This Day in History, May 12, 1879: Standing Bear v. Crook Grants Civil Rights to Native Americans Under U.S. Law

On this day in history, May 12, 1879, the landmark case Standing Bear v. Crook granted Native Americans civil rights under U.S. law. This case is another opportunity to learn about and lament the U.S. government’s gross violation of treaty rights and a window into historical trauma.

Standing Bear and family. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

The case was heard by Judge Elmer Dundy in the federal District Court of Nebraska.

For background., start with the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which triggered a flood of settlers to the Ponca homelands in present-day Nebraska. It increased pressure on all Native nations in the area, and increased fighting among them. In the case of the Ponca, it meant more raids against them by the Brule and Oglala.

Under duress, the Ponca ceded lands to the U.S. government in an 1858 treaty.

According to Wikipedia:

The land to which the Ponca moved proved unsuitable; poor farming conditions led to persistent famine. They were still subject to raids by hostile tribes. The Ponca spent years attempting to hunt and raise crops and horses near their old village of Húbthaⁿ and the town of Niobrara. The government failed to provide the mills, personnel, schools and protection which it had promised by the 1858 treaty. It did not keep up with the increasing Ponca tribal enrollment in distribution of annuities and goods. Relatives sought annuity payments, people lost resources to sickness, and starvation and raids from hostile tribes were frequent.

An 1865 treaty allowed the Ponca to return to a more secure and fertile area. Yet a short three years later, the U.S. government illegally gave their land away to the Santee Dakota as part of negotiations to end Red Cloud’s War. (As Judge Dundy would later write in his decision: “This was done without consultation with, or knowledge or consent on the part of, the Ponca tribe of Indians.”)

By 1877, the federal government relocated the Ponca to Indian Territory in what would become Oklahoma. Some went voluntarily, others were forced. Again, according to Wikipedia:

The Ponca arrived in Oklahoma too late to plant crops that year, and the government failed to provide them with the farming equipment it had promised as part of the deal. In 1878 they moved 150 miles … south of present-day Ponca City, Oklahoma. By spring, nearly a third of the tribe had died due to starvation, malaria and related causes. Standing Bear’s eldest son, Bear Shield, was among the dead. Standing Bear had promised to bury him in the Niobrara River valley homeland, so he left to travel north with about 30 followers.

When Standing Bear and his fellow travelers arrived, Brigadier General George Crook had them arrested for leaving their reservation. (As Judge Dundy would later write in his opinion: “No reference has been made to any other treaties or laws, under which the right to arrest and remove the Indians is claimed to exist.”)

With the help of Native American rights activists, Standing Bear and others sued for a writ of habeas corpus in 1879; the writ allows a person to report an unlawful imprisonment and ask the court to order the official detaining the person to bring the prisoner to court for a hearing on the detention.

The fundamental legal question Dundy had to answer was: Is Standing Bear a “person” who had standing in court to ask for the writ of habeas corpus?

The District Attorney prosecuting the case said “no.” According to the Judge’s summary, the District Attorney argued that only American citizens had the right to sue under a writ of habeas corpus. Native Americans did not have such a right.

Judge Dundy ultimately sided with Standing Bear and ordered him and the other Ponca freed. He concluded:

That an Indian is a ‘person’ within the meaning of the laws of the United States, and has, therefore, the right to sue out a writ of habeas corpus in a federal court, or before a federal judge, in all cases where he may be confined or in custody under color of authority of the United States …

That the Indians possess the inherent right of expatriation, as well as the more fortunate white race, and have the inalienable right to ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,’ so long as they obey the laws and do not trespass on forbidden ground. And,

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