The Native American Story of Standing Bear
Boy's Book of Indian Warriors, by Edwin L. Sabin
The Story of Standing Bear
The Ponca Indians were members of the large
Siouan family. They had not always been a
separate tribe. In the old days they and the
Omahas and the Kansas and the Osages had lived
together as Omahas, near the mouth of the Osage
River in eastern Nebraska. Soon they divided,
and held their clan names of Poncas, Omahas,
Kansas and Osages. The Poncas and Omahas clung
as allies. Finally the Poncas remained by
themselves, low down on the Niobrara River in
When the captains, Lewis and Clark, met some of
them, the tribe had been cut by the small-pox to
only some two hundred people. They never have
been a big people. Their number today, about
eight hundred and fifty, is as large as ever in
They and the Omahas warred with the Sioux, but
they never warred with the white men. They have
always been friendly to the white men, except
once; and that once brings up the story of
Back in 1817 the Poncas made a treaty of
friendship with the United States; and in 1825
they made another treaty, allowing white traders
to live among them, and agreeing to let their
own bad men (if any) be punished by the United
States; and in 1859 they made another treaty,
selling their hunting grounds to the United
States, and keeping a tract on the Niobrara
River for their own homes.
None of these treaties did they break. They were
at peace with even the Sioux. They had good
farms, and were prospering.
But in 1868 the United States laid out a new
reservation for the Sioux. By a mistake this
took in the Ponca reservation in Nebraska, and
the Poncas were not told. The way they found
out, was this: The Sioux began to come in and
claim the land.
"That is not right," said the Poncas. "You do
not belong here. All this country is ours. Go
back. We do not want you."
So there was fighting, every little while, and
the Poncas lost many warriors. This continued
for nine years, until, by the raids of the
Sioux, one fourth of the Poncas had been killed
Still they had not been told by the United
States that these lands were theirs no longer;
but, suddenly, in 1877, they were told that they
must get out.
At this time they had three villages, on the
lower Niobrara River, and eight bands, each
under a chief. The chiefs were Standing Bear,
White Eagle, Big Soldier, Traveling Buffalo,
Black Crow, Over-the-land, Woodpecker, and
The United States informed the eight chiefs that
they must remove their people to the Indian
Territory, but did not say why.
Standing Bear had been born in 1829, so he was
forty-eight years old. He stood high among the
Poncas, because of his clan, the Wa-zha-zhe—a
clan that could cure rattle-snake bites and work
He strongly opposed giving up the Ponca
home-land, upon which the tribe had lived for
almost one hundred years, and which the United
States had agreed, on paper, to give them in
exchange for their hunting grounds. The other
chiefs thought the same. They could not
understand why they all should be thrown off,
when they had done nothing wrong.
But the white men paid no attention. One of
them, who was the United States Indian
Inspector, only answered:
"The President says that you must sell this
land. He will buy it and pay you money, and give
you new land in the Indian Territory."
"We do not know your authority," argued Standing
Bear. "You have no right to move us until we
have held a council with the President."
"If you like the new land, then you can see the
President and tell him so," offered the
inspector. "If you don't like it, then you can
see him and tell him so."
So Standing Bear and nine other chiefs went; but
they were dubious.
The inspector showed the three pieces of land,
and told them to choose. All the pieces were bad
pieces. It was a hot country and a bare country,
and not suited to the Poncas, who had good
corn-fields and houses in their own country of
Besides, now the white man said that they were
to have no pay for their Niobrara land. He told
the chiefs, according to Standing Bear:
"If you do not accept what land is offered you
here, I will leave you here alone. You are one
thousand miles from home. You have no money. You
cannot speak the language."
Then he slammed the door.
"But we do not like this land," explained
Standing Bear. "We could not make a living. The
water is bad. Now send us to the President, as
The man would not send them. He would not take
them home. He would not give them any of the
Indian money, for buying food. He would not give
them a paper, to show to the people along the
way. He would not give them the interpreter, to
talk for them. He would not take them to a
"He left us right here," said Standing Bear. "It
was winter. We started for home on foot. At
night we slept in hay-stacks. We barely lived
till morning, it was so cold. We had nothing but
our blankets. We took the ears of corn that had
dried in the fields; we ate it raw. The soles of
our moccasins wore out. We were barefoot in the
snow. We were nearly dead when we reached the
Oto reservation. It had been fifty days."
Their feet made bloody marks on the Oto
reservation. The Otos and the Oto agent treated
them kindly. They stayed ten days, to rest; then
the Otos gave them each a pony, and in two more
weeks they were home.
It had been a cold, hungry journey, of five
hundred miles, and their relatives and friends
were glad to see them again.
But the United States inspector was waiting for
them. He was angry. He said that the Great
Father had ordered the Poncas to change homes.
It did not seem to matter whether or not they
liked the new home. And he called for soldiers,
and all the Poncas were bundled out of their
villages and taken to the hot country of the
south. On the way women and children died.
Standing Bear's daughter died.
Just as Standing Bear and the other chiefs had
tried to explain, the new country was not a good
country for the Poncas. It was humid and hot;
their Niobrara country had been dry and bracing.
Within one year a third of them were dead from
sickness; the rest were weak and miserable. They
pined for the villages that they had built and
loved, and that they had lost without any known
After a year and a half Standing Bear's boy
died, as so many others had died; and the heart
of Standing Bear was heavy. He did not sleep, by
thinking that his son's bones must lie here in
this unfriendly country. His medicine demanded
that the boy should rest with their ancestors,
in the Ponca ground along the dear Niobrara.
