Nebraska Moments

By Donald R. Hickey; Susan A. Wunder et al. | Go to book overview

12. The Trial of Standing Bear

On April 30, 1879, Standing Bear, a Ponca Indian leader, appeared before Judge Elmer S. Dundy in U.S. District Court in Omaha. Four months earlier, Standing Bear and a band of Poncas had left their reservation in Indian Territory—present-day Oklahoma—to journey to Nebraska in hopes of returning to their traditional lands along the Niobrara River. U.S. government representatives, however, were determined to force the Poncas to go back to Indian Territory, and Standing Bear was in court to prevent his people’s removal. At issue was whether Native Americans had the right to sue in a federal court, and, more broadly, whether they were human beings and citizens under the law and enjoyed the same liberties as other Americans. That Standing Bear and his Ponca friends and relatives were eventually able to stay in Nebraska represents a significant event in Nebraska history and the history of civil rights.

The Poncas had flourished before the United States came to the Great Plains. Closely related to the Omahas, with whom they shared a common language dialect, the Poncas had migrated up the Missouri River in the late seventeenth century. They first settled with the Omahas in what is today South Dakota, along the banks of the Big Sioux River around 1700 and by 1715 in the White River valley. The Poncas eventually moved to three villages along the Niobrara River, which they called “Swift Running Water.” The Omahas moved further down the Missouri. Though never numbering more than several thousand, Poncas prospered in their new home, hunting, farming, fishing, and trading at the nearby junction of the Niobrara and Missouri.

Ponca contact with Euro-Americans had a devastating effect. Many died from unfamiliar diseases, while alcohol ravaged others. Still more

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