To be sure, there was a good reason for the Poncas to cut the deal they did with the strange emissary who showed up one day from Washington. He’d come to let them know that “the Great Father” wanted the Poncas to move from their homeland on the Missouri River, to Indian Country, what would become Oklahoma, to a place where, he claimed, they’d be safe from raids by larger and more warlike neighbors.
That argument was, for the Ponca, not total garbage. The Poncas were warriors, but they were few in number when compared to the Brule Sioux. What’s more, their culture was not as nomadic. They’d put down roots on the Niobrara River, literally and figuratively, planted crops long before white men determined agriculture was what they wanted all Native people to do.
The Poncas had no desire to leave home, but escaping suffering was nothing to sneeze at, so they cut a deal. It was January, 1872. Supplies were scarce, as was food, so they told this stranger that they’d agree to his demands if, first, ten Ponca chiefs could go south to see if it was a place they could abide.
If it was a good land, they might agree, but only if they could visit Washington themselves to talk to the Great Father about a move they didn’t want to make.
What those 10 chiefs found in Indian Territory was ground impossible to farm, and residents who seemed to live without hope. “We did not wish to sink as low as they seemed to be,” Standing Bear, one of the ten chiefs, said. We’re not moving.
That’s when they were told they had no choice.
In a hotel room in a border town in Kansas, Standing Bear decided they were leaving Indian Territory, bound for home, directionless. “Let us go anyway,” he told the others. That night, eight chiefs left the two others, both sick, and walked on railroad tracks north, confident of somehow finding their way back to the Niobrara, two entire states away.
Eighteen days later they reached the Nebraska border, feet so bloody they left footprints on the floor of the Otoe tribal agent. Their suffering had been immense. It was late March before they reached the Omahas, their relatives and friends.
On March 30, 1872, Chief Standing Bear stood in the offices of the Sioux City Daily Journal and handed the editor a letter recounting their suffering and their unjust fate. The editor published that long letter the next day and told his readers that the Ponca’s story demanded attention from “any persons in this country who believe that every human being, however humble, is entitled to the same justice claimed for themselves.”
Other neighbors wrote letters directly to the President, protesting the Ponca’s treatment and the demand that they remove themselves from their traditional home and move to Indian Territory, a place that looked nothing like the earth where their ancestors lay. That letter recounted the Poncas’s painful, 500-mile journey across rivers and streams in March. We “have been thirty days getting back as far as the Omahas, hungry, tired, shoeless, footsore, and sad at heart. Please answer at once, for we are in trouble,” their letter to the President said.
The answer they received was waiting for them when they returned to the Niobrara. That man had asked his Washington superiors himself. “Removal of the Poncas will be insisted upon,” he was told.
Soon, painfully, those eight chiefs and 500 Ponca were told in no uncertain terms that the question of whether they would live in Indian Territory had been determined. All of them, young and old, every Ponca in the villages along the Niobrara River—they all had to leave for Indian Territory. Those chiefs had already suffered their own “trail of tears,” but there would be yet another, this one much worse, much harder, much bigger, and far more heart-rending.
Forget every cavalry vs. Indian show you ever saw—get it out of your consciousness. The Ponca story is not like them.
There’d never, ever been a hostile problem with the Poncas. They’d signed a treaty sixty years before, so when the mounted cavalry from Ft. Randall came riding into the Ponca villages, no Ponca had ever seen the army before. Can you imagine?
The wailing that whole night was robust. No one wanted to leave. The next morning, in come these fighting men with guns and swords.
When a lawyer from nearby Niobrara came by and confronted the official, told him taking the Poncas away was a miscarriage of justice, he was told Washington’s plans were written in stone. “The dignity of the government demands that it should go ahead.” What he meant was it would look bad now for the government to back down.
So 500 Poncas, warned there’d be no food if they refused to go, spent a night crying so loud their white neighbors heard the wailing. Then, scared and hungry, they packed up their earthly belongings on wagons, and, readied themselves. Standing Bear stood firm: “This land is ours,” he said. “It belongs to us. You have no right to take it.”
About that, Standing Bear was wrong. Washington could do what it wanted, because in the United States of America of 1877, Native Americans weren’t Americans at all. They weren’t people. They weren’t even human beings.
