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Chief Standing Bear: A Hero of Native American Civil Rights

The remarkable story of Chief Standing Bear, who in 1879 persuaded a federal judge to recognize Native Americans as persons with the right to sue for their freedom, established him as one of the nation’s earliest civil rights heroes.

A new Moments in History video, in recognition of Native American Heritage Month, recounts how Standing Bear and his Ponca Tribe were banished from their tribal lands in Nebraska to reservation land in Oklahoma. After the move killed about a third of the tribe, including two of Standing Bear’s children, he and a small band of Poncas returned to Nebraska in defiance of a federal order.

After Standing Bear was detained in Omaha, allies filed a habeas corpus suit demanding that he be released. Government prosecutors responded that under federal law, Native Americans were not considered “persons” and therefore were not eligible to seek a writ of habeas corpus. Standing Bear’s eloquence in a federal courtroom helped convince a judge to grant his freedom.

The video includes interviews with U.S. Judge Joseph F. Bataillon, of the District of Nebraska; Joe Starita, a journalist-author whose book “I Am a Man” renewed public awareness of the case; and Mary Kathryn Nagle, a former law clerk in the District of Nebraska who wrote a play dramatizing the case.

Native American Heritage Month is observed every November. A U.S. Courts web page includes additional details, resources, and activities related to the case. The page is part of a larger U.S. Courts section on Heritage Day educational activities.

Related Topics: Judicial History