Chief Standing Bear of the Ponca tribe was the central figure of an 1879 court case that established that Native Americans are "persons" under the law and are entitled to the same rights as anyone else in the nation.
Standing Bear was born around 1829 along the Niobrara River in present-day northeast Nebraska. His name in the Omaha-Ponca language was Maⁿchú-Naⁿzhíⁿ or Macunajin.
The Ponca had settled along the Niobrara shortly before Columbus's arrival in the Americas, driven from their earlier eastern homelands by the Iroquois. By the time Standing Bear was an adult, Lakota Sioux attacks had cut off the Ponca's buffalo hunting grounds, and settlers were building on their former corn fields.
The tribe moved twice in search of new land but had no success. Finally, in 1877 the U.S. Government forced their relocation; by 1878, when they reached their destination in Oklahoma's Indian Territory, starvation and disease had claimed almost a third of the tribe. Among the dead was Bear Shield, the first son of Standing Bear and his wife, Zazette (Susette) Primeau (Primoux). Standing Bear's desire to honor his son's wish that he be buried in his Nebraska birthplace led to the trial for which he is best remembered today.
Standing Bear and several dozen followers headed north in January 1879, bearing his son's bones. Indians could not legally leave their reservations without government permission, so Brigadier General George Crook, head of the military district, was ordered to arrest them. Rather than return them to the Indian Territory, however, he had them confined at Fort Omaha to recover from their journey. Crook also saw an opportunity to make the Poncas’ story heard so that they might seek legal relief.
At Crook's encouragement, Omaha Daily Herald editor Thomas Henry Tibbles published a widely read interview with Standing Bear. Defense attorneys took up the Poncas’ case pro bono and challenged the detention in Omaha's U.S. District Court. The government responded that Standing Bear had no right to sue because an Indian was not a "person" under the meaning of the law.
The case of United States ex rel. Standing Bear v. Crook (who was named as defendant because he nominally held the Poncas captive) was tried on May 1 and 2, 1879, before Judge Elmer Dundy. In the afternoon of the second day, the chief spoke through interpreter Susette (Bright Eyes) La Flesche, daughter of Omaha Chief Iron Eye. Standing Bear's statement included an evocation of common humanity: "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."1 On May 12, Judge Dundy issued his ruling, which included the finding that "an Indian is a PERSON." He also ordered the Poncas' release from custody. They returned to their home along the Niobrara River, and Bear Shield's remains were buried in his tribe’s traditional land.
From October 1879 to 1883, Standing Bear, La Flesche, and others went on a speaking tour of the eastern United States, recounting the trial and describing Indian life. In an 1887 tour of England and Scotland, the chief traveled with La Flesche and Tibbles, who had wed in 1881.
Standing Bear spent the last years of his life near other members of his tribe on their land along the Niobrara. In 1908 he died and was buried near his ancestors on a hill that overlooks his birthplace.
The over-nine-foot statue shows Standing Bear as he might have looked at his trial. An eagle feather adorns his head, signifying that he is a warrior, and his gaze is level and direct. His necklace of bear claws represents the strength and healing power of that sacred animal, and his right arm is outstretched as he asserts that his hand and the judge's hold blood of the same color.
Below his necklace hang two circular medals; such "Indian Peace Medals" or "Presidential Medals" were presented to tribal leaders by the United States Government on ceremonial occasions. In his left hand he holds a pipe tomahawk; sometimes called peace pipes, these were used in trade or presented as diplomatic gifts. His right moccasin projects forward over the edge of the statue's self-base, and his left is mostly obscured by the drape of his long blanket.
The low, wide pedestal is made of black granite attached to a steel frame. The inscription on the front reads:
CHIEF STANDING BEAR
The sides of the pedestal are inscribed with words from Standing Bear's court statement.
Sculptor Benjamin Victor (1979– ), who works in Idaho, is also represented in the National Statuary Hall Collection by the bronze statues of Sarah Winnemucca, donated by the State of Nevada in 2005, and Dr. Norman Borlaug, donated by the State of Iowa in 2014.
1 This version of his statement is from Thomas Henry Tibbles's 1905 account of the trial and was selected by members of the state statue committee—most important, the Ponca members.