Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


On May 12, 1879, in Omaha, Nebraska, in the U.S. Circuit Court for the District of Nebraska, Judge Elmer Dundy ruled that noncitizen Indians–in this case, a group of Poncas led by Chief Standing Bear–were defined as persons in terms of federal law and entitled to review under habeas corpus protections (a constitutionally based appeal used to determine whether a person is restrained or imprisoned without due process). The writ of habeas corpus specifically stated that Standing Bear and his followers had withdrawn from the Ponca tribe. Standing Bear's case not only played a central role in four crucial decades of Ponca-federal relations, but it also directly influenced landmark Indian policy changes of the 1880s.

In an 1858 treaty, the Poncas ceded all their lands except for a small reservation (in presentday northeastern Nebraska) on the lower Niobrara River. Dutifully taking up farming the white man's way, the Poncas endured terrible hardships when their crops regularly failed and Indian agency supplies remained woefully inadequate. Yet their long-standing friendship with the United States failed to prevent their forced removal to Indian Territory in the spring of 1877. The Poncas' conditions worsened due to the Office of Indian Affairs' complete lack of preparation for their arrival–no lands had been reserved and no appropriation secured to provide food, clothing, and housing. As many as 200 Poncas died from related hardships. In January 1879 Standing Bear and twenty-nine others fled back to their Nebraska homeland. When they reached the Omaha reservation in March, the U.S. Army arrested them and escorted them to Fort Omaha (located four miles north of Omaha, Nebraska).

On March 30 Omaha Daily Herald assistant editor Thomas Henry Tibbles interviewed Standing Bear and dispatched a stream of features to newspapers in Chicago, New York, and other eastern cities. Tibbles also inaugurated a legal challenge against Standing Bear's arrest, obtaining the services of two prominent Omaha attorneys, John Lee Webster and A. J. Poppleton. In May, Judge Dundy delivered his extraordinary ruling that habeas corpus safeguards applied to Standing Bear, even though as a Native American he was a noncitizen and in spite of the fact that for all practical purposes he had renounced his Ponca tribal affiliation. Moreover, because federal statutes authorized the army to deliver prisoners only to civil authorities, making the Ponca detainment at Fort Omaha illegal, Dundy ordered Standing Bear and the Poncas released and directed that there would be no appeals to a higher court.

Judge Dundy's bold decision protected Standing Bear's Poncas from being returned to Indian Territory, but it provided no lands for them. In 1890 they finally secured allotments on their former reservation. Equally important, Standing Bear's struggle for justice significantly influenced the national movement to reform Indian policy. In the fall of 1879 Tibbles featured Standing Bear on a highly successful Indian reform tour that included Chicago, Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington. In Boston, Standing Bear's eloquence so impressed Massachusetts senator Henry L. Dawes that he plunged into the Indian reform movement. He joined the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, and his leadership on Indian issues and prominence on the popular issue of Indian assimilation led directly to passage of the 1887 General Allotment (or Dawes) Act. Standing Bear lived on his family allotment on the Niobrara until his death in 1908.

See also NATIVE AMERICANS: Poncas; Standing Bear.

Dennis J. Smith Morningside College

Hoxie, Frederick E. A Final Promise: The Campaign to Assimilate the Indians, 1880–1920. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984.

Lake, James A., Sr. "Standing Bear, Who?" Nebraska Law Review 60 (1981): 451–503.

Tibbles, Thomas Henry. The Ponca Chiefs: An Account of the Trial of Standing Bear, edited by Kay Graber. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1972.

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