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We the People    The First Nebraskans 2


If Indians have the right to due process, do they have the right to vote? The year after Standing Bear's case, a man named John Elk tried to register to vote in Omaha. He was likely a Winnebago Indian who had separated himself from the tribe and its traditions. Registrar Charles Wilkins turned him down because Elk was an Indian and therefore not a citizen of the United States.

Andrew Poppleton and John Webster represented Elk in Judge Elmer Dundy's court. They argued that the 14th and 15th Amendments gave him the right to vote because he was born in the United States and owed no allegiance to his tribe. Judge Dundy ruled against Elk.

Elk appealed the ruling to the federal circuit court of appeals, where again he lost. The U.S. Supreme Court took up the case, and on November 3, 1884, handed down an important ruling: the 14th Amendment does not bestow citizenship on Indians. It would be another 40 years until passage of the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 allowed all indigenous people to vote.

Epilogue: Elk v. Wilkins has been cited recently by those arguing that children of illegal aliens born in this country are not citizens.

American Indians were not considered citizens
and therefore could not vote.
(Thomas Nast, Harper's Weekly, April 21, 1871)

     Omaha Daily Herald, November 4, 1884.

   Omaha Evening Bee, November 4, 1884.


Reservation lands were first held by tribes as a group. But beginning with the Indian Allotment Act of 1887, individual tribal members were allotted tracts of land about the size of homesteads. After all tribal individuals had been given allotments, the rest of the reservation was declared surplus and opened to non-Indian settlement.

Individual tribal members were given allotments, but were still treated as wards of the government. Title to the land was held in trust by the government, so tribal members could not borrow money against the land. Without money it was difficult to make the kinds of improvements that other homesteaders made. Without improvements Indians could not succeed as farmers.

When Indian farmers took their crops and animals to market, proceeds from the sale went not to them, but to a trust account held by the federal government. When tribal members needed money, they would apply to the agent on the reservation, who would then send a request to Washington, a process that could take months. Indians who needed money often fell victim to shady lenders, and soon tribal members found themselves hopelessly in debt.

Anthropologist Alice Fletcher surveying the Winnebago Reservation.


In 1910 the Omaha, considered the most progressive tribe in the nation, were selected for a great economic experiment. Tracts of land held by individuals would be removed from federal trust and each individual would be given title to the land.

But because the individuals on the land were deep in debt, their lands were soon lost to land speculators. Those who were not in debt often fell victim to deception and fraud. Those who were able to stay on the land could not obtain loans to purchase the machinery necessary for profitable farming, and so were forced to lease their land to non-Indians. Soon most of the land on the Omaha Reservation was out of Omaha control.

The Grand Experiment was a failure. It was never applied to another tribe.

Dr. Susan LaFlesche Picotte
, an Omaha who was the first female Native American medical doctor in the U.S., argued before the Secretary of the Interior that the Omaha should first be able to close out existing loans before being given individual title to their land. She used these photographs to show that the Omaha were capable farmers who could thrive given a level economic playing field. Her arguments fell on deaf ears.



The Indian Reorganization Act, also known as the Indian New Deal, is a benchmark in Indian rights. Reversing the process under the Indian Allotment Act of 1887 that privatized Indian lands, it returned local control to tribal management. This New Deal tried to create a sound economic base for America's tribes.

Nebraska Congressman Edgar Howard
co-sponsored the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, also called the Wheeler-Howard Act. Howard chaired the House Committee on Indian Affairs.



Nebraska became the first state in the nation to allow the use of sweat lodges in its penitentiary system in 1976. Judge Warren K. Urbom, U.S. District Court for the District of Nebraska, ruled that the Nebraska corrections system "shall allow inmates access to Indian medicine men and spiritual leaders and provide facilities for spiritual and religious services, including but not limited to the Native American church." The first sweat lodge was built at the Men's Reformatory unit in Lincoln that year. Two years later Congress passed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act. Its aim was to protect and preserve the traditional religious rights and cultural practices of American Indians. It required all governmental agencies to eliminate interference with the free exercise of Native religion, based on their First Amendment rights.

Sioux holy man Elmer Running dedicates prison's 2nd sweat lodge


A new federal policy begun in the mid-1940s assumed that American Indians would fare better if they were assimilated into the larger American population. This process would terminate recognition of tribal governments, remove tribal lands from federal trusteeship, and remove health and education services. This process was vigorously pursued by the federal government until the 1960s.

The last tribe legally terminated in the United States was the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska, Standing Bear's people. The process began in 1962 with an executive order signed by President John F. Kennedy and was completed in 1966.

The Ponca organized almost immediately to begin a process to be restored as a federally recognized tribe. In 1988 the Nebraska legislature granted state recognition of the Ponca. In 1989 a bill was introduced in Congress to restore the Ponca and passed in 1990. President George H. W. Bush signed it into law. The Ponca were officially restored in June 1994.

On August 12-14, 1994, the Northern Ponca held their First Reunion Powwow on their tribal grounds south of Niobrara, Nebraska. That powwow featured a special ceremony symbolically reuniting the Northern and Southern Ponca (who still live in Oklahoma).

Lincoln Star September 6, 1962, p.2 Headline: "President OKs Plan to Divide Poncas'  Assets"


Ponca dancing around the reunited council fire.
Ponca woman receives a cedar smoke blessing.
Ponca dancing around the reunited council fire.
Color guard for the Ponca reunion powwow.

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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