FIFTEEN

Standing Bear Becomes a Person

1879January 11, British-Zulu war begins in South Africa. February 17, in St. Petersburg, Russia, nihilists attempt to assassinate Czar Alexander. October 21, Edison exhibits his first incandescent lamp. Henry George’s Progress and Poverty is published. First stage production of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House.

You have driven me from the East to this place, and I have been here two thousand years or more. … My friends, if you took me away from this land it would be very hard for me. I wish to die in this land. I wish to be an old man here. … I have not wished to give even a part of it to the Great Father. Though he were to give me a million dollars I would not give him this land. … When people want to slaughter cattle they drive them along until they get them to a corral, and then they slaughter them. So it was with us. … My children have been exterminated; my brother has been killed.

—STANDING BEAR OF THE PONCAS

The soldiers came to the borders of the village and forced us across the Niobrara to the other side, just as one would drive a herd of ponies; and the soldiers pushed us on until we came to the Platte River. They drove us on in advance just as if we were a herd of ponies, and I said, “If I have to go, I’ll go to that land. Let the soldiers go away, our women are afraid of them.” And so I reached the Warm Land [Indian Territory]. We found the land there was bad and we were dying one after another, and we said, “What man will take pity on us?” And our animals died. Oh, it was very hot. “This land is truly sickly, and we’ll be apt to die here, and we hope the Great Father will take us back again.” That is what we said. There were one hundred of us died there.

—WHITE EAGLE OF THE PONCAS

IN 1804, AT THE mouth of the Niobrara River on the right bank of the Missouri, Lewis and Clark met with a friendly tribe of Indians called the Poncas. The tribe then numbered only two or three hundred, the survivors of a massive epidemic of the white man’s smallpox. Half a century later, the Poncas were still there, still friendly and eager to trade with white men, their sturdy tribe increased to about a thousand. Unlike most Plains Indians, the Poncas raised corn and kept vegetable gardens, and because they were prosperous and owned many horses, they frequently had to fight off raiders from Sioux tribes to the north.

In 1858, the year when government officials were traveling through the West setting up boundaries on the land for different tribes, the Poncas gave up part of their territory in exchange for promises made by the officials to guarantee them protection of their persons and property and a permanent home on the Niobrara. Ten years later, however—while the treaty makers were negotiating with the Sioux—through some bureaucratic blunder in Washington the Ponca lands were included with territory assigned the Sioux in the treaty of 1868.

Although the Poncas protested over and over again to Washington, officials took no action. Wild young men from the Sioux tribes came down demanding horses as tribute, threatening to drive the Poncas off land which they now claimed as their own. “The seven years that followed this treaty,” said Peter Le Claire, a member of the tribe, “were years when the Poncas were obliged to work their gardens and cornfields as did the Pilgrims in New England … with hoe in one hand and rifle in the other.” 1

Congress at last acknowledged the treaty obligations of the United States “to protect” the Poncas, but instead of restoring their land, appropriated a small amount of money “to indemnify the tribe for losses by thefts and murders committed by the Sioux.” 2Then, in 1876, following the Custer defeat, Congress decided to include the Poncas in the list of northern tribes who were to be exiled to Indian Territory. The Poncas, of course, had nothing to do with the Custer fight, had never engaged in any warfare with the United States, yet someone in Washington arranged for Congress to appropriate twenty-five thousand dollars “for the removal of the Poncas to the Indian Territory, and providing them a home therein, with consent of said band.” That last phrase was as conveniently overlooked as were the promises of the treaty which forbade white persons to settle on Ponca territory; for ten years white settlers had been intruding on Ponca lands, and their eyes were greedy for the rich alluvial fields on which grew the finest Indian corn on the Plains.

The first news the Poncas had of their impending removal was brought to them early in January, 1877, by a United States Indian inspector, Edward C. Kemble. “A white man came there suddenly after Christmas to see us,” Chief White Eagle said. “We didn’t get any news he was coming; he came suddenly. They called us all to the church and there they told us the purpose of his coming.”

White Eagle’s account of what followed:

“The Great Father at Washington says you are to move, and for that reason I’ve come,” said he.

“My friend, you have caused us to hear these things very suddenly,” I said. “When the Great Father has any business to transact with us he generally sends word to all the people, but you have come very suddenly.”

“No; the Great Father says you have to go,” said he.

“My friend, I want you to send a letter to the Great Father, and if he really says this I desire him to send for us,” I said. “If it be so, and I hear of it the right way, I’ll say the words are straight.”

