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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Standing Bear (Machunazha) (Ponca)

The heritage of eloquence in Native American oral tradition reflects the notion that selected individuals possess the gifts of thought, language, and moral courage to lead us to recognize the underlying meaning of human existence. Thus, life experience, historical circumstance, personal character, and oral rhetorical skill combine to allow speakers to share with their audience a moment of authentic understanding, the momentary recognition of the confluence of real events and their verbal interpretation.

The Ponca people of north-central Nebraska and south-central South Dakota, centered on the Niobrara River of Nebraska, established a record of peaceful relations with their non-Indian neighbors and with the U.S. government. Having entered into four previous treaties with the United States, the Poncas nevertheless were callously deprived of their homeland in a treaty in which they were not even a participant. In the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 with the bands of the Lakota (Western Sioux), the U.S. government inexplicably and carelessly granted the ancestral Ponca homelands to the Lakota as part of the Great Sioux Reservation. Then, fearing warfare between the two tribal nations, government representatives unilaterally determined that the Poncas should be removed to Indian Territory, present-day Oklahoma.

In May 1877, the Poncas were forcibly removed to Baxter Springs in eastern Oklahoma and then to Ponca City in north-central Oklahoma. In the Ponca version of the Trail of Tears, eight chiefs were selected to visit Indian Territory to select a new homeland. Upon seeing their choices, the chiefs expressed their dissatisfaction and requested to be allowed to return to their northern home. Although denied permission, they defiantly made the 500-mile trip back to their homeland. In spite of all their appeals, E. C. Kemble, U.S. Indian inspector, ordered the Ponca removal, which concluded on July 29, 1878. As a result of climatic difficulties, exposure, and poor nutrition, only 681 Poncas arrived in Indian Territory, having lost one-third of their number along the way.

The tribulations of the Poncas crested as the death of Chief Standing Bear's son was linked with the son's request to be buried in the Niobrara homeland. In the winter of 1879, Chief Standing Bear and sixty-six Poncas set out from Indian Territory for Nebraska. Taken into custody by General George Crook, Standing Bear and his people were able to attract public attention with the assistance of Omaha Daily Herald assistant editor Thomas Henry Tibbles, who was committed to the principle of "equality of all men before the law." With help from two prominent attorneys, Tibbles was able to assist Standing Bear in obtaining a writ of habeas corpus in the court of federal judge Elmer S. Dundy, who ruled in Standing Bear et al. v. Crook in favor of Standing Bear, in effect declaring that "an Indian is a person within the meaning of the laws of the United States." By thus invoking the protection of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution, Standing Bear's small band was able to prevent its return to Indian Territory. As a result of this decision, Standing Bear and the members of his party were released, and their legal possession of their reservation was subsequently affirmed by Judge Dundy.

Among the notables taking up the cause of the injustices imposed upon the Poncas was Helen Hunt Jackson, who attacked Secretary of the Interior Carl Schurz and his policies regarding Indian nations. In 1881 she published A Century of Dishonor, which condemned federal policy toward Native American people. In response to public pressure, a U.S. Senate commission in its report to President Rutherford B. Hayes in 1881 determined that the Poncas should be allowed to remain on their lands in Nebraska with every member who so desired receiving an allotment on the "old Dakota Reservation." Poncas who chose to remain in the north became known as Northern Ponca; so-called Southern Ponca remained in Indian Territory. Because of the allotment policy of 1887, most northern Ponca land was lost to non-Indian ownership in the decades that followed.

In yet another period of detrimental federal policy after the 1950s, in April of 1962, Senator Frank Church of Idaho introduced a bill terminating the Northern Ponca band's federal trust relationship. On September 5, 1962, Congress passed Public Law 870-629, in effect terminating the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska. Today, the Northern Poncas are engaged in an effort to restore their federal recognition as a tribe. In May 1989, the Northern Ponca Restoration Committee initiated an ongoing effort to restore federal recognition to the Northern Poncas.

In his statement to the presidential commission in January 1881, Standing Bear intended to move his audience through the organization of his thoughts and the power of his language (in translation) to share the Ponca's view of their treatment by the U.S. government. Although Standing Bear's words were translated by David Le Clair, a Ponca, in the presence of James Owen Dorsey, a well-known non-Indian ethnographer and linguist, the quality of the translation, as of other Native American texts, continues to be of some concern. Nevertheless, Standing Bear's abilities as a public speaker are evident. He begins by establishing his goodwill toward the audience—a common practice of Native American orators—and then his credibility in relation to God. Using another common device of tribal spokesmen, he traces the pertinent history of his people in the body of his statement, making appropriate references to previous speakers, speaking directly and humbly from a personal point of view with repeated rhetorical questions. His conclusion presents the issues at hand and appeals for justice and fair treatment for his people.

Standing Bear and his band were allowed to move back to their old lands and received allotments there in 1890. He often went to visit his Southern Ponca relatives in Indian Territory. He died in 1908.

R. D. Theisz
Black Hills State University

In the Heath Anthology
What I Am Going to Tell You Here Will Take Me Until Dark (1881)

Other Works
Speech to the Ponca Commission (1881)

Cultural Objects
Text fileStanding Bear's legal challenge

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Chief Luther Standing Bear, of the Oglala band of Sioux
Some historical context and an excerpt of Standing Bear's Land of the Spotted Eagle.

Luther Standing Bear
An excerpt from The Living Spirit of the Indian by Standing Bear and a brief biography.

Statewide Interactive
The history of Standing Bear's fight for Native American citizenship.

Secondary Sources

Theodore J. Balgooyen, "The Plains Indian as a Public Speaker," Landmarks in Western Oratory, ed., David H. Grover (Laramie: Graduate School and Western Speech Assn., 1968)

From the Heart: Voices of the American Indian, ed., Lee Miller (New York: Alfred E. Knopf, 1995):222-225

Elizabeth Grobsmith, The Ponca Tribe of Nebraska: History, Socio-Economic Status and Current Efforts to Obtains Restoration of Tribal Status (Omaha: Northern Ponca Restoration Committee, nd):16-26

Native American Testimony: An Anthology of Indian and White Relations: First Encounter to Dispossession, ed., Peter Nabakov (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1978):207-213

A. LaVonne Brown Ruoff, American Indian Literatures: An Introduction, Bibliographic Review, and Selected Bibliography (New York: The Modern Language Association, 1990):47-52

Thomas H. Tibbles, The Ponca Chiefs, reprint of the 1881 edition, 1972