"I am brought here, but what have I done? I don't know. It seems to me as if I have no place on earth. I want a place where I can work and support my family, and when done with life, die peaceably!" Thus spoke Standing Bear, chief of the Poncas.
Standing Bear sued the U.S. District Court to try to win the right of his people to leave Oklahoma, where his tribe gave its name to the small town of Ponca, and return to his native home in northeastern Nebraska.
The trial, conducted in English without the aid of interpreters (so the plaintiff never understood a single word), was a courtroom drama that embraced the issues of human rights and cultural bias. Though it was true that the Union had fought a bloody, costly war to secure rights for its black citizens, there were few who wished to see those same rights accorded to the Native Americans of the Old West. Standing Bear acted with dignity, and spoke when he could. "My son, " he told the officers of the court, "asked me when he was dying to take him back and bury him there, and I have his bones in a box with me now. I want to live the rest of my life there and be buried there."
Stephen Dando-Collins, an Australian-born historical researcher, has drawn all the characters and carefully details the interactions between them, most especially in the taut courtroom scenes. There is Brigadier General George Crook, who had turned from fierce Indian fighter to a defender and sympathizer with the tribes - "he had achieved more through negotiation with the tribes than any of his predecessors had via military offensives." There is Bright Eyes, granddaughter of an Indian woman and a French trader, educated, beautiful, and the perfect publicity agent for the cause of the Poncas, a small but proud tribe who had been marched to Oklahoma, "the Warm Land," and abandoned there in 1877. There was the forward-thinking, hard-working legal team who advanced Standing Bear's cause in the courts.
And there was Henry Tibbles, bold newspaperman. The romance between Tibbles and Bright Eyes which developed slowly out of their shared dedication to the cause of the Poncas is a charming skein in this fascinating tapestry.
Sadly, though Standing Bear won his case and was acknowledged to be "a person" in legal terms and therefore heir to legal rights and protections, the mistreatment and illegal dealings with the Native populations continued well into the twentieth century, a source of national shame. Nonetheless, this is an inspiring and informative book and brings to light a heretofore unknown nugget of our heritage.