You may have heard of Wounded Knee, Custer's Last Stand, and the Trail of Tears, but there is an important part of Native American history that often goes overlooked--the Trial of Ponca Chief Standing Bear. Though it may seem inconceivable now, prior to 1879, the nature of Native Americans was in dispute, at least according to the law. That changed with one case: United States ex rel. Standing Bear v. Crook.
It all started with the forced removal of the Ponca Tribe to Indian Territory in 1877, when federal troops removed over 700 Poncas. A year later, a third of the Poncas had died, including Standing Bear's son Bear Shield. Determined to return Bear Shield's remains to the land of their ancestors, Standing Bear and 30 other Poncas began the two month trek to the Niobrara River. Along the way, the group stopped to rest at the Omaha Reservation. Since Standing Bear and the other Poncas in his party had left Indian Territory without permission, they were arrested and detained at Fort Omaha until they could be returned to Indian Territory. During their detainment, Standing Bear sued for a writ of habeas corpus in U.S. District Court in Omaha, Nebraska with the help of attorneys John L. Webster and Andrew J. Poppleton. The basis for the trial was the violation of the Ponca Tribe's 14th Amendment's right to due process by the U.S. Army. The argument was made that the Poncas were not entitled to those rights because they were not considered persons under the law. On May 12, 1879, Judge Elmer S. Dundy ruled, "an Indian is a person within the meaning of the law," meaning the Poncas had a right to due process and that their rights had been violated. Judge Dundy ordered the release of the Poncas. This was the landmark case that finally acknowledged the personhood of Native Americans in United States law.
To learn more about the Trial of Standing Bear, check out these interesting documents, opens a new window.