On May 19, after unending rain, the column of Poncas crossed the rain-swollen Niobrara and headed south, their military escort with them.
Abundant tears fell on this horrific trek. Already on the second day, beset by relentless rain and cold, a child died and was buried the next day in the village of Creighton, then marched 25 miles to Neligh, where, once again, a child, stricken with pneumonia died. A carpenter in town fashioned a casket and a cross was set down on the grave, where the father of the little girl made the townspeople promise they would care for the grave. “I may never see it again,” he told them. “Care for it for me.”
All these years later the grave of a little girl named White Buffalo Girl, is still blanketed with fresh flowers, the only decorated burial spot in the entire Laurel Hill Cemetery. Two children were lost in five days.
The rains continued. The cold held them icily in its unforgiving hand. No doctors accompanied them. No medicine was to be found.
On June 6, after burying yet another child, Prairie Flower, a storm arose, “such as I never before experienced,” the agent wrote in his journal. It was a tornado. “Some of the people were taken up by the wind and cararied a smuch as three hundred yards without touching the ground,” he wrote. Amid the crying and lament, he said, “I earnestly hope to be spared any similar experience in the future.”
By the time they reached Indian Territory, the Ponca people had crossed two states, some aboard wagons, many of them walking. Nine people had died. They’d reached their destination, a place achingly far from home, unlike anything they’d ever experienced, pushed on to land already owned by another tribe, who weren’t even told about the Poncas. Heat and humidity was sweltering.
The grand plan of the United States of America was to place all the Native people in a region where they would be together, as if all tribes held carbon copy cultures. The list goes on and on: Otoe, Missouri, Wichita, Pawnee, Kaw, Osage, Cheyenne, Apache, and more, all pushed together in a region General William Sherman once claimed to be “a parcel of land set aside for Indians, surrounded by thieves.”
They were in the way of progress, America’s Manifest Destiny.
“Warm County,” the Poncas called it--Indian Territory, what would become Oklahoma—didn’t sit well for the Poncas, didn’t feel at all like home, and offered no rest for the weary, just another hard-core stretch of hunger and sickness. Weary and hungry when they arrived, they stayed weary and hungry for months.
The government promised wagons, but didn’t distribute them, afraid the Poncas would sneak back home. The government provided plows, but no oxen; the Poncas’ horses were skin and bones. The people were living—just barely--in canvas tents, distanced from each other by an agent who thought keeping them apart would keep them from plotting some dark-of-night escape. Salty water all around pushed them to vomit. A year after their arrival, they’d all lost faith in the government and abandoned hope.
“I stayed till 158 of my people had died,” Standing Bear explained later. “Then I ran away with thirty of my people—men and women and children. Some of the children were orphans.”
Mid-afternoon, January 2, 1879, thirty Poncas and three wagons, left amid mid-afternoon, sub-zero temperatures that continued to fall every hour.
Standing Bear had lost his first-born, Bear Shield, a young man, his third child to die since they’d been marched away from their homes and their land. Before he died, Bear Shield begged his father to bring his bones to the land of his grandfathers, on the Niobrara. “I promised him I would,” he told people. “I could not refuse the dying request of my boy.” A trunk in one of those wagons that January afternoon held the remains of his son.
The agent in Warm Country stayed holed up in the January cold while those thirty Poncas began the long trek home. Six days passed before he knew they were gone. Six days.
The landscape from eastern Oklahoma through Kansas and Nebraska alters only slightly. Here and there, cottonwoods rise from the valleys of occasional rivers across the Poncas’ path, offering the only sustaining shelter from icy winds. What money they’d taken with them and the commodities they’d packed, were quickly exhausted, forcing them to beg to stay alive. You may be surprised to learn that white homesteaders, most as poor as Standing Bear’s people, only rarely didn’t or wouldn’t feed them and find them shelter.
On March 4, 62 days after they’d left Indian Territory, Susette LeFlesch, “Bright Eyes,” and her Omaha friends were told that the Poncas had arrived out west of the Omahas, where they were camped, regaining strength.
The Omaha and the Poncas were cousins. Between them there was blood and a storehouse of good will. Planting season was about to begin, so the Omaha offered their relatives open land to grow crops, just as the they had once done beside the Niobrara.
