Endowed Chair in Native American Law at the University of Oklahoma and the author of “Conquest by Law: How the Discovery of America Dispossessed Indigenous Peoples of Their Lands.”

The archival Nixon tape is courtesy of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum.

Fief and drum music is by Other Turner and the Rising Star Fief and Drum Band. Special thanks to Sharde Thomas and the rest of the Turner family for its use.

Our theme music and additional compositions are by Ryan and Hays Holladay. The original artwork for our podcast is by Michelle Thompson. And Ted Muldoon is my producer here at The Washington Post. Thanks to him.


Story is from Washington Post Website and written by Lillian Cunningham