The story of Standing Bear of the Poncas  
Authors Note

Synopsis

 

 

 

 

 

 

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“I HAVE FOUND A BETTER WAY”

by John Brennan

SYNOPSIS

In 1868 the U.S. Government made a treaty ceding the whole of Dakota Territory to the Sioux. Unwittingly, this also included the land of the Poncas, a small area to the south of the land bordered by the Niobrara River. Nothing was done about the Poncas until 1877, at the end of the Grant presidency, when the decision was made to remove them to Indian Territory. Although Congress had stipulated that the tribe would not be moved against their wishes this was ignored.

Initially a group of ten chiefs was taken down to Indian Territory to view various parcels of land. They did not like any of the land that they were shown and fell out with the Indian Agent leading the visit, Inspector Kemble. Eight of the chiefs walked back to their reservation from Arkansas City, stopping over at the Otoe and Omaha reservations to recover.

This was a journey of some three hundred miles, as the crow flies, and probably nearer five hundred miles in all. None of the chiefs were young men. While at the Omaha reservation a young Omaha woman, Bright Eyes, who had been educated in the East, helped them to send a letter to the President for help. The letter was ignored.

Despite the fact that the majority of the chiefs was not happy with the land, the government, under the new President, Rutherford B. Hayes, forced the Poncas to be removed to Indian Territory. The two old chiefs, both of mixed blood, who had returned with Kemble from the south, had been persuaded that the move to Indian territory was in their best interests and their followers made the move south voluntarily. The others were forced to make the journey with an army escort for some of the way.

During the march eight Poncas died of disease, Standing Bear’s daughter
Prairie Flower was one of these, and one, a child, was killed when a tornado struck the column.
 

When the tribe arrived in Indian territory they found it difficult to settle.

The land was not good farming land or grazing land. In the first eighteen months over one hundred and fifty Poncas died, mainly of disease. One of these was Bear Shield, Standing Bear’s son. The chief made a promise to his son, on his death bed, to take his bones back to where his grandfathers were buried. Soon after, Standing Bear left Indian Territory, with thirty of his followers, to return to the north.

After many weeks the small band arrived at the Omaha reservation, just
north of Omaha City. The Omahas gave the Poncas a plot of land and they
began tilling the land and sowing corn. Word of their escape had preceded them and the Secretary of the Interior, Carl Schurz, issued an order for their arrest. The order was passed onto the Army. General Crook,
at Fort Omaha, received the order and carried out the arrest. Standing Bear
and his people were taken to Fort Omaha. Crook listened to their story
and involved Thomas Henry Tibbles, the assistant editor of the Omaha
Herald, to see what could be done to help the Poncas. Tibbles
immediately started a campaign to raise awareness of the Poncas’ plight
and a committee, The Ponca Relief Committee, was set up to raise funds
for the cause. Two Omaha lawyers, Andrew Poppleton and John Webster,
offered their services and a writ of habeas corpus was served on General
Crook. At the subsequent trial Standing Bear and his people were
released, but were still not allowed to return to their homeland. Crook
learned that the islands in the Niobrara River were not covered by the 1868
treaty and the Poncas were helped to set up home there.

Tibbles set out to the East Coast to raise funds to help the Poncas return
to their land. He was quite successful and returned to Omaha with the
idea of another tour, this time with Standing Bear. The Ponca Relief
Committee suggested that Bright Eyes should also join the tour. She had
become heavily involved in the Ponca cause and had visited the
reservation in Indian Territory, with her father Iron Eye, an Omaha
headman. Tibbles at first was against the idea but after seeing her give a
sermon, one Sunday morning, he relented. The three of them, with Frank
La Flesche, Bright Eyes’s brother, made the tour. During the tour Tibbles
learned of his wife’s death, through peritonitis, and Standing Bear heard
that his brother, Big Snake, had been killed by soldiers at the reservation
in Indian Territory. Although deeply hurt and saddened by the news both
men decided to carry on with the tour.

Senator Hoar of Massachusetts attended one of the meetings and sent a
newspaper cutting to President Hayes describing the meeting. Hayes’s
reaction was to set up a presidential commission, under General Crook
under whom Hayes had served during the Civil War, to visit the Poncas in
both Indian Territory and at the Niobrara, to investigate the facts behind
their removal from their homeland and to observe the tribe’s present
condition. In the meantime pressure had been put on the Senate to
investigate the reasons for the tribes removal to Indian Territory.
Prominent on the Senate Committee was Senator Henry Dawes, also of
Massachusetts, a critic of Secretary Schurz’s methods towards the
Poncas. During the Senate Commission hearings there were many
acrimonious arguments between the two men. Occasionally this flowed
over into the press. Schurz never repented his decision not to return the
Poncas to the Niobrara, his judgement being that it would be difficult to
return to the status quo given the number of tribes that had been removed
to Indian Territory. In the end he won his case when the Southern Ponca
stated that they wished to stay in the south.
 

In Omaha, John Webster had continued to look for legal methods to return
the Poncas to their lands and one idea was to take the Sioux to court.
Standing Bear journeyed to see the Sioux chiefs to seek their agreement
for the land to be returned to the Poncas. Red Cloud and the other Sioux
chiefs readily agreed as they no longer wished to live on that part of the
territory. The case was taken to court and the Poncas won the right to
return to their land on the Niobrara. The Sioux tribe was fined one dollar
for unlawfully keeping the Poncas from their lands. The following year,
after the Sioux had ratified an agreement for the Poncas to be allotted a
part of the Sioux land, the Poncas, under Standing Bear, returned home.