“I’ll send a letter to him,” said he. He struck the wire. He sent the message by telegraph and it reached the Great Father very soon.

“Your Great Father says you are to come with ten of your chiefs,” said he. “You are to go and see the land, and after passing through a part you are to come to Washington. You are to look at the Warm Land [Indian Territory] and if you see any land that is good there you are to tell him about it,” said he, “and also about any bad land there; tell him about both.”

And so we went there to the Warm Land. We went to the terminus of a railroad and passed through the land of the Osages and on to the land full of rocks, and next morning we came to the land of the Kaws; and leaving the Kansas reservation we came to Arkansas City, and so, having visited the lands of two of these Indian tribes and seen this land full of rocks and how low the trees were, I came to this town of the whites. We were sick twice and we saw how the people of that land were, and we saw those stones and rocks, and we thought those two tribes were not able to do much for themselves.

And he said to us the next morning, “We’ll go to the Shicaska River and see that.”

And I said, “My friend, I’ve seen these lands and I’ve been sick on the journey. From this on I’ll stop on this journey, seeing these lands, and will go and see the Great Father. Run to the Great Father. Take me with you to see the Great Father. These two tribes are poor and sick, and these lands are poor; therefore, I’ve seen enough of them.”

“No,” said he, “come and see these other lands in the Indian Territory.”

“My friend,” said I, “take me, I beg, to see the Great Father. You said formerly we could tell him whatever we saw, good or bad, and I wish to tell him.”

“No,” said he, “I don’t wish to take you to see him. If you take part of this land I’ll take you to see him; if not, not.”

“If you will not take me to see the Great Father,” said I, “take me home to my own country.”

“No,” said he, “notwithstanding what you say, I’ll not take you to see the Great Father. He did not say I should take you back to your own country.”

“How in the world shall I act,” said I. “You are unwilling to take me to the Great Father, and you don’t want to take me back to my own country. You said formerly that the Great Father had called me, but now it is not so; you have not spoken the truth; you have not spoken the straight word.”

“No,” said he, “I’ll not take you to your homes; walk there if you want to.”

“It makes my heart feel sad,” said I, “as I do not know this land.” We thought we should die, and felt that I should cry, but I remembered that I was a man. After saying this, the white man, being in a bad humor, went upstairs. After he had gone upstairs, we chiefs sat considering what to do. We said, “He does not speak of taking us to see the Great Father or of taking us to our own country. We don’t think the Great Father has caused this.” We had one interpreter there with us, and we said, “As he will not take us back, we want him to give us a piece of paper to show the whites, as we don’t know the land.” The interpreter went upstairs to see the man and came back and said, “He will not give you the paper. He does not wish to make it for you.” We sent the interpreter back again and said, “We want some money from that due us from the Great Father, so we can make our way home.” When he came back, he said, “He does not wish to give you the money.” 3

White Eagle, Standing Bear, Big Elk, and the other Ponca chiefs who were left stranded in Indian Territory by Inspector Kemble now started back home. It was the Moon When the Ducks Come Back and Hide, and snow covered the Plains of Kansas and Nebraska. As they had only a few dollars among them, they walked the entire distance—more than five hundred miles—each man with one blanket and no spare moccasins. Had it not been for their old friends the Otoes and Omahas, on whose reservations they stopped to rest and obtain food, few of the older chiefs could have survived the winter journey.

Forty days later, when they reached the Niobrara, they found Inspector Kemble there ahead of them.

White Eagle’s narrative:

“Move ye,” said he; “prepare to move.”

We were unwilling. Said I, “I’ve come back weary. Every one of us is unwilling to move.”

“No,” said he, “the Great Father wishes you to remove at once, and you must move to the Indian Territory.” 4

The chiefs were united, however, in their determination to hold the government to its treaty obligations, and Kemble decided to return to Washington to report to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs. The commissioner took the problem to Secretary of the Interior Schurz, who in turn passed it to the Great Warrior Sherman. Sherman recommended the use of troops to force the Poncas to move, and as usual Big Eyes Schurz concurred.

In April Kemble returned to the Niobrara, and by using the threat of troops persuaded 170 members of the tribe to start with him for Indian Territory. None of the leading chiefs would go with him. Standing Bear protested so strongly that he was ordered arrested and taken to Fort Randall. “They fastened me and made a prisoner of me and carried me to the fort,” he said. 5 A few days later the government sent a new agent, E. A. Howard, to deal with the remaining three-fourths of the tribe, and Standing Bear was released.

