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“I HAVE FOUND A BETTER WAY”
by John Brennan
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
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,
north of Omaha City. The Omahas gave the Poncas a plot of land and
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.
at Fort Omaha, received the order and carried out the arrest.
and his people were taken to Fort Omaha. Crook listened to their
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’
and a committee, The Ponca Relief Committee, was set up to raise
for the cause. Two Omaha lawyers, Andrew Poppleton and John Webster,
offered their services and a writ of habeas corpus was served on
Crook. At the subsequent trial Standing Bear and his people were
released, but were still not allowed to return to their homeland.
learned that the islands in the Niobrara River were not covered by
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
to their land. He was quite successful and returned to Omaha with
idea of another tour, this time with Standing Bear. The Ponca Relief
Committee suggested that Bright Eyes should also join the tour. She
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
sermon, one Sunday morning, he relented. The three of them, with
La Flesche, Bright Eyes’s brother, made the tour. During the tour
learned of his wife’s death, through peritonitis, and Standing Bear
that his brother, Big Snake, had been killed by soldiers at the
in Indian Territory. Although deeply hurt and saddened by the news
men decided to carry on with the tour.
Senator Hoar of Massachusetts attended one of the meetings and sent
newspaper cutting to President Hayes describing the meeting. Hayes’s
reaction was to set up a presidential commission, under General
under whom Hayes had served during the Civil War, to visit the
both Indian Territory and at the Niobrara, to investigate the facts
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
Poncas to the Niobrara, his judgement being that it would be
return to the status quo given the number of tribes that had been
to Indian Territory. In the end he won his case when the Southern
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
Standing Bear journeyed to see the Sioux chiefs to seek their
for the land to be returned to the Poncas. Red Cloud and the other
chiefs readily agreed as they no longer wished to live on that part
territory. The case was taken to court and the Poncas won the right
return to their land on the Niobrara. The Sioux tribe was fined one
for unlawfully keeping the Poncas from their lands. The following
after the Sioux had ratified an agreement for the Poncas to be
part of the Sioux land, the Poncas, under Standing Bear, returned