Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee

by Dee Brown

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Summary and Analysis Chapter 15: Standing Bear Becomes a Person

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Standing Bear: Ponca chief who successfully argued that he was a “person” and a U.S. citizen.

Carl Schurz: Secretary of the Interior, nicknamed Big Eyes by Indians, who returned the Poncas to their reservation.

The Poncas, who resided near the mouth of the Niobrara River, were a prosperous agrarian tribe enjoying good relations with whites ever since they had encountered Lewis and Clark in 1804. However, they are removed to the Indian Territory in early 1877 by order of Congress, which had decided to send many northern tribes to the territory in reaction to Custer’s recent defeat. Ponca chief Standing Bear together with other chiefs stranded in the territory walk back to their homeland on the Niobrara River. Indian inspector Kemble arrests Standing Bear there, and when Standing Bear says that under the government’s treaty obligations he and the other chiefs couldn’t be moved from their land, he is nonetheless forced with the other Poncas to march to Quapaw reservation in July 1877. Over a quarter of the Poncas die in their first year there, and some of the surviving Poncas are forced to walk to a new reservation on the Arkansas River before returning to the Niobrara in early 1879. An outcry over their condition ensues, and Standing Bear goes to court in April 1879 to protest being forced to be sent to the Indian Territory. He wins his case by arguing that he is a “person” protected by the Constitution, and the Poncas still in the Indian Territory prepare to return to the Niobrara. However, Sherman says that Standing Bear’s case is unique and does not apply to the other Poncas. Big Snake, Standing Bear’s brother, is killed by a guard of Army soldiers on October 31, and his murder goes unpunished. Standing Bear is the only Ponca for whom justice has been served by the white justice system.

The chapter focuses on the attempt of the Poncas, a prosperous and peaceful tribe on the Niobrara River, to avoid being removed from their homeland. It was a decision in far-off Washington, D.C., that set this plot in motion. The point here seems to be that remote actions by people entirely unfamiliar with the tribe were sufficient to completely overturn their way of life. Again, the Indians simply did not have enough power to stop the whites. Standing Bear did gain power through the courts by being granted protection under the Constitution, but the cruder and greater power of General Sherman was enough to render that protection effectively worthless. This theme of the powerlessness of the Indians is underscored by the reluctance of the government to bring Big Snake’s murderer to justice.

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