Chief Standing Bear

by Taylor Keen

When Chief Standing Bear’s peaceful Ponca Nation’s treaty-guaranteed reservation was granted by the federal government to their enemies, the Lakota, in the Treaty of Fort Laramie (1868), the Ponca were moved from their farms along the Niobrara River some 600 miles south to “Indian Territory.” The Ponca were not compensated for the loss of their land or possessions. Nor were they provided promised provisions. Arriving too late in the season to plant crops, many died of starvation or related diseases, among them Standing Bear’s only son, Bear Shield, who—while on his deathbed—begged his father to bury him in his homeland with his ancestors.

Determined to honor his son’s request, Standing Bear, and 65 others left the “warm land” without permission, and headed North in the middle of winter to return the bones of Bear Shield to the bluffs overlooking the Niobrara.  “I want to go back to my old place . . . I want to save myself and my tribe. If a white man had land, and someone should swindle him, that man would try to get it back, and you would not blame him,” lamented Standing Bear.

The U.S. Army under George Crook intercepted the fleeing Ponca and retained them in Omaha. At this point, several unlikely allies, including an army general, a journalist, and two young lawyers, stepped forward, devising a plan to sue the government in the Ponca’s interest, with Standing Bear as their star witness.

Standing Bear petitioned the United States Government in Omaha’s U.S. District Court for a writ of habeas corpus.  In the subsequent U.S. ex rel. Standing Bear v. Crook (1879) Standing Bear argued he was a “person” and, thus, entitled to rights and protections under U.S. law.  Attorneys for the government insisted that treaty disputes were not matters to be settled by the courts and that Standing Bear was neither a person nor a citizen, and therefore could not sue for his rights, or have access to the judicial system.

Although Judge Elmer Dundy was admittedly moved by Standing Bear’s testimony, he offered a condescending ruling. Consulting a dictionary, the judge said that “Webster’s describes a person as ‘a living soul…a living human being; a man, woman, or child; an individual of the human race.’ This is comprehensive enough, it would seem, to include even an Indian.”

Although the Ponca won the case, they were not allowed to return to their former home, still held by the Lakota Sioux, and tribal members who had remained in Indian Territory were forbidden from joining Standing Bear in Nebraska. The Army feared that allowing them to return would threaten the entire Reservation System. 

Lauded as a monumental case in Indian Civil Rights, Standing Bear v. Crook did little to change federal Indian policy.  The Dawes Act, the Massacre at Wounded Knee, and Indian boarding schools soon followed.  And perhaps the most ironic twist of all—the original inhabitants of this country were denied citizenship until 1924.


Recommended Reading

Starita, Joe, I am a Man; Chief Standing Bear's Journey for Justice. St. Martin's Press, 2010.


Taylor R. M. Keen

Taylor Keen is a full time lecturer in the College of Business Administration, the Director of Entrepreneurship at Creighton University and the President of Talon Strategy, LLC.  A member of the Tribal Council of the Cherokee Nation in 2006-2007, Keen was vice president of Cherokee Nation Enterprises Inc, now Cherokee Nation Businesses.  Keen holds a bachelor's degree from Dartmouth College as well as a Master's of Business Administration and Masters of Public Administration from Harvard University, where he served as a Christian Johnson Fellow.

Taylor is a co-author of the article “Tribal Sovereignty and Economic Development,” published for the Smithsonian Institution's Handbook of the American Indian.  Keen is Trustee of the Nebraska State Historical Society, board member of the Humanities Nebraska, and Chairman of the Blackbird Bend Corporation (The Omaha Nation of Nebraska and Iowa’s Economic Development Corporation). He is one of four “Tails” of the traditional UmoNhoN Society, a member of the Omaha Eagle Whistle Carrier Society and an inductee of the Kiowa Taipiah Gourd Dance Clan.  Taylor is a lifelong traditional dancer, singer, and a member of the Native American Church, Omaha Reservation Chapter.


Bullet Points

  • In the 1830s George Catlin visited the Ponca village and left with canvases depicting tribal members and tribal life.
  • The Ponca would eventually come to be considered trespassers in their own homeland when their lands were given to their enemies (the Lakota) without their consent or knowledge.
  • Standing Bear was considered the most eloquent and forcible speaker of his tribe.
  • Following Standing Bear v. Crook, Chief Standing Bear went on a lecture tour of the East Coast. Helen Hunt Jackson saw him speak and was so moved by his story that she wrote A Century of Dishonor, criticizing the government’s treatment of Native Americans. 



  • “That hand is not the color of yours, but if you pierce it, I shall feel pain.  If you pierce your hand, you also feel pain.  The blood that will flow from mine will be of the same color as yours.  I am a man.  The same God made us both.”



          c. 1839  Standing Bear was born near the confluence of the Niobrara and Missouri Rivers.  

1868    The Ponca Reservation was incorporated into the boundaries of the Great Sioux Reservation, depriving the Ponca of their homeland.

1877    The Ponca were forcibly removed from their lands to Indian Territory.  Their journey became known as the Ponca Trail of Tears.

1878    Standing Bear’s only son, Bear Shield dies.  Standing Bear promised to bury him with their ancestors along the Niobrara River.

1879    Standing Bear and 60 other members of his tribe left Indian Territory and attempted to return to their homeland.  They were arrested two months later and charged with trespassing.

1879    Standing Bear petitioned for a writ of habeas corpus.  In the landmark case Standing Bear v. Crook trial, the judge determined that Native Americans are persons. 

1879    Standing Bear and newspaperman Henry Tibbles embarked on a lecture tour of the East Coast, which ultimately influenced public opinion regarding the treatment of Native Americans.  Helen Hunt Jackson, Senator Henry Dawes, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow attended his Boston lecture.

                   1908    Standing Bear dies.