But thousands of miles away, Washington would not tolerate the humiliation the Poncas had slapped on their great authority by defying its demands. Administering the law, bringing them back, once more, to Indian Country, fell to Brigadier General George Crook, the premiere Indian fighter. Crook’s power had distinguished him in the Civil War, as well as Indian wars all over the west. At that moment, General Crook’s residence was at Fort Omaha, where you can still visit his house today.
General Crook had always been his own man, sometimes off for days all by himself while his troops were on whatever mission he’d appointed. But he’d established a military record like none other, and Washington never doubted his allegiance or his valor.
As commanded, Gen. Crook and his troops traveled up from Fort Omaha to the Ponca encampment, west of the Omaha Reservation, and demanded Standing Bear’s people return, with him and his troops, to the fort until ready to move, once again, back to Warm Country.
Standing Bear and his people were physically worn and emotionally beaten by their long, mid-winter pilgrimage. The future looked bleak as the late winter countryside.
No one—not Crook, not Standing Bear, not the Omahas, not the settlers still moving into eastern Nebraska—no one would have or could have even begun to guess what would happen next.
It’s near to nine, the evening of May 2, 1879. The courtroom is standing room only. It’s the second day of a trial that pits a weary band of indigenous people against a massive law-and-order government.
The Omaha courtroom features the famous Indian fighter, Brigadier General George Crook, who often took to the military field in buckskin, civilian togs. But today he's donned his full-dress uniform. Just three years earlier the nation’s celebrations at its own big centennial commemoration were muted by bloodletting at Little Big Horn.
Another man in that room captures even more attention than the famous general. An eagle feather dangles from his braided hair. His shirt is bright blue. He wears blue leggings and deerskin moccasins, and a red and blue blanket is flung over his shoulders. His huge bear-claw necklace hangs around a brass medallion featuring Thomas Jefferson. He could have worn white man’s clothing, but Standing Bear wore his own full-dress uniform.
Native people were rarely in courtrooms back then. They were Indians—they had no rights. Their being in that courtroom was unheard of, but dozens of spectators had been reading local papers and knew the back story. They wanted to bear witness.
Rather than rounding up the Ponca and herding them like longhorns back to Warm Country, General Crook had plotted something unforeseen. In a secret meeting, he’d urged a local attorney to obtain a writ of habeas corpus in defense of the Poncas, a move that could bring Standing Bear and his people into court for the very first time. Crook’s mind and soul had determined there simply had to be a better way than more bloody war.
It’s late—after nine. Lengthy speeches have stretched the proceedings; the case has stimulated passions: should the Ponca be allowed to return to the Niobrara, their homeland, or should the government send them back once more again to the place where all of the nation’s indigenous would, supposedly, eventually live? Is Standing Bear free, or are his people free?
Standing Bear raised his hand, looked at it before speaking, and then, translated by Susette LaFlesche of the Omaha people, spoke in the his Ponca language.
“That hand is not the color of yours,” he said to the judge in a voice deeply pitched, “but if I pierce it, I shall feel pain. If you pierce your hand, you also feel pain. That blood that will flow from mine will be of the same color as yours,” he said, “I am a man. The same God made us both.”
He described a dream. He and his wife and child climbed a bluff that overlooked the swift running water of the Niobrara River and the graves of his fathers. Only one man stood between him and his homeland in that dream. He faced the judge, pointed. “You are that man,” he said.
The silence lay deep all around. Someone in the audience began to clap, then cheer. Soon, many joined in.
Brigadier General George Crook, the Department of the Platte, commander at Fort Omaha, stood in his fine dress uniform, walked across the courtroom floor to Standing Bear, and shook his hand.
Ten days later, the judge offered his ruling. Never before had he adjudicated a case marked by such extremes, he said: a people “weak and unlettered, and generally despised” pitted against the government of “one of the most powerful, most enlightened, and most christianized nations of modern times.”
That whole decision appeared in the Omaha Daily Herald, then in the Chicago Tribune, and the New York Daily Tribune. “Out in Omaha at least,” the New York paper said, “the idea has come to the surface at last, that an Indian is a man with human rights.”
Standing Bear and his people, carrying with them the remains of his son, were free to go, free to return to the land of his people, free to be human, wholly and blessedly free.
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