Standing Bear was born on land that later became the Ponca reservation in what is now Nebraska, around 1834, although some sources say he was born in 1829. "Standing Bear" translates from the Ponca (PaNka) "MaNchu NaNzhiN." A more literal translation would be "Standing Grizzly Bear.
In early times the Ponca were driven southward by the Sioux. The tribe suffered decimation by smallpox. (Lewis and Clark numbered them at only 200.) At the time Standing Bear was born, the Ponca people had settled in an area around the mouth of the Niobrara River. By 1858, the Ponca relinquished all land they had claimed except for a small reserve along the Niobrara. They tried to change from nomadic buffalo hunters to farmers. In the Treaty of Fort Laramie (1868), the government mistakenly included the Ponca's land in the territory assigned to the Sioux. Subsequently, the Sioux raided the area claimed by the Ponca and many lives were lost. To end the raids, the government's moved the Ponca to Indian Territory (present day Oklahoma).
When the Ponca learned they were to be moved to Indian Territory in 1876, they sent ten chiefs with a United States agent to look over the land and its prospects. They were to make a decision for the Ponca tribe. Based on what they learned, the chiefs could not make a favorable report. The tribe voted not to go to Indian Territory. The government then sent the Ponca to Indian Territory with or without their consent.
The Ponca arrived in Oklahoma territory too late to plant crops. They were not prepared for winter, causing many deaths, including the death of Standing Bear's son. Standing Bear wanted to bury his son on Ponca soil, and with thirty others traveled back to the Niobrara. They reached the Omaha Reservation, where they were welcomed as relatives, but word of their arrival in Nebraska soon reached the government. They were arrested on orders from Secretary of the Interior George Crook. Standing Bear and the others were taken to Fort Omaha and detained. Although they were ordered back to Indian Territory at once, Crook, appalled by the conditions under which the Poncas were held, delayed their return so they could rest, regain their health, and seek legal redress.
Crook told their story to Thomas Tibbles of the Omaha Daily Herald, who publicized it widely. Attorney John L. Webster offered his services pro bono, and he was joined by Andrew J. Poppleton, chief attorney of the Union Pacific Railroad who also volunteered his services. In April 1879, Standing Bear sued for a writ of habeas corpus in U.S. District Court in Omaha, Nebraska. The case is called United States ex rel. Standing Bear v. Crook, General Crook being the formal defendant because he was holding the Poncas under color of law.
On May 12, 1879, Judge Elmer S. Dundy ruled that "an Indian is a person" within the meaning of the habeas corpus act, and that the government had failed to show a basis under law for the Poncas' captivity. They were therefore freed immediately. This case received the attention of the Hayes administration, and provisions were made for some of the tribe to return to the Niobrara valley.
Further information: Timeline of Racial Tension in Omaha, Nebraska
Between October 1879 and 1883, Standing Bear traveled in the eastern United States and spoke about Indian rights in forums sponsored by an Indian advocate, Wendell Phillips. Standing Bear did not speak any English, so his story was translated by two Omahas. He was accompanied by Thomas Tibbles, then married to Susette (Bright Eyes) LaFlesche, and her brother Francis LaFlesche. Standing Bear won the support of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and other prominent people.
After he returned from the East, Standing Bear resided at his old home on the Niobrara with 170 Ponca and farmed his land. He died in 1908 and is buried on a hill overlooking the site of his birth. Bear Shield was his eldest son.
Standing Bear is a member of the Nebraska Hall of Fame. Ponca State Park in northeastern Nebraska is named in honor of Standing Bear's Ponca Tribe. In 2005 a new elementary school in the Omaha Public School System was named Standing Bear Elementary in honor of the Ponca Chief.
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