Chief Standing Bear: Retracing the Steps of a Civil Rights Leader

Mike Johanns

An imprisoned Native American chief, an unlikely cadre of Nebraskans and a harrowing journey led to one of America’s earliest civil rights victories 135 years ago. In an Omaha court room, Ponca Chief Standing Bear argued that Native Americans are people and should have equal protections under the law. Holding out his hand, he famously 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. The same God made us both.” His words would help secure new hope and opportunity for Native Americans and finally bring to a close a long and painful chapter for a wandering Nebraska tribe.

In the mid-1800s Standing Bear and his Ponca people lived in what is now northeast Nebraska. As more settlers moved west, the tribe faced increasing pressure to give up their land. To avoid clashes with the government, the tribe agreed to move to what it believed was the nearby Omaha reservation. The agreement, which had been mistranslated, actually forced the tribe to relocate to Indian Territory in present-day Oklahoma, far from their hallowed farming and burial grounds.

In the spring of 1877, the tribe begrudgingly left behind their homes, land and farming equipment. The 600-mile journey was challenging and fraught with risks. More than 150 Ponca died on the trail. When they finally arrived in the sweltering summer of 1878, planting season had ended. The ground was rocky and unfertile, yielding little hope for future crops. By year’s end, nearly a third of the tribe had succumbed to starvation and other diseases. Standing Bear’s teenage son, Bear Shield, was one of the fallen. His dying wish was to be buried in his homeland of Nebraska.

Standing Bear vowed to honor Bear Shield’s last request, so in early 1879, the Chief and dozens of other Ponca set out once again to return to the Niobrara Valley for the burial. Upon reaching Omaha, they were promptly arrested for leaving Indian Territory without permission by a sympathetic general who was under orders to return them to Oklahoma. Instead, he shared their story with an Omaha journalist. The case quickly gained the attention of a pair of prominent Omaha attorneys who agreed to represent Standing Bear. In the ensuing trial, the Ponca Chief uttered those famous words, urging the court to treat natives with the inherent respect and dignity granted to all persons under the law. The court agreed, marking the first time the law recognized Native Americans as “persons.

Chief Standing Bear’s case is an important part of our history, and a shining example of what can be accomplished through our judicial system. To commemorate this bold stand for civil rights, I recently introduced legislation to begin the process of creating a new Standing Bear National Historic Trail that would follow his journey from his homeland to Indian Territory and back to Nebraska, where the trial was held. Congressman Jeff Fortenberry introduced the House version, and this week, Senator Fischer and I are calling for a Senate committee hearing to consider and approve the bill.

This project would help more Americans understand the significance of Chief Standing Bear’s contributions to civil rights, and the role courageous Nebraskans played in changing the course of American History. I hope Chief Standing Bear’s story will continue to inspire the brave and noble pursuit of equality under the law for all mankind.

Mike Johanns is the senior United States Senator from Nebraska, in office since 2009. He served as the Governor of Nebraska from 1999 until 2005, and he was chair of the Midwestern Governors Association in 2002.

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