Nina Grant first heard the story of historical figure, Chief Standing Bear, a few years ago. Recently, she became a part of honoring his legacy.
In September, Grant joined her father, George Neubert, in Washington D.C. where the pair were part of an exclusive group invited to witness the unveiling of a statue honoring the chief.
The statue, located in the National Statuary Hall, replaces one of William Jennings Bryan that was given to the hall by the state of Nebraska in 1937. Bryan was an orator and politician who held the Democratic presidential nomination three times, as well as serving in the House of Representatives and as Secretary of State under Woodrow Wilson.
In 2020, Willa Cather will take the place of a Julius Sterling Morton statue that was also placed in the hall in 1937. Morton was a newspaper editor, Secretary of Agriculture under President Grover Cleavland and, most notably, the founder of Arbor Day. Cather was a Pulitzer prize winning author known for her work as journalist, poet and story teller portraying life on the Great Plains.
“I’m super excited and proud that representing the state of Nebraska, we’re going to have a native Ponca Chief and a woman who was an extraordinary author,” Grant said. “I’m not trying to diminish the contribution of individuals who used to represent our state ... but I like the idea of some different stories and different contributions to our state being highlighted.”
There is no denying the significance of Chief Standing Bear’s contribution, not only to Nebraska, but to the United States.
WHO IS CHIEF STANDING BEAR?
Standing Bear’s story begins with his birth around 1829 in the traditional Ponca homeland near the confluence of the Niobrara and Missouri Rivers, according to the National Park Service.
The Kansas-Nebraska act of 1854 led to a flood of European settlers — and a push to get Native Americans to give up their land.
When Standing Bear was about 30 years old, the tribe sold its homeland to the United States government, with the exception of a 58,000-acre reserve between Ponca Creek and the Niobrara River.
In 1868, the government created the Great Sioux Reservation and, within its boundaries, laid the Ponca Reservation. They no longer had any claim to the land they called home.
According to “The Ponca Chiefs,” published in 1880 by Thomas Henry Tibbles, it was a quiet Sunday morning in the fall of 1876 when the tribe would learn they were going to be forced to move.
When men from the government arrived, many of the tribe’s leaders refused to move.
According to the book, Standing Bear said: “...We do not wish to sell our land and we think no man has a right to take it from us. Here we will live and here we will die.”
The men from the government tried to convince them that Indian Territory (modern day Oklahoma) would be much better than where they were currently living. They proposed that the chiefs take a look for themselves and the chiefs agreed.
In February of 1877, ten chiefs including Standing Bear traveled to Indian Territory. When they arrived, they were unimpressed.
Through an interpreter, Standing Bear told Tibbles, “I had seen that a great many people down there were sick. The land they showed us was stony, and I did not believe we could make a living on it. I was afraid my people would get sick and die. We could not come there.”
The chiefs stated they wanted to return to their homeland instead of viewing the final tract of available land in Indian Territory. The government official was furious. He went to the land on his own and decided that it would be the removal destination.
In April, the official took the members of the tribe who were willing to leave to the new area and in May, the remainder, including Standing Bear and his family, were forced to move.
When they arrived in Oklahoma, it was too late to plant crops and while the government had promised farming equipment to the tribe, they were given nothing.
“I was in an awful place and I was a prisoner there,” Standing Bear told Tibbles through an interpretor. “I was not a free man.”
KEEPING A PROMISE
By spring of 1878, nearly a third of the tribe had died from illness and starvation. Among them was Bear Shield, the son of Chief Standing Bear.
“He had made a promise to bury his son in their homeland,” Grant said. “He wanted to keep that promise.”
Standing Bear set out to return to Nebraska with a small group of other members of the Ponca tribe. They made it to Omaha, but law enforcement was quickly alerted to the group.
Brigadier General George Cook was given orders to arrest the Poncas and immediately return them to Indian Territory.
Cook did arrest them but was sympathetic. He was appalled by the conditions they had left and decided to delay their return to Indian Territory, instead holding them at Fort Omaha. This would give them a chance to regain their health.
Cook then reached out to Tibbles, who was the editor of the Omaha Daily Herald and an outspoken advocate for Native American rights. He spoke to Standing Bear and published the story.
Two attorneys offered their services to the chief pro bono and in April 1879, he sued for a writ of habeas corpus, which required that he be brought before a judge.
U.S. District Judge Elmer S. Dundy heard the case — and Standing Bear’s powerful plea. During the trial, the chief rose and stretched out his arm.
He looked at Dundy and said, “This hand is not the color for yours, but if I prick it, the blood will flow and I shall feel pain. The blood is the same color as yours. God made me, and I am a man.”
He told the judge he hadn’t committed any crime — and if he had, he wouldn’t defend it, he’d quietly accept his punishment.
At one point, Standing Bear told the judge that one man had the power to decide whether his people would continue to waste away or whether they would be free to return to their homeland.
“You are that man,” Standing Bear told Dundy.
Dundy dismissed court with tears streaming down his face, according to Tibbles, who was in the courtroom.
On May 2, 1879, Dundy handed down his decision: “An Indian is a person within the meaning of the law,” and they are entitled to the rights and protections that were offered to white men.
Standing Bear and his followers were set free and allowed to continue their journey to the homeland, where he was able to bury his son with tribal honors.
The story of Standing Bear has stuck with Grant.
“It’s a human story — most of us have someone in our life that we love and care about deeply,” she said. “He made this promise to his son and he wanted to keep it.”
When Grant’s father, a retired museum director, was invited to attend the unveiling of the new statue, he asked Grant to accompany him.
“He could have taken my mom,” Grant said. “It was something he knew would be important to me. I am so honored to be one of the few who got to be there.”
The majority of those in attendance, with the exception of dignitaries, were either from Nebraska or had ties to the state, Grant said.
“In the Statuary Hall, the location of Chief Standing Bear is so prominent,” she said. “It’s so unique in comparison to the other statues that are in there. There’s a lot of detail and you can feel the emotions in it as well.”
In her office, a bronze bust of the chief, sculpted by artist Benjamin Victor, is prominently displayed.
The bust was given to Grant’s father by Victor, but he immediately gave it to Grant.
“He knew I would want to display it in my office,” said Grant.
During the unveiling in Washington D.C., she met Victor.
“The first thing he said to me was, ‘You have my bust,’” Grant said, laughing. “He was pleased to know it was in a place where it was being admired.”
She said she hopes that when people come into her office, they’ll ask her about it and she will be able to tell him about Standing Bear and his significance.
“I really hope that more and more people realize the value and importance of this story,” Grant said. “My hope is that it becomes well known, not only within the state — it has national importance as well.”