One of America’s First Civil Rights Movements Started In Oklahoma
If you were to Google "American Civil Rights," odds are you'll be directed to the Civil Rights Movement of the 20th century. The 1950s and 60s were a tumultuous time in American history as black Americans sought equality in this country. It was a period that showed the absolute best in men and the abysmal worst of lesser men in America, however, the civil rights movement started well before this memorable period of time.
Civil rights history in America started well before the American Civil War, but it's the period of reconstruction and post-Civil War where landmark cases set the precedence for American citizens, a lesser-known case was that of Standing Bear vs Crook that laid the groundwork for Native Americans to be legally defined as "persons."
Think about that last sentence for a moment. Before Standing Bear took on the system, American Indians were thought of as "lesser" and "savages" by the O.G. white American system. He was the unshakable tree that turned the tide on how this country treated our native peoples and the story is a piece of history every American should learn.
The story begins in the mid-1830s. Standing Bear was only a few years old at the time, but his people, the Ponca tribe were being forced to sell their ancestral lands in Nebraska. The US Government had been carving up the midwest ever since the Lewis & Clark Expedition and they steadily kept gobbling up land from the natives, pinning them into situations none wanted.
During the Indian Removal Act, as more and more Native Americans were forcibly moved from the Eastern United States to make room for "progress," someone started to see the plains states as the only place the growing country could expand. The standard answer to the "How do we free up more land?" question was "Move more natives to Indian Territory."
The Kansas-Nebraska Act was sold to the public under the guise of creating new territories for the American public to expand, but it also put immense pressure on the Kansas and Nebraska tribes when it came to their lands. The government showed up and laid out plans for new cities and towns all over the area. The Ponca were told to either sell their corn fields or forfeit them without reimbursement.
What choice did they have at the time? They sold off parcel after parcel until the pots boiled over.
One of the biggest issues was tribal territory. As the government took more and more land from the tribes, it forced them closer and closer together. As if it were written in some evil master plan since nobody could take on the government for these problems the tribes began fighting with each other over border disputes.
Ultimately this constant constraining put so much unwarranted stress on the tribes that they started splitting up. Some stayed put, others accepted the offer for new lands in Indian Territory. Standing Bears band of Ponca were of those that accepted the move to Oklahoma.
You've heard the story of the Trail of Tears and it's something that should be remembered. This wasn't a one-off situation. This forced death march was the status quo for tribes being relocated to Indian Territory. Standing Bear lost a daughter on the way, but the horrors didn't end with the journey.
When the Ponca first arrived in Oklahoma, the land they received was far different from the land they were promised. When they mentioned this to a government representative, it was viewed as insubordination. When the matter was settled, the Ponca tribe ended up split again, Standing Bear settled near modern-day Ponca City, Oklahoma.
If you read the official record it will say that the tribe settled "too late in the year to plant crops." It also mentions that the government failed to deliver the promised farming tools or adequate land. Knowing what we know now, that was likely intentional and it had the effect our government was hoping for.
One-third of the Ponca tribe died that first year in Indian Territory. Malaria played a large role in this, but it was the starvation that really tore through the camp. Standing Bear's only other child at the time, his son Bear Shield also died during this time.
While no parent should ever have to bury their own children, Standing Bear made a vow to his son that if he were to die, he would be laid to rest in their homeland of Nebraska. Standing Bear immediately made plans to leave on his trek back home.
He and a few members left Indian Territory to fulfill a promise to his child, but this was again seen as insubordination, they were breaking their agreement with the government. It was the law that when natives entered Indian Territory, they weren't to leave. Oklahoma was America's Australia, where the unwanted were sent to be quasi-imprisoned.
Upon arriving in Nebraska, Standing Bear was arrested and officially detained by Brigidare General George Crook. While Crook was sympathetic to Standing Bear's tail and horrified by the conditions described from the Ponca's reservation in Indian Territory, he had his orders and wasn't about to disobey them.
On the plus side, Crook did have the power to delay the Ponca's return to Indian Territory. A particularly bad winter was just getting started, he allowed Standing Bear to remain at Fort Omaha for the season, encouraging him to seek legal recourse. In 1879 a few lawyers took on the case pro-bono and filed Standing Bear v. Crook in federal court.
The justice the Ponca leader sought was the right of freedom as any other person in America. The right to not be confined to Indian Territory. Habeas corpus is the term used to ensure freedom from unlawful detention or imprisonment.
During the trial, Standing Bear spoke words that every human should know, understand, and live by. He raised his right hand and spoke to the court:
That hand is not the color of yours, but if I prick it, the blood will flow, and I shall feel pain. The blood is of the same color as yours. God made me, and I am a man.
His sentiment was received well. He made his point and it was a turning point for the American Natives across this country. The federal court judge officially ruled, for the first time, that "Indians are persons" the same as any other.
It was a massive first step in the fight for civil rights for Native Americans that culminated in the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924, ensuring a birthright status for America's indigenous as full and whole citizens of this country.
If you're looking for a good road trip/Oklahoma staycation idea, take the 3-hour drive to Ponca City. You'll find Standing Bear Park, the Standing Bear Museum, and some other famous and historical interests - AKA - the Conoco Museum, Marland Mansion, Enrique's Mexican Restaurant, Wentz Pool, and more. A definite in-state destination. You'll even earn road trip bonus points if you detour through Stillwater to experience Eskimo Joe's.