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Standing Bear v. Crook – One of the first Civil Rights cases

In honor of Native American Heritage Month, here is a story about Chief Standing Bear, the man who persuaded a federal judge to recognize Native Americans as persons with the right to sue for their freedom.

In 1877, the peaceful Ponca Tribe was forced off of their land in Nebraska along the Niobrara River by a federal treaty.  The tribe marched over 400 miles to a reservation in Oklahoma.  One third of the tribe died on their march.  Two of the people that died were Chief Standing Bear’s children.  His daughter Prairie Flower died during the march, and his son Bear Shield died when they arrived in Oklahoma.  On his death bed, Bear Shield asked his dad if he would bury him in their homeland.  Standing Bear agreed and got some men together to march through the winter snow back to Nebraska to bury Bear Shield.

On his way back to Nebraska, Chief Standing Bear was arrested by General Crook.  General Crook was given orders to arrest Standing Bear, but he felt empathy for the Native Americans and did not think it was right to arrest him.  General Crook contacted a reporter for the Daily Herald.  Chief Standing Bear’s story was published and it gained the attention of two lawyers.  These lawyers took on the case for free and filed a habeas corpus against the General.  The government argued that Standing Bear could not file a habeas corpus because Indians were not legally considered a person.

Judge Elmer Dundy was assigned the case.  In the court, Judge Dundy stated, “During the fifteen years in which I have been engaged in administering the laws of my country, I have never been called upon to hear or decide a case that appealed so strongly to my sympathy as the one now under consideration.”  He let Standing Bear speak at the end of the hearing off the record, and what Standing Bear said was so moving that it persuaded the Judge to recognize Native Americans as persons with the right to sue for their freedom.  Chief Standing Bear was set free and was returned to his tribal home.  There he remained a champion to all Native Americans until his death in 1908.  Chief Standing Bear is still honored today, along with the words he spoke in Nebraska at the District Court in Omaha.

To hear the moving words spoken by Chief Standing Bear and more on his story, watch the new “Moments of History” video, where Brigitte Lyles tells a more detailed story of Chief Standing Bear, along with are interviews with U.S. Judge Joseph F. Bataillon, journalist Joe Starita whose book brought awareness to the public about the case, and former law clerk Mary Kathryn Nagle who wrote a play about the case.

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