Native History: Court Rules an Indian Is a Man With Rights
This Date in Native History: On May 12, 1879, 135 years ago, Ma-Chu-nah Zah or Chief Standing Bear was declared a man in the federal courts of the United States. In the first American Indian civil rights case, Indians were acknowledged to possess all human rights.
By 1876, the Ponca tribe had a long history of living peacefully with whites and Standing Bear had received many letters from government officials that testified to that fact.
Ironically, one of those letters was written by the same Indian Commissioner that later testified in court that Standing Bear was a nuisance, mischievous, and impossible to please. However, when Standing Bear told the story of what happened to his family, the judge said the case could have been won on sympathy alone.
So, what happened?
The Ponca had been living and farming on 96,000 acres of their ancestor’s land when the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty gave away their land to the tribes in the Dakota Territory. This was done without consulting the Ponca, who knew nothing about the loss of their land until they were told to move, according to the book The Ponca Chiefs by Thomas Henry Tibbles, editor of the Omaha Daily Herald.
Tibbles's book details the hardships the Poncas endured, and describes how white men showed up at the Ponca Agency and insisted the Ponca go and see how much better it was in Indian Territory, 10 men went and found nothing but rocky land and sickness. The agents in Indian Territory refused to help them return home, so they made their way barefoot, on a 50-day trek, without food or a place to sleep. When they returned, the white men were still there, without any credentials, harassing them to relocate and give up their land.
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