Chief Standing Bear was a key figure in America’s civil rights history. His story – his 600 mile walk home to bury his son – helped turn the tide on US-Native American relations at the end of the 19th century. In July of 2014, US Senators Mike Johanns and Deb Fischer introduced legislation in the Senate to require the Department of the Interior to determine the feasibility of creating a Chief Standing Bear National Historic Trail.
From Joe Starita, author of I Am A Man:
“In the spring of 1877, Chief Standing Bear and his 750 Ponca were forcibly removed from their beloved Niobrara River homeland in northeast Nebraska to the sweltering plains of central Oklahoma. During their long 600-mile walk south, the Ponca endured snow, freezing rain, floods, two tornadoes, starvation and disease. Standing Bear’s eldest daughter and youngest grandson were two of the many who died on their “Trail of Tears.” In Oklahoma, unable to adapt to the heat, humidity and creek bottoms swarming with mosquitoes, more than one-third of the tribe died of malaria the first year.
Shortly before his only son died in December 1878, Standing Bear promised the boy he would return his body to their sacred burial grounds 600 miles away. So on Jan. 2, 1879, the chief wrapped the body of Bear Shield in a buffalo robe and led a small party of 30 Ponca on a winter freedom flight home. They had little money, few clothes, meager rations and it was twenty-two below zero on the road ahead. Sleeping in haystacks by night, rummaging for field corn by day, they came within two days of the homeland before the cavalry caught them and marched them to the barracks at Fort Omaha.
When the plight of a starving, middle-aged father who wanted only to bury his son hit the newspapers, a number of influential citizens began to rally around Standing Bear’s cause – including the state’s most prominent lawyer. Before long he sued the U.S. government on behalf of the chief, claiming the Army had no legal right to prevent Standing Bear from completing his journey and a federal judge soon agreed. In May 1879, Judge Elmer Dundy declared for the first time in the 103-year history of the United States that an Indian must now be considered a ‘person’ within the meaning of the law, entitled to the same Constitutional protections as ‘the more fortunate white race.’ With that landmark ruling, Standing Bear was set free and he continued his journey home, fulfilling the promise he had made his son and establishing a new precedent in U.S.-Indian relations.”