Members of Nebraska’s congressional delegation are on the right path in pushing legislation to honor Ponca Chief Standing Bear and explore the possibility of a historic trail that would help tell his story.
Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., described the chief’s contribution to civil rights as “one of the most compelling stories in American history.”
He and Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., are sponsoring bills that would direct the interior secretary to study the feasibility of creating a national historic trail.
Many Americans are unfamiliar with this important part of our nation’s history. It began when the U.S. government decided to uproot the peaceful Ponca Tribe and force them to make a 500-mile march from Nebraska to Indian Territory in what’s now Oklahoma. Nine Ponca died during the journey, and 100-plus more died of hunger and disease in their new homeland. Among the victims was Standing Bear’s son.
A return trip to Nebraska to bury him led to Standing Bear’s arrest, followed by the 1879 trial in Omaha during which the chief movingly declared: “I am a man.” The judge’s ruling, that an American Indian “is a person within the meaning of the law, ” is a landmark in the history of U.S. civil rights.
Standing Bear was wronged all those years ago. This legislation would be an important step toward making things right.