Saturday, May 16, 2015

Chief Standing Bear

This morning I was pleased to help celebrate the story and legacy of one of America's earliest civil rights heroes, Chief Standing Bear. His remarkable life's journey is memorialized at the Chief Standing Bear Breakfast, sponsored by the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs, the Ponca Tribe, and others.

The United States House of Representatives has passed legislation directing the Secretary of the Interior to conduct a feasibility study for the Chief Standing Bear National Historic Trail. Chief Standing Bear holds a special place in Native American and United States history. Establishing a trail in his name would be an outstanding way to recognize his contributions to our great land. The bill was approved by the House in April and is now awaiting action in the Senate.

Chief Standing Bear was a Ponca chief who prevailed in one of the most important court cases for Native Americans in our nation’s history. In the 1800s, the Ponca tribe made its home in the Niobrara River valley in the area of northeast Nebraska. In 1877, the United States Government pressured the Poncas from their homeland, compelling them to move to Indian Territory in Oklahoma. Not wanting to subject his people to a confrontation with the government, Standing Bear obliged and led them from their homes to the reservation in Oklahoma. The journey was harsh and the new land inhospitable. Nearly a third of the tribe died from starvation, malaria, and other illnesses, including Standing Bear's daughter Prairie Flower, and later, his son Bear Shield.

Standing Bear had promised Bear Shield that he would be buried in his homeland in the Niobrara River Valley. Embarking on the trip north in the winter of 1878, Standing Bear led a group of about 65 Poncas. Upon reaching the Omaha Reservation, the U.S. Army stopped Standing Bear and arrested him for leaving the Oklahoma reservation without permission. He was taken to Fort Omaha and held there to stand trial. In the meantime, Standing Bear's plight attracted the attention of the Omaha Daily Herald, the predecessor of the Omaha World-Herald, and the story became well publicized. At the conclusion of the two-day trial, Standing Bear was allowed to speak for himself. He raised his hand and said:

"That hand is not the color of yours, but if I pierce it, I shall feel pain. If you pierce your hand, you will feel pain. The blood that will flow from mine will be the same color as yours. I am a man. God made us both."

With his profound words on that late spring day in 1879, Chief Standing Bear expressed the most American of sentiments: the belief in the inherent dignity and rights of all persons, no matter their color, no matter their ethnicity. Judge Elmer S. Dundy ruled that Native Americans are persons within the meaning of the law. Remember, this is 1879—the first time Native Americans are considered persons within the meaning of the law.

The story of the Ponca chief is a story of strength, grace, and dignity in the protection of the most basic of human rights. It is a story that needs to be told over and over again.

The establishment of the Chief Standing Bear National Historic Trail would honor both the courage of this brave individual and his great contribution to the freedom and civil liberties of this nation. Our bill is an important first step toward establishing the trail, and hopefully the Senate will take quick action.

About the Author:

JEFF FORTENBERRY has served as the U.S. Representative for Nebraska's 1st congressional district since 2005. He is the Chairperson for the Subcommittee on Department Operations, Oversight, Nutrition and Forestry. Vice Chair of the Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health and Human Rights and has a seat on the Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia.

He is a member of the following Caucus groups: Civil War Battlefield Caucus - Congressional Biofuels Caucus - Congressional Farmer Cooperative Caucus - House Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Caucus - International Conservation Caucus - Sportsmen's Caucus. Congressman Fortenberry has become the most knowledgeable representative on Capitol Hill for nuclear security issues.

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