Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee | Study Guide

Dee Alexander Brown

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Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee | Chapter 15 : Standing Bear Becomes a Person | Summary



The Ponca Indians live in northeastern Nebraska where the Niobrara River feeds into the Missouri River. They are a small and peaceful tribe numbering around 1,000 people, and they have never caused any problems for the white man. A mistake in the Fort Laramie treaty of 1868 turns their lives upside down when the Poncas' lands are accidentally included as part of the Great Sioux Reservation. The Poncas' requests for help are ignored, and for the next seven years, they are forced to fight the young Sioux who demand horses as tribute for being able to live on Sioux land.

Things get even worse after the American defeat at the Battle of Little Bighorn. Although the Poncas weren't even there, they are included on the list of tribes that have to move to Indian Territory. In January 1877 U.S. Indian inspector Edward C. Kemble has difficulty convincing Chief White Eagle to begin the migration south, so he arranges a trip to their new home for White Eagle and 10 other chiefs. If they don't like it, they don't have to move there.

White Eagle is ready to go home by the time they get to Arkansas City in southern Kansas, but Kemble insists they keep going. When they decide to go on their own, Kemble refuses to give them money for the trip. He won't even provide a note explaining they are allowed to be off Indian lands. The 11 chiefs walk through Nebraska for 40 days in the middle of winter. When they get home, Kemble is waiting for them.

A quarter of the Poncas start the 50-day march to Indian Territory in April. The remaining 500 follow in May. In the latter group, several children and a few adults die of illness along the way. The two parts of the tribe are reunited at the Quapaw reservation on July 9. More people die of disease, and by the end of the first year, a quarter of the Poncas are dead. The federal government transfers them to a new reservation 150 miles away but forgets to fund it. There is no agent present when they get there, so they have no access to food or medicine. More people die as illness spreads through the camp, followed by even more deaths that winter.

Standing Bear's last living son is one of those who dies in the winter of 1878–79. In January, Standing Bear and a burial party of 66 Poncas walk the body from their new reservation back to their old home on the Niobrara. Secretary of the Interior Carl Schurz asks General Crook to capture the missing Poncas and return them to Indian Territory. The soldiers capture the Poncas, but Schurz finds himself agreeing with the Poncas—they shouldn't be forced to return to their old territory. An Omaha newspaper writes about the Poncas' wish to come home, which strikes a nerve with sympathetic Nebraskans and people all over the country. Two lawyers volunteer to represent Standing Bear in court.

Judge Elmer S. Dundy presides over the hearing. The district attorney for the United States says because Indians are "not persons within the meaning of the law," they can be held by any law-enforcement body for any purpose. Standing Bear's lawyers argue Indians have the right to "separate themselves from their tribes and live under protection of United States laws" like everyone else. The judge rules in favor of Standing Bear, and the U.S. government eventually allows the Poncas a few hundred acres of land near their old home.

The rest of the Poncas who are still in Indian Territory can't wait to return home. Schurz and Sherman prohibit them from doing so, saying the judge's ruling applied only to Standing Bear and the funeral party. Standing Bear's brother Big Snake tests this theory by taking a group of Poncas to the Cheyenne reservation 100 miles away. They are arrested, and taken back to the Ponca reservation in Indian Territory. Agent William H. Whiteman fabricates reports about how dangerous Big Snake is, and the menacing-looking hulk of a man nicknamed "Peacemaker" by his tribe is arrested on October 31, 1879. He is shot before the arrest can be made. The Poncas are now divided, half in Indian Territory and half along the Niobrara River.


Standing Bear's trial was a big one for several reasons. First of all, it signaled a change in the attitudes and opinions of General Crook, who showed no mercy while chasing the Apaches across the Southwest and the Sioux across the Plains. Once an unabashed Indian killer, he appears to have had a change of heart about the Indians since putting a bounty on Delshay's head. Brown writes that when the Sioux surrendered Powder River country and the Black Hills in 1877, Crook reconsidered his view of Indians. His former feelings of hate and annoyance were replaced with sympathy and respect. He has since become an ally, not an adversary, and if it weren't for him, Standing Bull and the other 66 Poncas would have been sent back to Indian Territory to live with the rest of their tribe.

Standing Bear's trial was also important because of how average white citizens reacted to the story of the Indians who just wanted to go home. Few, if any, settlers have shown sympathy for the plight of the American Indian up to this point in the book, and it's quite a departure from neighboring citizens demanding the Indians be removed from the area. Perhaps the Poncas' peaceful reputation endeared them to the masses, or maybe it was because the grief of losing a loved one hit close to home. Whatever the reason, it was the first time people from all over the country collectively viewed a group of Indians as something other than dangerous savages.

American Indians generally weren't covered by the protection of the U.S. judicial system. Because he wasn't technically a citizen, Standing Bear couldn't sue the government for preventing him from living where he wanted. This is where Judge Dundy came in. He issued a writ of habeas corpus against Crook, which basically questioned Crook's authority to hold the Poncas as prisoners. This generally would be a bad thing for Crook—it would indicate suspected wrongdoing—but Crook was in on the plan. He wanted his orders from the federal government to be questioned. Crook essentially managed to get one branch of the government—the judicial branch—to question the legality of the actions of another branch of government—the legislative branch. This is the purpose of having three branches of government in the first place.

The hearing and its verdict were very worrisome for a group of powers Brown refers to as "the Indian Ring." This was a group of high-ranking government officials in Ulysses S. Grant's presidential administration who worked hand-in-hand with traders and agents to siphon money away from the Indians and into their own pockets. Their objective wasn't just to make money. They hoped delaying supply shipments and shorting the Indians on money they were owed would cause unrest within the tribes and lead to war, which would boost the profits of munitions supplies and hopefully get rid of the Indians. Government employees were known to accept bribes from companies and individuals who wanted to secure lucrative government contracts. If the judicial branch says Indians are people in the eyes of the law (as in Standing Bear's case), then they are entitled to the rights afforded to citizens of the United States. This means they cannot be arrested or held prisoner against their will without just cause. It also means they cannot be told where to live, or what they are allowed to do. Dundy's ruling calls into question the legality of the reservation system and the war on the Indians, both of which were making a lot of people a lot of money.

In today's age of lightning-fast information, other tribes would probably have tried to leave their reservations as soon as Standing Bear was declared a person in the eyes of the United States. Thousands of Indians on the move at once from all directions would have been impossible to control, and they would all be able to point to Judge Dundy's ruling as justification for their actions. The reservation system would no longer exist, meaning government contracts for blankets, food, and other supplies would be gone, too. The Indian Ring couldn't have that. But news traveled much more slowly in the 19th century, and the Indian Bureau and Department of the Interior had a little time to prepare before the Indian Territory Poncas learned what happened. They lied, and so did General Sherman, who insisted Judge Dundy's ruling "does not apply to any other than that specific case." As far as he is concerned, no more Indians are going to be considered people.

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