Until 1876, the Ponca tribe kept to itself in northeastern Nebraska. Times being what they were, though, the Ponca were mistakenly included on a list to be relocated.
Needless to say, the Ponca’s nine clans were not thrilled. Their chiefs agreed to go look at this land accompanied by a federal agent, but the agent threatened them so much that the shocked chiefs decided to walk 600 miles home rather than cave in to the agent’s demands.
The next time federal agents showed up, Standing Bear, chief of the ninth clan, informed them that they hadn’t been invited and must go. The agents came back and forced the Ponca to relocate … except for Standing Bear’s people, who fled to a friendly tribe, the Omaha. Standing Bear was arrested.
Here, the story departs from its usual plot. A newspaperman and a constitutional lawyer took up the case. At the time, Indians were typically considered wards of the state, but Standing Bear sued under the 14th Amendment, which guarantees that no government can deprive a person of his life, liberty or property.
Judge Elmer Dundy heard the case and let Standing Bear speak.
“This hand is not the color of yours,” he said. “But if I pierce it, I will 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. I am a man. The same God made us both.”
Judge Dundy pored over laws and treaties for 12 days, then decided:
- Every person is entitled to liberty, and Standing Bear was a person.
- The clan had a right to separate from the tribe and live elsewhere.
- The Army had violated its own procedures in arresting the Indians, who were free to go.
Through steadfast leadership, Standing Bear had won.
— Adapted from Standing Bear Is a Person, Stephen Dando-Collins, Perseus Books.