Washington, D.C. – Congressman Jeff Fortenberry testified before the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation in support of designating the Chief Standing Bear National Historic Trail. Fortenberry introduced legislation (H.R. 5806) earlier this month to amend the National Trails System Act to direct the Secretary of the Interior to conduct a study on the feasibility of designating this trail.
Fortenberry gave the following testimony before the subcommittee:
I appreciate having this opportunity to express my strong support for H.R. 5086 and urge prompt approval of this important measure.
Mr. Chairman, I would like to give you some background on Chief Standing Bear. He holds a very special place in Native American as well as in United States history as one of our nation’s first civil rights leaders. Establishing a trail in his name would also be an outstanding way to recognize the contributions that he made to our country. He prevailed in one of the most important court cases for Native Americans in our nation’s history.
Chief Standing Bear was a Ponca chief. In the 1800s, the Ponca tribe made its home in the Niobrara River valley in the area of northeast Nebraska. In 1877, the United States Government pressured the Poncas from their homeland, compelling them to move to Indian Territory in Oklahoma. Not wanting to subject his people to any type of confrontation with the government, Standing Bear obliged and led them from their homes to the reservation in Oklahoma. Mr. Chairman, the journey was harsh and the new land inhospitable. Nearly a third of the tribe died from starvation, malaria, and other illnesses, including Standing Bear’s little daughter named Prairie Flower, and later, his son Bear Shield also died.
It’s interesting to note, Mr. Chairman, that Prairie Flower is buried in a place near Neligh, Nebraska. Fresh flowers still appear on her grave regularly as the community there keeps vigil out of respect for her memory. And before his son Bear Shield died, Standing Bear promised Bear Shield that he would bury him in their native homeland in the Niobrara River Valley. Embarking on that trip north in the winter of 1878, Standing Bear led a group of about 65 Poncas. Upon reaching the Omaha Reservation, north of present day Omaha, Nebraska the United States Army stopped Standing Bear and arrested him for leaving the Oklahoma reservation without permission. He was taken to Fort Omaha and held there to stand trial.
In the meantime, Standing Bear’s plight attracted the attention of the Omaha Daily Herald, which is the predecessor of the current city’s newspaper the Omaha World-Herald, and this story became well publicized. At the conclusion of the two-day trial, Standing Bear was allowed to speak for himself. Mr. Chairman, Standing Bear raised his hand and had this to say: “That hand is not the color of yours, but if I pierce it, I will feel pain. If you pierce your hand, you will feel pain. The blood that will flow from mine will be the same color as yours. I am a man. God made us both.”
With these words on that late spring day in 1879, Chief Standing Bear, I believe, expressed the most profound of American sentiments: the belief in the inherent dignity and rights of all persons, no matter their ethnicity, no matter their color. Judge Elmer Dundy ruled that Native Americans are persons within the meaning of the law. Remember, this is 1879. And this is the first court ruling that Native Americans are persons within the meaning of the law. After the trial, Chief Standing Bear spent the next four years in the Eastern United States promoting Native American rights and seeking the return of his Niobrara homeland to the Ponca people.
Mr. Chairman, I believe that the story of the great Ponca chief is one of strength, grace, and dignity in the most basic protection of human rights. It is a story that I think needs to be told and told and retold, and cherished by all Americans of coming generations. That is why I am so supportive of the establishment of the Chief Standing Bear National Historic Trail that would both honor his courage and his great contribution to the freedom and civil liberties of this nation. I believe this bill is an important first step toward establishing the trail and I look forward to working with the committee, Mr. Chairman, and the National Park Service as well to make it a reality.
Fortenberry is a member of the House Appropriations Committee.