White Eagle, Standing Bear, and the other chiefs continued to insist that the government had no right to move them from their land. Howard replied that he had nothing to do with the government’s decision; he had been sent there to go with them to their new home. After a four-hour council on April 15, Howard ended it by demanding a final answer: “Will you go peaceably or by force?” 6

The chiefs remained silent, but before they returned to their homes, a young Ponca hurried to warn them. “The soldiers have come to the lodges.” The chiefs knew then that there would be no more councils. They would have to leave their homeland and go to Indian Territory. “The soldiers came with their guns and bayonets,” Standing Bear said. “They aimed their guns at us, and our people and our children were crying.”

They started on May 21, 1877. “The soldiers came to the borders of the village,” White Eagle said, “and forced us across the Niobrara to the other side, just as one would drive a herd of ponies; and the soldiers pushed us on until we came to the Platte River.” 7

Agent Howard methodically kept a diary of that fifty-day overland journey. On the morning they started, a heavy thunderstorm caused a sudden flooding of the Niobrara, sweeping several of the soldiers off their horses; instead of watching them drown, the Poncas plunged in and rescued them. The next day a child died, and they had to stop for a burial on the prairie. On May 23 a two-hour thunderstorm caught them in the open, drenching everyone throughout the day. A second child died; several Poncas fell ill during the night. Next day they had to ford flooded streams because of washed-out bridges. The weather turned cold. On May 26 rain fell all day and there was no wood for fires.

On May 27 sickness from exposure was affecting most of the Poncas. Standing Bear’s daughter, Prairie Flower, was very ill with pneumonia. Next day thunderstorms and heavy rain made progress almost impossible in the deep mud of the road.

Now it was the Hot Weather Begins Moon, with showers falling almost every day. On June 6 Prairie Flower died, and Standing Bear gave her a Christian burial in the cemetery at Milford, Nebraska. “The ladies of Milford prepared and decorated the body for burial in a style becoming the highest civilization,” Howard noted proudly. “Standing Bear was led to say to those around him at the grave that he was desirous of leaving off the ways of the Indian and adopting those of the white man.”

That night a tornado struck the Ponca camp, demolishing tents, overturning wagons, and hurling people hundreds of feet, seriously injuring several of them. Next day another child died.

On June 14 they reached the Otoe reservation. The Otoes, taking-pity on the Poncas, gave them ten ponies to aid in the completion of their journey. For three days they waited for high waters to subside; illnesses continued to increase; the first male adult, Little Cottonwood, died. Howard had a coffin made for him and arranged a Christian burial near Bluewater, Kansas.

On June 24 illness was so prevalent that Howard employed a physician at Manhattan, Kansas, to attend the Poncas. Next day two women died on the march. Howard saw that they received Christian burials.

Now it was the Middle of the Summer Moon. A child of Buffalo Chief died and received a Christian burial at Burlington, Kansas. A Ponca named Buffalo Track went berserk and tried to kill Chief White Eagle, blaming him for the tribe’s miseries. Agent Howard banished Buffalo Track from the caravan and sent him back north to the Omaha reservation. The Poncas envied him for his punishment.

Summer heat and biting flies plagued them for another week, and then at last, on July 9, after a severe drenching in a thunderstorm, they reached the Quapaw reservation, their new home, and found the small group of Poncas who had preceded them living wretchedly in tents.

“I am of the opinion that the removal of the Poncas from the northern climate of Dakota to the southern climate of the Indian Territory,” agent Howard wrote his superiors, “will prove a mistake, and that a great mortality will surely follow among the people when they shall have been here for a time and become poisoned with the malaria of the climate.” 8

Howard’s ominous prediction proved to be all too accurate. Like the Modocs, the Nez Percés, and the Northern Cheyennes, the Poncas died so rapidly that by the end of their first year in Indian Territory almost one-fourth of them had received Christian burials.

In the spring of 1878 Washington officials decided to give them a new reservation on the west bank of the Arkansas, but failed to allot funds for their transfer. The Poncas walked 150 miles to their new land, but for several weeks they had no agent to issue them provisions or medicines. “The land was good,” White Eagle said, “but in the summer we were sick again. We were as grass that is trodden down; we and our stock. Then came the cold weather, and how many died we did not know.” 9

One of those who died was the oldest son of Standing Bear. “At last I had only one son left; then he sickened. When he was dying he asked me to promise him one thing. He begged me to take him, when he was dead, back to our old burying ground by the Swift Running Water, the Niobrara. I promised. When he died, I and those with me put his body into a box and then in a wagon and we started north.” 10

Sixty-six Poncas made up the burial party, all of Standing Bear’s clan, following the old wagon drawn by two gaunt horses. It was the Snow Thaws Moon, January, 1879. (Ironically, far away to the north, Dull Knife’s Cheyennes were making their last desperate fight for freedom at Fort Robinson.) For Standing Bear this was a second winter journey home. He led his people over trails away from settlements and soldiers, and they reached the Omaha reservation before the soldiers could find them.

