Indians Are Human Beings

About the same time in 1879 that Lt. Richard Henry Pratt was negotiating with the War and Interior Departments to establish an off-reservation boarding school at Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania, Standing Bear was defending himself in federal Court in present-day Omaha, Nebraska on the grounds that he was a human being.

While watching a C-SPAN2 Book TV segment on The Trial of Standing Bear by Frank keating, I learned something: Indians were not considered to be human beings by the U.S. Government prior to 1879. I’m not recommending Keating’s book, beautifully illustrated by Mike Wimmer, because it is a children’s book unless it is to be given to a child to read. However, the story told in it is important. As a chief of the Poncas, Standing Bear was arrested by federal troops under Brigadier General George Crook for leading a group of about 30 weak, starving tribe members from present-day Oklahoma back to their ancestral grounds in Nebraska along the Niobara River. Standing Bear’s intention was to bury there the bones of his oldest son, Bear Shield, who had died in Oklahoma. After the arrest Gen. Crook, appalled by the condition of the captives, allowed them to remain long enough to rest up for the return journey.

Supported by Crook, pro-bono attorneys John L. Webster and Andrew J. Poppleton, and Thomas Tibbles of the Omaha Daily Herald, Standing Bear filed a writ of habeas corpus in U.S. District Court in Omaha. Due in great part to Standing Bear’s powerful testimony: “That 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 the same color as yours. I am a man. God made us both,” Judge Dundy ruled that, “…an Indian is a person within the meaning of the law” and, thus, Standing Bear had the inalienable right to “…life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” providing that he obeyed the laws of the land.

This May 1879 ruling established that, in the eyes of the government and the courts, Indians were indeed human beings, a concept that Pratt had assumed some time before.

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