The Trial of Standing Bear

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Documents for Native American Suffrage, 1
Trial of Standing Bear (1879) (From “The Trial of Standing Bear,”

[Introduction: In 1879, Standing Bear of the Ponca nation, along with three other Poncas, left their reservation to return to their tribal lands to bury Standing Bear’s son. They were arrested and held by the U.S. Army, pending their return to the reservation. Two attorneys decided to challenge the U.S. government’s right to hold the Poncas.]

“The two attorneys then petitioned Judge Elmer S. Dundy of the United States District Court for a writ of habeas corpus to compel General Crook to justify his arrest of the Ponca. Dundy, known to be sympathetic to the downtrodden, issued the writ and ordered the opposing parties to appear before him. The trial opened in Omaha on April 30, 1879, and lasted for two days. G.M. Lambertson represented the U.S. Government and their argument was simply that the Indian was neither a person nor a citizen within the meaning of the law, and therefore could not bring suit of any kind against the government. Lambertson further contended that the Poncas adhered to their traditional ways, were dependent on the government, and as Indians, were not entitled to the rights and privileges of citizens.

The attorneys for the Indians stressed that the Poncas had renounced tribal authority, were engaged in farming, had made great advances in assimilation, and were entitled under the provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment to be treated like other people. The lawyers also argued that the U.S. Government had no right to take the Poncas' land or move them to Indian Territory.

After the attorneys presented their arguments, Judge Dundy allowed Standing Bear to address the court. Standing Bear did not speak English, but he was able to make an eloquent plea to the court through his interpreter, Susette ("Bright Eyes") LaFlesche.

Standing Bear rose, extended his hand toward the judge's bench --

"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."
After a short trial, Judge Elmer Dundy issued a ruling that surprised many observers and caused comment across the country. The ruling held that:
"First. That an Indian is a person with the meaning of the laws of the United States, and has therefore the right to sue out a writ of habeas corpus in a federal court and before a federal judge, in all cases where he may be confined, or in custody under color of authority of the United States, or where he is restrained of liberty in violation of the constitution or laws of the United States. . . .
        "That the Indians possess the inherent right of expatriation as well as the more fortunate white race, and have the inalienable right to 'life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,' so long as they obey the laws and do not trespass on forbidden ground.”

Documents for Native American Suffrage, 2

From the Dawes Severalty Act (1887) (from The Dawes Act Signed,
[The Dawes Act was designed to encourage the breakup of reservations and the assimilation of Native Americans into American society. It allotted reservation land to individual Native American landholders as private property, permitting all unclaimed land to be sold at auction.]
SEC. 6. That upon the completion of said allotments and the patenting of the lands to said allottees, each and every member of the respective bands or tribes of Indians to whom allotments have been made shall have the benefit of and be subject to the laws, both civil and criminal, of the State or Territory in which they may reside; and no Territory shall pass or enforce any law denying any such Indian within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the law. And every Indian born within the territorial limits of the United States to whom allotments shall have been made under the provisions of this act, or under any law or treaty, and every Indian born within the territorial limits of the United States who has voluntarily taken up, within said limits, his residence separate and apart from any tribe of Indians therein, and has adopted the habits of civilized life, is hereby declared to be a citizen of the United States, and is entitled to all the rights, privileges, and immunities of such citizens, whether said Indian has been or not, by birth or otherwise, a member of any tribe of Indians within the territorial limits of the United States without in any manner affecting the right of any such Indian to tribal or other property.

Documents for Native American Suffrage, 3

The American Indian Citizenship Act, 1919 (from Native American Citizenship,

During World War I, about 9,000 American Indians served in the armed services. They fought and died in defense of a nation that still denied most of them the right to participate in the political process. Congress, as a result, enacted legislation on November 6, 1919, granting citizenship to Indian veterans of World War I who were not yet citizens.

"Be it enacted ... that every American Indian who served in the Military or Naval Establishments of the United States during the war against the Imperial German Government, and who has received or who shall hereafter receive an honorable discharge, if not now a citizen and if he so desires, shall, on proof of such discharge and after proper identification before a court of competent jurisdiction, and without other examination except as prescribed by said court, be granted full citizenship with all the privileges pertaining thereto, without in any manner impairing or otherwise affecting the property rights, individuals or tribal, of any such Indian or his interest in tribal or other Indian property."

The 1919 American Indian Citizenship Act did not grant automatic citizenship to American Indian veterans who received an honorable discharge. The Act merely authorized those American Indian veterans who wanted to become American citizens to apply for and be granted citizenship. Few Indians actually followed through on the process, but it was another step towards citizenship.

Documents for Native American Suffrage, 4
Indian Citizenship Act, 1924 (from Native American Citizenship,
BE IT ENACTED by the Senate and house of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That all non citizen Indians born within the territorial limits of the United States be, and they are hereby, declared to be citizens of the United States: Provided That the granting of such citizenship shall not in any manner impair or otherwise affect the right of any Indian to tribal or other property. (Approved June 2, 1924)

Documents for Native American Suffrage, 5

Responses of Native Americans to the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 (from Native American Citizenship,

In the words of one Native American --

"United States citizenship was just another way of absorbing us and destroying our customs and our government. How could these Europeans come over and tell us we were citizens in our country? We had our own citizenship. By its [the Citizenship Act of 1924] provisions all Indians were automatically made United States citizens whether they wanted to be so or not. This was a violation of our sovereignty. Our citizenship was in our nations."

from Henry Mitchell, an Indian canoe maker.

"The Indians aren't allowed to have a voice in state affairs because they aren't voters. All they [the politicians] have to do out there is to look out for the interests of the Indians. Just why the Indians shouldn't vote is something I can't understand. One of the Indians went over to Old Town once to see some official in the city hall about voting. I don't know just what postion that official had over there, but he said to the Indian, 'We don't want you people over here. You have your own elections over on the island, and if you want to vote, go over there.' "

All materials in this document set taken from, a terrific website for documents and background on western and Nebraska history.

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