Big Eyes Schurz meanwhile had made several attempts through his agents to arrange for the return of Standing Bear’s Poncas to Indian Territory. Finally in March he asked the War Department to telegraph Three Stars Crook’s headquarters in Omaha, Nebraska, ordering him to arrest the runaways without delay and return them to Indian Territory. In response, Crook sent a company of soldiers up to the Omaha reservation; they arrested Standing Bear and his Poncas and brought them back to Fort Omaha, where they were placed under guard, awaiting arrangements for shipment to Indian Territory.

For more than a decade Three Stars had been fighting Indians, meeting them in councils, making them promises which he could not keep. Grudgingly at first, he admitted admiration for Indian courage; since the surrenders of 1877 he was beginning to feel both respect and sympathy for his old enemies. The treatment of Cheyennes at Fort Robinson during the last few weeks had outraged him. “A very unnecessary act of power to insist upon this particular portion of the band going back to their former reservation,” he bluntly stated in his official report. 11

When Crook went to see the Poncas in the guardhouse at Fort Omaha, he was appalled by the pitiable conditions of the Indians. He was impressed by Standing Bear’s simple statements of why he had come back north, his stoic acceptance of conditions over which he had lost control. “I thought God intended us to live,” Standing Bear told Crook, “but I was mistaken. God intends to give the country to the white people, and we are to die. It may be well; it may be well.” 12

Crook was so moved by what he saw and heard that he promised Standing Bear he would do all he could to countermand the orders for the return of the Poncas to Indian Territory. At this time Crook took action to support his promise. He went to see an Omaha newspaper editor, Thomas Henry Tibbies, and enlisted the power of the press.

While Crook held up orders for transfer of the Poncas, Tibbies spread their story across the city, the state, and then by telegraph across the nation. The churches of Omaha sent an appeal to Secretary Schurz to order the Poncas released, but Mah-hah Ich-hon—Big Eyes—did not bother to reply. A young Omaha lawyer, John L. Webster, then volunteered his services without a fee, and he was soon supported by the chief attorney of the Union Pacific Railroad, Andrew Poppleton.

The lawyers had to work quickly to build a case for the Poncas; any day, General Crook could receive orders from Washington compelling him to start the Indians southward, and then nothing could be done for them. All efforts were bent toward obtaining the cooperation of Judge Elmer S. Dundy, a rugged frontiersman with four main interests in life—good literature, horses, hunting, and the administration of justice. It so happened that Dundy was away on a bear hunt, and the Ponca supporters spent several anxious hours before messengers could find and bring the judge back to Omaha.

With Crook’s tacit agreement, Judge Dundy issued a writ of habeas corpus upon the general, requiring him to bring the Ponca prisoners into court and show by what authority he held them. Crook obeyed the writ by presenting his military orders from Washington, and the district attorney for the United States appeared before the judge to deny the Poncas’ right to the writ on the ground that Indians were “not persons within the meaning of the law.”

Thus began on April 18, 1879, the now almost forgotten civil-rights case of Standing Bear v. Crook. The Poncas’ lawyers, Webster and Poppleton, argued that an Indian was as much a “person” as any white man and could avail himself of the rights of freedom guaranteed by the Constitution. When the United States attorney stated that Standing Bear and his people were subject to the rules and regulations which the government had made for tribal Indians, Webster and Poppleton replied that Standing Bear and any other Indian had the right to separate themselves from their tribes and live under protection of United States laws like any other citizens.

