Tuesday, January 22, 2008

A Good Time to Remember Standing Bear

As the country honors the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. this week, I think it's a good time to remember a man many consider to be our country's first civil rights activist.

He is widely known in Nebraska, but I would dare say few have heard of him beyond the state's borders.

He is Chief Standing Bear of the Ponca Tribe.

In January 1879, Standing Bear and 30 of his followers left Indian Territory in Oklahoma to return to their former lands in Nebraska.

You see, as it had done to so many Native people, the U.S. government had forcibly moved the Poncas from their homes and sent them to Oklahoma two years earlier.

But Standing Bear and his followers preferred their homelands along the Niobrara River to the barren earth of Oklahoma.

Then the chief's son died.

But before Bear Shield died, he asked his father to bury him in the soil of his homeland.

Like any father, Standing Bear wanted to fulfill his son's dying wish.

So on Jan. 2, 1879, he and 30 followers left for Nebraska. Two months later, they were arrested, and Standing Bear was put on trial.

The trial of Standing Bear lasted two days. Shortly after it ended, the chief offered this impassioned plea to the court in an effort to prove he was a human being and entitled to the same right to freedom as every human being:

"That hand is not the color of yours, but if I pierce it, I shall 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."

About two weeks later, federal Judge Elmer Dundy ruled that "an Indian (is) a person within the meaning of the law," entitled to the constitutional rights of U.S. citizens.

The decision allowed the Ponca to return to their lands and freed Standing Bear.

For the first time in this country's history, Native people had the right to go where they wanted, to leave the confines of the reservation and roam where they pleased.

All because a father wanted to fulfill his son's wish.

Kevin Abourezk, Oglala Lakota, is a reporter and editor at the Lincoln (Neb.) Journal Star. He is a reznet assignment editor and teaches reporting at the Freedom Forum's American Indian Journalism Institute.