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We the People    The First Nebraskans

Nebraska's role in the murky waters of Indian Rights.

The U.S. Constitution did not include Indians in "we."
Were American Indians aliens in their own land? Were they wards of the United States, adopted orphans? Were they people to be eventually afforded the rights and responsibilities of citizenship? Who would decide? Events in Nebraska's history played a substantial role in defining the rights of Indian peoples.

Is an Indian a person under the law?

Standing Bear: "I am a Man"

In 1879 the Ponca leader, Standing Bear, stood before U.S .District Court Judge Elmer Dundy. Fundamental legal questions were at issue. Was Standing Bear a person under the law entitled to due process? Or could the government arrest and detain him as an Indian, without charging him with a crime?

 Amendment 14, Section 2
        All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

The Loss of the Ponca Land
The Treaty of 1868 at Fort Laramie created a vast tract of protected land for the Lakota Sioux. Either by accident or intent, that land included the land occupied by the Ponca and explicitly guaranteed to them by the Treaty of 1865.The U.S. Government's solution to the problem was to relocate the Ponca to Indian Territory in what is now Oklahoma.

Signing the Treaty of 1868
at Fort Laramie.  
  Photograph by Alexander Gardner.

 The Government of the United States, by way of rewarding them for their constant fidelity to the Government and citizens thereof, and with a view of returning to the said tribe of Ponca Indians their old burying-grounds and corn-fields, hereby cede and relinquish to the tribe of Ponca Indians the following-described fractional townships, to wit: township (31) thirty-one north. . . lying south of Ponca Creek; and also all the islands in the Niobrara or Running Water River, lying in front of lands or townships above ceded by the United States to the Ponca tribe of Indians. . . .

Quote from the Treaty of 1865

Many of these Ponca chiefs, pictured here in the April 17, 1858, edition of Leslie's Illustrated, were involved in the 1865 treaty. Back row, l-r: William Smith, Francis Roy, Gen. J.B. Robertson and U.S. interpreter. Front row, l-r: Tah-Tungah-Mushi, Nah-Shka-Moni, Wai-Gah-Sah-Fi, Gish-Tah-Wah-Gu and Ashman-Nikah-Gah-Hi.



In April and May of 1877 the Ponca were forcibly removed to Indian Territory (now Oklahoma). They had been successful farmers along the Niobrara River, but they arrived too late to plant crops that would thrive in the arid lands of the territory. The Ponca soon fell victim to warm weather diseases, particularly malaria. By the spring of 1878 nearly a third of the Ponca had died from starvation and disease.

Standing Bear's son, Bear Shield, was among the victims. His dying request was to be taken home to be buried on the banks of the Niobrara. Standing Bear and a group of the Ponca headed north into the dead of winter with Bear Shield's remains.

They reached the reservation of their Indian cousins, the Omaha, and there stopped to rest. They were but a few miles from their destination. But government orders came from Washington to take the Ponca into custody and return them to Oklahoma immediately. General George Crook placed the exhausted Ponca under arrest and took them to Fort Omaha.

This map is digitally created from a much larger original map found at the Library of Congress. The original, published in 1888, intended to show all Indian lands in America. It shows the Great Sioux Reservation created by the Treaty of 1868 and the traditional Ponca lands. Note the long distances traveled by Standing Bear and his people, mostly on foot, from their homelands to Indian Territory and back.

General George Crook
. Though a model soldier, George Crook was appalled by the government's plan to return the Ponca to Indian Territory. He secretly brought the story of the Ponca to journalist Thomas Tibbles, who shared it with the world.



Thomas Tibbles attacked the government's plans in the pages of the Omaha Daily Herald. Soon the story of the Ponca's plight had the attention of the entire nation. Tibbles' stories prompted two prominent Omaha attorneys, Andrew Poppleton and John Webster, to take on the case without charge.

Journalist Thomas Tibbles
Attorney Andrew Poppleton
Attorney John Webster

from the Omaha Daily Herald.

(900K pdf)



Attorneys Poppleton and Webster came before Federal District Court Judge Elmer Dundy with a bold argument: Indians were, by virtue of the 14th Amendment, persons under the law. As such they were due the protection of the Constitution. They offered a writ of habeas corpus claiming that the government had no legal authority to arrest and detain the Ponca.

Judge Dundy arrived at a simple conclusion. The 14th Amendment protects all persons born or naturalized in the United States. Standing Bear and the Ponca were persons, and therefore due the full protection of the law.


The first page of the
writ of habeas corpus filed on behalf of Standing Bear and his people by Andrew J. Poppleton and John Webster, April 8, 1879.

Courtesy the National Archives and Records Administration, Kansas City, Missouri.


 "That hand is not the color of yours, but if I prick it, the blood will flow, and I shall feel pain. The blood is of the same color as yours. God made me, and I am a man. I never committed any crime. If I had, I would not stand here to make a defense. I would suffer the punishment and make no complaint."

- Standing Bear

Virtual Exhibits


Nebraska Territory,
Slave or Free?

Citizens of the 37th State

First Nebraskans (1)

First Nebraskans (2)


Separate But Not Equal

Children and Youth

Accused and Convicted

A Matter of Faith


Shadow of Intolerance

    WWI Council of Defense

   1919 Riot

   Ku Klux Klan

   Red Scare

   Farm Belt Führer

   Sexual Orientation




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Last updated 4 January 2013

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