Standing Bear and the Poncas Journey

With Bright Eyes as his translator, Ponca chief Standing Bear is famous for delivering the speech that finally won human rights for Native Americans - but his journey, and that of the Ponca, would not end so easily.



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Standing Bear's two-day trial began on May 1, 1879, in Omaha District Court. The legal dream team included Andrew Jackson Poppleton, a former mayor of Omaha and the lead lawyer for Union Pacific Railroad. The strategy boiled down to a pair of Latin words: habeas corpus. This 14th Amendment writ denying unlawful detention literally means "may you have the body."

Standing Bear's most dynamic supporter in that courtroom was actually a shy and frail poet from the Omaha tribe. She was his translator, Susette La Flesche, also known as Bright Eyes. This timid school principal and Shakespearean scholar fought for the Ponca like a giant warrior.

On May 2, Standing Bear was the last to stand before Judge Elmer Dundy in a closing speech that brought tears to many in that Omaha court. He reached out his right hand from beneath a red and blue blanket to prove he too was a person just like the judge. The blood in his hand was the same color as the blood from the judge's hand, he said. 

Dundy's ruling agreed. After 10 days of studing statutes in his office, Dundy returned to the Omaha courtroom on May 12 for his landmark decision. In his long ruling he declared that Standing Bear had been illegally detained, and as an Indian he was indeed a "person" granted civil rights in U.S. law.

Yet after the trial was won, the bridges of freedom were blocked for Standing Bear and his Ponca loyalists. The courtroom strategy or Standing Bear to gain 14th Amendment protection was to prove he was a person who deserved those legal rights like any other American citizen. But by granting him those rights, Dundy's ruling put Standing Bear and his Ponca allies in legal limbo. The ahd to sever their tribal alliance and no longer live on any reservation as wards of the government. In so doing, they were disallowed from setting foot on another Indian reservation.

By the summer of 1879, his two common-law wives and a small tribal band were legally trapped on a Niobrara River island, near what is now the Mormon Canal on Highway 12. The small bump of land on Running Water later become known as Niobrara Island Park, but for Standing Bear, it could have been called No Man's Land. While he had won the trial, he lost his tribe. He was legally barred from returning tot he Oklahoma reservation, and those three islands on the Niobrara were the only stretch of land not claimed by the Sioux in that treat with Uncle Sam.

Standing Bear's supporters urged him to stay on the safety zone of the islands, but this was a father still yearning to complete his quest. Later that summer, Standing Bear was said to have slipped back unseen to the mainland with the wagon carrying the bones of his son.

Somewhere along those beautiful bluffs, Bear Shield rests.

In the fall of 1879, Tibbles and Bright Eyes persuaded Standing Bear to join them on a whirlwind tour of the East to gather public support for the Ponca plight. Tibbles and Bright Eyes were firebrand speakers and later married. But there was one headliner: Standing Bear became a high-society celebrity, staying in fancy hotels while impressing potential donors with his tribal trappings and an occasional one-word humorous quip in English.

The U.S. government decided in 1881 to recognize the Northern Ponca and paid $165,000 in restitution. It returned 26,000 acres of land that once had stretched over 200 miles. This wasn't enough to woo many of the Southern Ponca, including Chief White Eagle. They were adapting crops to the warmer climate in Oklahoma by the Arkansas River and decided to stay put.

Standing Bear wandered in that decade, and legend has it he often sneaked back to Oklahoma to visit family tribal members. Then in 1890, the 62-year-old chief was granted 297.8 acres, along with another two acres that drifted into the Niobrara River through the Dawes Act, which encouraged American Indians to assimilate into society through a vocation in agriculture. With this, Standing Bear settled into life as a gentleman farmer.

In the early days of September 1908, Standing Bear finally followed Bear Shield. When he died at near the age of 80, he was granted only a single paragraph buried inside most of the nation's newspapers. Within two decades, his two-story clapboard house was purchased by a Bohemian immigrant and soon destroyed.

By the 1960s the tiny trio of islands that gave refuge to Standing Bear had washed away, and so, sadly, had much of the Ponca presence in town.

For decades, as their numbers spiraled, the Ponca sold off the land finally returned to them. The proud Northern Ponca tribe was fading away, with many members marrying into other tribes or heading off into the white man's modern world.

 

"STANDING BEAR CAME BACK here and we never kept up the traditions," said Standford Taylor, who before his retirement in December managed the archives and artifacts inside the Ponca Museum at the tribe's Community Building and powwow grounds at Niobrara. "Everybody's scattered. We started scattering way early. It's a small tribe and they had to find other people to marry."

As a boy of about 11 in the 1950s, Taylor was swept up in the scattering when his family left the village of Verdigre. They headed 70 miles southeast to Norfolk, where many Poncas migrated. By 1966, it appeared the journey for all Ponca in Nebraska was at an end.

Its 442 members were removed from tribal rolls and their last 834 acres of land were taken by the government's overreaching termination ruling. Other tribal holdings were seized as well, but they couldn't take away the determined personal pride of Fred LeRoy, who led the 24-year quest to bring his tribe back to life.

Just like Standing Bear, LeRoy proved to the Washington power brokers that every Northern Ponca was a person, too.

LeRoy was a Marine veteran of the Vietnam War. Gaiashkibos and others remember him as a gentle but valiant warrior who led the fight to gain back the Northern Ponca's status as a recognized American Indian tribe. On Jan. 11, 2012, in the same month that Standing Bear began his quest for freedom, a modern warrior's journey for the Norther Ponca ended when LeRoy died at age 63. In an interview with Nebraska Life just months before his death, LeRoy recalled how he too felt scattered between two cultures.

This soft-spoken man raged from within on this determined mission of more than a decade. He convinced the Nebraska Unicameral in 1988 to grant the Northern Ponca state recognition. Then after gaining legislative support in Washington from Nebraska Sens. James Exon and Bob Kerrey, President Bush signed the Ponca Restoration Act on Oct. 31, 1990.

"I know I was Ponca, but I wasn't Ponca," said LeRoy, who in 1994 became the first tribal chairman of the new Ponca Tribe of Nebraska. "I got a lot of teasing and discrimination from different people, even Indians."

LeRoy chuckled when he remembered how Washington insiders joked about the Ponca as the Halloween tribe, but he also looked back in a bittersweet reflection on how Standing Bear's journey both rallied the Ponca and pulled them apart.

"It's cruelest when you lose identity as a tribe and a person and a native of that tribe," LeRoy said. "I think the tribe started their termination when they got removed back to Oklahoma and split up. Standing Bear came back, which was great, and some of the members came back, which was good, but you kind of termlinated in some way your cultural identities."

LeRoy continued to lead his tribe for years. Like Standing Bear, LeRoy's legacy lives on in many ways, including the Fred LeRoy Health and Wellness Center in Omaha.

 

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