The climax of the case came when Standing Bear was given permission to speak for his people: “I am now with the soldiers and officers. I want to go back to my old place north. I want to save myself and my tribe. My brothers, it seems to me as if I stood in front of a great prairie fire. I would take up my children and run to save their lives; or if I stood on the bank of an overflowing river, I would take my people and fly to higher ground. Oh, my brothers, the Almighty looks down on me, and knows what I am, and hears my words. May the Almighty send a good spirit to brood over you, my brothers, to move you to help me. If a white man had land, and someone should swindle him, that man would try to get it back, and you would not blame him. Look on me. Take pity on me, and help me to save the lives of the women and children. My brothers, a power, which I cannot resist, crowds me down to the ground. I need help. I have done.” 13

Judge Dundy ruled that an Indian was a “person” within the meaning of the habeas corpus act, that the right of expatriation was a natural, inherent, and inalienable right of the Indian as well as the white race, and that in time of peace no authority, civil or military, existed for transporting Indians from one section of the country to another without the consent of the Indians or to confine them to any particular reservation against their will.

35. Chief Standing Bear of the Poncas. Courtesy of Nebraska State Historical Society

“I have never been called upon to hear or decide a case that appealed so strongly to my sympathy,” he said. “The Poncas are amongst the most peaceable and friendly of all the Indian tribes. … If they could be removed to the Indian Territory by force, and kept there in the same way, I can see no good reason why they might not be taken and kept by force in the penitentiary at Lincoln, or Leavenworth, or Jefferson City, or any other place which the commander of the forces might, in his judgment, see proper to designate. I cannot think that any such arbitrary authority exists in this country.” 14

When Judge Dundy concluded the proceedings by ordering Standing Bear and his Ponca band released from custody, the audience in the courtroom rose to its feet and, according to a newspaper reporter, “such a shout went up as was never heard in a courtroom.” General Crook was the first to reach Standing Bear to congratulate him. 15

At first the United States district attorney considered appealing the decision, but after studying Judge Dundy’s written opinion (a brilliant essay on human rights), he made no appeal to the Supreme Court. The United States government assigned Standing Bear and his band a few hundred acres of unclaimed land near the mouth of the Niobrara, and they were back home again.

As soon as the surviving 530 Poncas in Indian Territory learned of this astonishing turn of events, most of them began preparations to join their relatives in Nebraska. The Indian Bureau, however, was not sympathetic. Through its agents the bureau informed the Ponca chiefs that only the Great Council in Washington could decide if and when the tribe might return. The bureaucrats and politicians (the Indian Ring) recognized Judge Dundy’s decision as a strong threat to the reservation system; it would endanger the small army of entrepreneurs who were making fortunes funneling bad food, shoddy blankets, and poisonous whiskey to the thousands of Indians trapped on reservations. If the Poncas were permitted to leave their new reservation in Indian Territory and walk away as free American citizens, this would set a precedent which might well destroy the entire military-political-reservation complex.

In his annual report, Big Eyes Schurz admitted that the Poncas in Indian Territory “had a serious grievance,” but he strongly opposed permitting them to return to their homeland because it would make other Indians “restless with a desire to follow their example” and thereby cause a breakup of the territorial reservation system. 16

At the same time, William H. Whiteman, who headed the lucrative Ponca agency, tried to discredit Standing Bear’s band by describing them as “certain renegade members of the tribe,” and then he wrote in glowing terms of his considerable expenditures for materials and tools to develop the reservation in Indian Territory. Whiteman made no mention of the discontent prevalent among the Poncas, their constant petitions to return to their homeland, or of his feud with Big Snake.

Big Snake was Standing Bear’s brother, a giant with hands like hams and shoulders as big as a buffalo’s. Like many huge men, Big Snake was quiet and gentle of manner (the Poncas called him the Peacemaker), but when he saw that White Eagle and the other head men were being intimidated by agent Whiteman, he decided to take action on his own. After all, he was the brother of Standing Bear, the Ponca who had won freedom for his people.

Determined to test the new law, Big Snake requested permission to leave the reservation and go north to join his brother. As he expected, permission to leave was refused by agent Whiteman. Big Snake’s next move was not to leave Indian Territory, but to travel only a hundred miles to the Cheyenne reservation. With him went thirty other Poncas, making what they believed to be a gentle testing of the law which said that an Indian was a person and could not be confined to any particular reservation against his will.

Whiteman’s reaction was that of any entrenched bureaucrat whose authority is threatened. On May 21, 1879, he telegraphed the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, reporting the defection of Big Snake and his party to the Cheyenne reservation, and requesting that they be arrested and detained at Fort Reno “until the tribe has recovered from the demoralizing effects of the decision recently made by the United States district court in Nebraska, in the case of Standing Bear.” 17

Big Eyes Schurz agreed to the arrest, but evidently fearing another challenge in the courts, he asked the Great Warrior Sherman to transport Big Snake and his “renegades” back to the Ponca reservation as quickly and quietly as possible.

