Standing Bear, the Ponca chief whose quest to bury his only son ended in a landmark court case, and Native American physician Susan La Flesche Picotte stand as monuments to civil rights and were Nebraskans who deserve the same kind of national acclaim as better known figures in history.
So says Joe Starita, author of “I Am a Man: Chief Standing Bear’s Journey for Justice,” published in 2010, and “A Warrior of the People: How Susan La Flesche Overcame Racial and Gender Inequality to Become America’s First Indian Doctor,” which made its debut last November.
Starita is a professor at the University of Nebraska College of Journalism and Mass Communications in Lincoln and a former investigative reporter with The Miami Herald, where he was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
For him, writing about Chief Standing Bear and La Flesche Picotte meshed with interests that began as a child. “I have always been interested in native history from Day One,” he said. “Who knows how that happens? You get exposed to one thing as a youngster. The native imprint in Nebraska was a very large one, and it was something that started clicking at a very early age and never stopped.”
He became intrigued with Standing Bear’s story 15 years ago over lunch with his friend Judi gaiashkibos, executive director of the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs. “She’s Ponca, and during the course of the lunch, she started talking about a project she was involved in that included Chief Standing Bear. It’s a name I had heard but I knew nothing about the narrative arc of the story.”
Over the course of the three-hour lunch, Starita learned about the Ponca chief, whose tribe had been relocated by the federal government from along the Niobrara River to “Indian Territory,” now Oklahoma. When Standing Bear’s only son requested on his deathbed that his body be returned to their homeland for burial, the chief complied. On Jan. 2, 1879, with a major blizzard coming in from Canada, Standing Bear dressed his son in his best clothes, wrapped him in a buffalo robe and walked 550 miles with no food, no money and no winter clothing. Along the way, he tunneled into haystacks to keep from freezing to death and rummaged for field corn, which he boiled for sustenance.
At the end of his journey, Gen. George Crook apprehended Standing Bear and held him at Fort Omaha to await removal back to Indian Territory. Crook was sympathetic to the Ponca chief’s plight and delayed the process. Assisted by a newspaperman and an attorney willing to take his case pro bono, Standing Bear filed a writ of habeas corpus. That May a judge ruled in a federal courtroom on the corner of 15th and Dodge Streets in Omaha that a Native American had to be regarded as a person within the meaning of the law.
It was a major civil-rights win.
“ ‘Enthralled’ is a very understated adjective. I was absolutely obsessed with the majesty of this narrative arc. This wasn’t something out of the Bible. It wasn’t something out of Shakespeare. This was something that happened in the state that I lived in, and I really didn’t know the details of it,” Starita said.
“Standing Bear reflects and evinces every single character trait that we as Americans hold dear. His story is the story of courage, honor, integrity, perseverance, belief in a powerful god, the belief in the righteousness and justice of people. You cannot separate anything that we as an American culture value in an individual and not find it in Standing Bear.”
He felt the same way about Susan La Flesche Picotte. Born on the Omaha Indian reservation in eastern Nebraska in 1865, she faced major gender and racial biases. Nevertheless, she graduated first from an East coast medical school (one of the few at the time to admit women) and became a physician. She returned to the Omaha reservation and cared for both her people and the wider community, treating more than 1,000 patients with illnesses such as tuberculosis, cholera and influenza. She also taught hygiene practices and strongly advocated for temperance, keenly aware of the increasing devastation alcoholism was having on the native population.
“No matter how many dis- eases, no matter how many land grabs, no matter how much racial prejudice, no matter how much gender bias, none of those could stamp out Susan’s spirit. She was going to become a doctor, and it didn’t matter what 19th-century America thought of Indians and what the white male-dominated society thought about women,” Starita said.
“Imagine the spirit that must have been burning inside of her for her people. I think that’s just one of the really powerful things about her. At a time when the federal government was hellbent on re-shaping the identity of native people, along comes this petite 24-year-old woman from an obscure corner of the Great Plains who found a way to triumph in the white world without ever losing her native soul. Along the way, she created a role model where none existed before: the model of this hard-working, dedicated, courageous, 19th-century Indian woman.”
For Starita, both figures are significant for understanding not just Native American and Nebraska history, but American history as a whole.
“These are powerful stories of who we are as a people, and some of the heroic things that they have done have far too often played out under the radar,” Starita said. “Our values as Americans are illuminated and illustrated by the lives that Standing Bear and Susan La Flesche lived.”