Below, we publish a corrected text of the landmark 1879 US Federal Court ruling in “Standing Bear vs. Crook”, in which, for the first time, it was held by a US court of law that “[a]n Indian is a person within the meaning of the habeas corpus act, and as such is entitled to sue out a writ of habeas corpus in the federal courts when it is shown that the petitioner is deprived of liberty under color of authority of the United States, or is in custody of an officer in violation of the constitution or a law of the United States, or in violation of a treaty made in pursuance thereof.” It is considered by historians to have been the very first time that a Native American had sued the US Government in a US court and emerged a winner.
The ruling also noted that Native Americans also had the right to declare their expatriation from their tribes, as provided by a Reconstruction-era (1868) law that provided that right to anyone temporarily or permanently residing in the United States. Additionally, it asserted that it was declared that if Federal troops were to arrest anyone illegally residing on an Indian Reservation (including Native Americans of a different tribe), they must “convey the persons so removed, by the most convenient route, to the civil authorities of the judicial district in which the offense may be committed to be proceeded against in due course of law. In time of peace, no authority civil or military exists for
transporting Indians from one section of the country to, another, without the consent of the Indians, nor to confine then to any particular reservation against their will”.
A key player in bringing this case to trial was Thomas Henry Tibbles – one of the many unsung heroes of US history. Tibbles – originally from Ohio – was an ardent abolitionist in his youth and served under the command of fellow abolitionists James Lane and John Brown in Kansas before the Civil War. Tibbles was once captured by pro-slavery racists in Kansas who planned to lynch him; he escaped from their hands and lived to serve as a scout for the Union Army. After the war, he moved to Nebraska where he became involved in the fight for the rights of Native Americans. As an assistant editor of the Omaha Daily Herald, he was made aware of the plight of Standing Bear and his small tribe of Poncas and began to publicize the case, eventually obtaining the legal services of two lawyers who agreed to represent the Poncas pro bono. Later in life, Tibbles was witness to the aftermath and informed the world of the the hideous massacre of 200-300 men, women and children by US troops at that took place at the “Battle” of Wounded Knee, South Dakota on 29 December 1890.
Sadly, Tibbles’ anti-racist fervor seems to have degenerated over time; he was the Vice-Presidential candidate of the Populist Party in 1904, on the ticket with white supremacist Thomas Watson of Georgia. He died, in his late eighties, in 1928.
Standing Bear was a chief of the agrarian Ponca tribe which had undergone its own “Trail of Tears”, having been wrenched by the US Government from lands in Nebraska they had worked for more than 150 years and driven across country to a reservation in Oklahoma where the land was unsuitable for farming. The Ponca chiefs refused to accept these poor agricultural lands as their new home and fought to return to Nebraska. During the journey to the Oklahoma reservation as many as 1 in 4 members of the tribe – including Standing Bear’s oldest son Bear Shield – died in their first year since being driven from their homes. Standing Bear and his 30 or so followers decided to return but were captured on the way and jailed at Ft. Omaha by soldiers under the command of US General George Crook. Urged on by Tibbles’ reports in the Daily Herald which had been picked up and broadcast by telegraph from coast to coast, many citizens throughout the US protested the harsh treatment of the Poncas and the case was brought to trial. During the two-day trial Standing Bear, through an interpreter, eloquently defended his and his tribe’s actions and fought for their freedom. Outrageously, one of the principles Standing Bear had to fight for was the fundamental right for a Native American to be considered a human being:
“This hand is not the color of yours, but if I pierce it, I shall feel pain. If you pierce your hand, you also feel pain. The blood that will flow from mine will be of the same color as yours. I am a man. The same God made us both.”
— Chief Standing Bear, addressing the court – Standing Bear v. Crook (May, 1879)
Chief Standing Bear traveled across Europe and the US on the lecture circuit, in tours sponsored by abolitionist and Native American rights advocate Wendell Phillips. In his lectures Standing Bear fought for the rights of all Native Americans. He returned to farm on his tribe’s original lands on the Niobrara River in Nebraska where he died in 1908 not far from where he had been born some 70 years earlier. The Ponca are divided into two tribal groups to this day – one based in Nebraska and the other in Oklahoma.
[NOTE: The text of the ruling we used was originally available online on the website of the Yale Law School, but has since been removed. We found a copy of it on the Internet Archive, but upon reading it we discovered a number of errors and typos and so have produced this corrected version. If anyone has access to a copy of the trial transcript we would be very happy to link to it or republish it here. —- IWPCHI]