In his usual blunt manner, Sherman telegraphed General Sheridan on May 22: “The honorable Secretary of the Interior requests that the Poncas arrested and held at Fort Reno, in the Indian Territory … be sent to the agency of the Poncas. You may order this to be done.” And then, as if anticipating Sheridan’s apprehensions about flying in the face of Judge Dundy’s recent decision, Sherman decreed: “The release under writ of habeas corpus of the Poncas in Nebraska does not apply to any other than that specific case.” 18For the Great Warrior Sherman it was easier to unmake laws than it was for the courts of the land to interpret them.

And so Big Snake lost his first test of his brother’s victory at law, and he never had a chance to try again. After being brought back to the Ponca agency in the Corn Is in Silk Moon, Big Snake was marked for destruction. Agent Whiteman reported to Washington that Big Snake had “a very demoralizing effect upon the other Indians … extremely sullen and morose.” In one paragraph Whiteman charged that Big Snake had repeatedly threatened to kill him, and in another complained that the Ponca had never spoken to him since his return. The agent became so furious that he begged the Commissioner of Indian Affairs “to arrest Big Snake and convey him to Fort Reno and there confine him for the remainder of his natural life.” 19

Finally, on October 25, Whiteman obtained authorization from Sherman to arrest Big Snake and imprison him in the agency guardhouse. To make the arrest, Whiteman requested a detail of soldiers. Five days later, Lieutenant Stanton A. Mason and thirteen soldiers arrived at the agency. Whiteman told Mason that he would send out a notice to the Poncas, ordering those who had money coming to them for special work to report to his office the next day. Big Snake would be among them, and as soon as he entered the office, Mason was to make the arrest.

On October 31 Big Snake entered Whiteman’s office about noon and was told to take a chair. Lieutenant Mason and eight armed men then surrounded him, Mason informing him that he was under arrest. Big Snake wanted to know why he was being arrested. Whiteman spoke up then and said one charge against him was threatening his (Whiteman’s) life. Big Snake calmly denied this. According to the post trader, J. S. Sherburne, Big Snake then stood up and threw off his blanket to show he was not armed.

Hairy Bear’s statement: “The officer told Big Snake to come along, to get up and come. Big Snake would not get up, and told the officer he wanted him to tell him what he had done. He said he had killed no one, stolen no horses, and that he had done nothing wrong. After Big Snake said that, the officer spoke to the agent, and then told Big Snake he had tried to kill two men, and had been pretty mean. Big Snake denied it. The agent then told him he had better go, and would then learn all about it down there. Big Snake said he had done nothing wrong, and that he would die before he would go. I then went up to Big Snake and told him this man [the officer] was not going to arrest him for nothing, and that he had better go along, and that perhaps he would come back all right; I coaxed all I could to get him to go; told him that he had a wife and children, and to remember them and not get killed. Big Snake then got up and told me that he did not want to go, and that if they wanted to kill him they could do it, right there. Big Snake was very cool. Then the officer told him to get up, and told him that if he did not go, there might something happen. He said there was no use in talking; I came to arrest you, and want you to go. The officer went for the handcuffs, which a soldier had, and brought them in. The officer and a soldier then tried to put them on, but Big Snake pushed them both away. Then the officer spoke to the soldiers, and four of them tried to put them on, but Big Snake pushed them all off. One soldier, who had stripes on his arms, also tried to put them on, but Big Snake pushed them all off. They tried several times, all of them, to get hold of Big Snake and hold him. Big Snake was sitting down, when six soldiers got hold of him. He raised up and threw them off. Just then one of the soldiers, who was in front of him, struck Big Snake in the face with his gun, another soldier struck him alongside the head with the barrel of his gun. It knocked him back to the wall. He straightened up again. The blood was running down his face. I saw the gun pointed at him, and was scared, and did not want to see him killed. So I turned away. Then the gun was fired and Big Snake fell down dead on the floor.” 20

The Interior Department first issued a statement that Standing Bear’s brother “Big Snake, a bad man” had been “shot accidentally.” 21 The American press, however, growing more sensitive to treatment of Indians since the Standing Bear case, demanded an investigation in Congress. This time the military-political-reservation complex was operating in the familiar climate of Washington, and nothing came of the investigation.

The Poncas of Indian Territory had learned a bitter lesson. The white man’s law was an illusion; it did not apply to them. And so, like the Cheyennes, the diminishing Ponca tribe was split in two—Standing Bear’s band free in the north, the others prisoners in the Indian Territory.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!