Therefore, in January, 1879, he placed the bones
in a sack, and tied the sack to his neck, and
taking his people who could travel, he set out
to walk to Ponca land.
That was hard work. They made their way as best
they could, but had been over three months on it
when, in May, they arrived at the reservation of
their friends the Omahas, near the Missouri
River in northeastern Nebraska.
Chief Standing Bear asked the Omahas if they
might rest, and plant a few acres of ground, so
as to get food. The Omahas gave them seed and
ground. Standing Bear still had the bones of his
son, in the bag. When he had started a crop, he
was going on with the bones, and bury them at
the Niobrara, where the Poncas of happier years
had been buried.
Before the crop was in, soldiers appeared, and
arrested him and all his party, to take them
back to the hot country.
This much alarmed the Omahas. They had heard how
the Poncas had been moved off without warning
and without reason. Standing Bear was not being
allowed to stay; he had lost hg country forever.
The same thing might happen to the Omahas.
They had a similar treaty with the United
They thought that they owned their lands. They
had been improving them and living off them for
years. They had spent much money of the tribe,
for tools and buildings, and were becoming like
white men. The Government had issued papers to
them, showing which land each man possessed.
Now they were liable to lose their lands, as the
Poncas had lost.
The Omahas hastened to ask white lawyers about
They were told that the papers did not show that
they owned the land; the papers only showed
which lands each man had a right to farm.
The Omahas were Indians, and not white citizens,
and could not own lands, man by man. When a man
died, his land might be given to somebody else.
Now dread fastened upon the Omaha tribe. They
hastened to draw up a petition to Congress,
asking that the lands which their men owned or
thought they owned be put down on paper forever.
They wanted titles such as the white men had, so
the lands could be recorded.
Miss Alice Fletcher, from Washington, had been
sent to study the Omaha people; and they
appealed to her. She helped them. The petition
went to Washington, but the months passed
without an answer.
Meanwhile Standing Bear and his bag of bones and
his party were being taken south, by the
soldiers from Fort Crook, Omaha, to the sickly
hot country. When they camped on their way, near
Omaha, a newspaper man talked with them. His
name was Mr. T. H. Tibbles.
The story was printed in the Omaha papers, and
at once Standing Bear had many white allies.
The Omaha City people invited him to come in and
talk to them; and so he did, in a church that
was crowded with listeners. Two lawyers, Mr.
Poppleton and Mr. Webster, adopted him as a
client; and before the soldiers had started on
with him, the lawyers asked the court for a writ
of habeas corpus—a challenge to the United
States to surrender him, as a person who had
been unlawfully arrested.
The United States argued that Standing Bear was
an Indian, and that an Indian was not a
"person," under the laws of the United States;
he did not have any rights, in court.
Standing Bear had left his tribe, and was
nobody, until he returned; and even then, he
would be only an Indian.
Standing Bear's lawyers brought witnesses into
court, to state that the Standing Bear party had
traveled peacefully, like good citizens; had not
even begged along the way.
Standing Bear was told to arise and repeat his
Part of it is contained in this chapter. It was
a remarkable speech. The people in the
court-room believed it. Standing Bear's heart
warmed. He was no Indian; he was a man.
The judge decided. He said that an Indian was a
person, and had a right to the courts, and to
liberty when he had not done wrong. The Poncas
had been unjustly removed by force from their
lands, and Standing Bear's party had been
unjustly arrested. Therefore they should be
When this word was carried to Standing Bear by
his lawyers, he was so pleased that he almost
"Before this," he said, "when we have been
wronged we went to war to get back our rights
and avenge our wrongs. We took the tomahawk. We
had no law to punish those who did us wrong, and
we went out to kill. If they had guns and could
kill us first, it was the fate of war. But you
have found us a better way. You have gone into
court for us, and I find that our wrongs can be
righted there. Now I have no more use for the
tomahawk. I want to lay it down forever." So he
put it on the floor. "I lay it down. I have
found a better way. I can now seek the ways of
He gave the tomahawk to Attorney Webster, "to
keep in remembrance of the great victory."
And a great victory it was, not only for the
Poncas, but for all the Indians. Standing Bear's
trip with the bones had gained him many new
Now he traveled straight to the Niobrara, and
nobody dared to stop him.
The next winter he made a tour of the East, with
interpreters, and with Mr. Tibbles the newspaper
ally. He spoke from many platforms, telling of
the wrongs of the Indians. The newspapers
everywhere spread his talk wider. Soon letters
from white people and their societies began to
pour into Washington, for the President and for
As a result, in the spring of 1880 the Senate of
the United States sent a commission into the
West, to find out if Standing Bear's stories
were really true.
They were true. Therefore the Poncas were told
that they might go back to the Niobrara, if they
wished. Some did so. They were called the Cold
Country Band. Those who were willing to stay in
the Indian Territory were granted better lands,
and they were paid for the lands that they had
lost in the north. They were called the Hot
Each band was given titles to the lands held by
it. The Omahas, too, won out, and were given
titles. They and the Poncas secured the rights
of citizens of the United States.
As for Standing Bear, he died, well satisfied
and much honored, in 1908, aged seventy-nine,
and was buried there near the Niobrara, in
ancient Ponca country, where his ancestors
slept. He had saved his tribe.
The Story of Standing Bear
This story of Standing Bear is featured in the book
entitled Boy's Book of Indian Warriors, by Edwin
L. Sabin, Philadelphia, George W. Jacobs & Co.