Native History: Court Rules an Indian Is a Man With Rights

05.14.14

G. M. Lambertson, attorney for the U.S. government, said, “Standing Bear is not entitled to protection of the writ of habeus corpus, not being a person or citizen under the law.”

Indian Commissioner E.A. Hyatt’s position was as wards of the government, Indians did not have the same rights as citizens but as children, could not sign contracts, and were dependent on the government.

The two attorneys, who provided their service to Standing Bear for free, proved the Poncas had been completely self-sufficient and that under the 14th Amendment, were entitled to be treated like all other people.

Four white men decided the fate of Standing Bear and the Poncas who had left Indian Territory to return to their home in Nebraska. Thomas Tibbles was a newspaper editor who had fought in the Civil War to end slavery and was committed to fighting for Native Americans, as well.

Judge Elmer S. Dundy said his decision could not be appealed, and ruled that an Indian is a person under constitutional law and has the right of habeus corpus in a federal court; that no law existed that forced the removal of the Ponca to Indian Territory; that the Poncas had as much right to leave their tribe as any other immigrant; that they were entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, as long as they obeyed the laws; and finally, that custody of the Poncas by the United States was in violation of the law, and they were to be discharged.

One of the deciding factors in the case was that Standing Bear had begun to live as a white man. His record of attending church, sending his children to school, and farming played a part in his winning the trial but made him a traitor to some. However, as the first civil rights case for Natives and the court’s decision that Standing Bear was a man, he was very important, Teboe said.

Indian Reform followed as Tibbles and Standing Bear toured major cities to speak out against the abuses in Indian Territory. Massachusetts Senator Henry Dawes heard Standing Bear’s passionate speech of land loss, government dependency, and the lack of rations, and he was moved to develop the 1887 Allotment, or, Dawes Act.

This article was posted by Indian Country Today Media Network on May 12, 2014.