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Native American Heritage Month

Native American Heritage Month is observed in November to call attention to the culture, traditions, and achievements of the nation’s original inhabitants and of their descendants.

The official designation of November as National Native American Heritage Month was signed into law in 1990. The celebration is sometimes referred to as American Indian Heritage Month.

Standing Bear v. Crook (1879)

In the 1870s and ’80s, Chief Standing Bear’s declaration of his humanity in a powerful courtroom speech established him as one of the nation’s earliest civil rights heroes who is starting to gain visibility in the 21st Century.

Significance

Standing Bear v. Crook was a landmark Native American civil rights case decided in 1879. The decision in the case was the first time a Native American was recognized – not as a ward of the government – but as a person under the law who has inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Standing Bear’s journey for justice took an unexpected turn at the close of his trial in a Nebraska federal court. After the legal proceeding ended, he claimed his humanity, saying: “I am a man.” His bravery and brief, but eloquent speech established him in the constellation of early civil rights heroes and allies.  Standing Bear is believed to be the first Native American to speak in open court. As for his government foes, he defeated them in the same courtroom in what is now known as the U.S. District Court for the District of Nebraska.

Background

Chief Standing Bear

A sculpture of Chief Standing Bear occupies a place of honor in the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall.

Standing Bear (c. 1829 -1908) was a chief of the Ponca tribe that lived on the land between the Missouri and Niobrara rivers, now northern Nebraska and South Dakota.

In February 1877, Standing Bear and nine other chiefs were taken by government agents to see the land where they would be relocated in what was called Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma). Upon seeing the desolate, stony country, Standing Bear and the other chiefs refused to move there. On May 19, 1877, the Poncas who remained in Nebraska were forcibly removed from their land by the federal government. By the time the Poncas were relocated on July 9, 1877 nine people had died, including Standing Bear’s daughter Prairie Flower.

In this new location, starvation and malaria killed one-third of the Ponca community, including Standing Bear’s son Bear Shield. The teen’s last wish was to be buried in his Nebraska homeland with his ancestors so that he wouldn’t be alone in the afterlife. In January 1879, to honor his son’s request, Standing Bear and 25 others walked to Nebraska for two bitterly cold months when, at times, temperatures registered 26-degrees below zero, Fahrenheit.

Their journey ended abruptly when they stopped to visit relatives in the Omaha tribe and were arrested. General George Crook arrested Standing Bear and the other Ponca members because they had left their designated land without government permission. Crook is said to have disagreed privately with the government’s policies toward Native Americans and thought the Poncas had been treated unfairly. 

During his detainment, Standing Bear was interviewed by an Omaha newspaper journalist Thomas Tibble who wrote an article alerting the public to the mistreatment of the Poncas. Advocates, including lawyers, Native American activists, and some say Crook, came to the aid of Standing Bear and the Poncas. Standing Bear’s lawyers filed a writ of habeas corpus on April 8, 1879 asking that their client be released and allowed to return to his homeland in Nebraska.

After a two-day trial, when the proceedings concluded, the judge honored Standing Bear’s request to speak. The chief held out his hand and, through translator Suzette La Flesche, said: “My hand is not the color of yours, but if I pierce it, I shall feel pain. If you pierce your hand, you also feel pain. The blood that will flow from mine will be the same color as yours. The same god made us both. I am a man.” 

Federal Judge Elmer Dundy agreed, ruling for the first time in U.S. history that an American Indian is a person.

Decision

Chief Standing Bear family after the trial

Chief Standing Bear with his family after the trial.

Dundy’s ruling recognized that a Native American is a person under the law and the federal government had no right to hold the Poncas. The judge ordered Crook to free Standing Bear and his people, who resumed their mission to bury Bear Shield with his ancestors near the Niobrara River.

While the decision did not apply to all Indians, and the judge did not address the issue of citizenship, Standing Bear v. Crook was a turning point in Native American civil rights history. However, it would not be until 1924 that Congress adopted the Citizenship Act conferring citizenship on all Indians.

Not the End of the Story

After the trial, La Flesche, who became known as Bright Eyes, joined Standing Bear, Tribble, and her brother on a speaking tour through the eastern United States to educate the public about Indian civil rights. Bright Eyes became a published writer and prominent advocate for Indian causes. She and journalist Tibble later married. 

Today, a sculpture of Chief Standing Bear occupies a place of honor in the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall. The nine-foot-plus statue of Standing Bear depicts him extending his hand as he did in his famous courtroom speech. Standing Bear died in 1908, and 90 years later a bridge across the Missouri River was named for him. The Chief Standing Bear Memorial Bridge links the communities of Niobrara, Nebraska and Running Water, South Dakota. National American Indian Heritage Month celebrates heroes like Standing Bear and all people of American Indian descent and their accomplishments.