The story of Chief Standing Bear “is a story of strength, grace and dignity,” U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry rightly told a congressional subcommittee recently. The 1st District lawmaker repeated his call for the federal government to honor the legacy of the Ponca leader by creating a national historic trail.
Lawmakers should approve Fortenberry’s request. Such a designation would recognize the general path taken in 1879 when the Ponca chief and 30 tribal members left Oklahoma, after forced relocation there, and braved brutal winter conditions to return to their ancestral lands in northeast Nebraska. Their mission: to bury Standing Bear’s 16-year-old son, Bear Shield.
Designating a trail would help Americans understand the major legal importance of the 1879 ruling by U.S. District Judge Elmer Dundy in Omaha. He declared, for the first time in American jurisprudence, that Native Americans are protected by the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection under the law. This was a groundbreaking defense of liberty under our Constitution.
Standing Bear’s famous statement before the court is a classic assertion of universal human dignity. “That hand is not the color of yours, but if I pierce it, I shall feel pain,” he told Dundy. “If you pierce your hand, you also feel pain. The blood that will flow from mine will be the same color as yours. I am a man. God made us both.”
Dundy’s ruling meant the federal government lacked legal authority to coerce the Ponca to stay in Oklahoma. Standing Bear returned to his tribe’s home area in northeast Nebraska along the Niobrara River. He died there in 1908 at about age 74.
This history surely will hold meaning for U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., chairwoman of the House subcommittee Fortenberry addressed. In 2018, Haaland and Sharice Davids of Kansas became the first two Native American women elected to Congress.
A new book from the University of Nebraska Press describes the Poncas’ history as well as the Standing Bear court case. The book, “Echo of Its Time: The History of the Federal District Court of Nebraska, 1867-1933,” is by historians John R. Wunder, professor emeritus at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and Mark R. Scherer, a professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
Beginning in 1817, the Ponca signed the first of four treaties with the U.S. government, the authors explain, but the federal government generally did little to live up to its pledge of protection. A government error in 1868 led the Lakota Sioux to assert claim to the last of the Poncas’ land. When it proved too late to correct the mistake, “Congress ordered that several tribes, including the Poncas, be removed to what was called Indian Territory in present-day Oklahoma in 1876.”
Last fall, it was encouraging when the Ponca dedicated a statue of Standing Bear on a hill overlooking the tribe’s homeland near Niobrara, Nebraska. The statue, said Larry Wright Jr., the tribal chairman, honors not only the character and leadership of Standing Bear but also “all of our people who endured injustice after injustice.”
Declaring a national historic trail would send a worthy message, underscoring Standing Bear’s enduring legacy for his people and for our country.