It seems appropriate I would end my recreation of the Ponca Trail of Tears at the sites of Standing Bear’s imprisonment and trial in Omaha. While I have some last-minute connections to make tomorrow in Lincoln, this will be my last full day on the trail.
Today I followed the Standing Bear saga to Fort Omaha, visiting General Crook’s home, built the same year Standing Bear was arrested. While Crook was friends with U.S. Grant and President Rutherford B. Hayes, he was also a friend to Standing Bear.
Based on documents presented at Crook’s home at Fort Omaha, the general secretly visited newspaperman Thomas Tibbles to suggest the idea of filing a writ of habeas corpus in federal court on the chief’s behalf. Tibbles enlisted two local attorneys, John Lee Webster and A.J. Poppleton to argue the case, based on the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Laurie Smith Camp, a federal judge from Omaha, said the case in Elmer Dundy’s 1879 court centered on the basic argument of due process and equal protection of property for all men in America, not just U.S. citizens. “It was a landmark case under the law,” Judge Smith Camp told me today. Dundy said Standing Bear was assimilating into the white man’s world, he wanted to live off the reservation and didn’t require government assistance.
The 14th Amendment allows for the rights of all men, not just citizens, so the case boiled down to the chief’s humanity, not his citizenship, she said. Just a short time later, Dundy and a second judge, hearing an appeal from another court of Elk vs. Wilkins, voted in favor of Wilkins, a registrar who did not allow Elk, an Indian living off the reservation, the right to vote.
In effect, Dundy decided Elk may be a man, but not a citizen of the United States with the right to vote. Instead, like foreign citizens from Europe or Asia, Elk was considered a citizen of a different country or nation.
The Elk-Wilkins case was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court which upheld the panel’s decision, Smith Camp said. Later, the U.S. Congress changed the statute to allow anyone born in the U.S. citizenship and the right to vote, including those born on reservations.
Born in Omaha, Judge Smith Camp has long been a student of American history, most especially Nebraska and Omaha history. A devotee of Standing Bear and Willa Cather, she has supported productions of Mary Kathryn Nagle’s play of Standing Bear’s trial, first produced and read in the judge’s own court building, the Roman L. Hruska federal courthouse in downtown Omaha.
Nagle is a playwright and attorney, specializing in tribal sovereignty of Native nations and people. She is also enrolled as a member of the Cherokee Tribe of Oklahoma. She clerked for Judge Smith Camp and Senior Judge Joseph F. Battalion in Nebraska, when she was just out of law school.
Nagle further refined the play and produced it for the Newseum in Washington, D.C. at the invitation of Jim Duff, a former NETV executive. Speaking about sovereignty in Lincoln tonight, Nagle will return to Omaha in January it present a children’s version of the play, Smith Camp said.
As I waited my turn to speak with the judge Wednesday afternoon, a group of law students met to discuss the Standing Bear landmark case before a set of displays regarding the trial in the court building’s lobby. Only minutes later, the judge instrumental in placing those panels in the federal courthouse addressed the student directly.
Not invited into the courtroom, I could only wonder if these fresh, young faces of tomorrow’s judiciary would be as enamored with the the case as the judge and myself.
While my Uber driver this morning knew nothing of Standing Bear, I’ve learned over the past week, he’s a well-known character on the national stage, much as he was following the trial in 1879. While he was confined to an island in the river not given to the Sioux in error when they government took it from the Ponca, Standing Bear and his followers were not given title to the land until long after the Dawes Act allowed for individual allotments. In the 18 months following the trial, Standing Bear, Susette LaFlesche and Tibbles toured the east coast of the U.S. and then Europe, furthering the cause of the Ponca and Indians, in general.
In December, the chief will be honored as one of two Nebraskans representing our state at the nation’s Capitol. Congressman Paul Ryan has asked the Standing Bear statue be dedicated in the Capitol Rotunda in December, before his term expires. Smith Camp will be there for the dedication and, she hopes, for the dedication of Willa Cather’s statue to follow.
In January, the United States Postal Service will issue a stamp with Standing Bear’s likeliness and in February, a Hollywood movie is set to begin. Smith Camp said rumor has it Kevin Costner and Leonardo DeCaprio are floating the project among movie backers and hope to star in and/or produce the epic.
I may not be in D.C. in December, but I will certainly be in line at the local post office in January and at the movie house in February, as the chief’s legacy continues.
Tomorrow’s stops, the last in my Trail of Tears journey, will include the Standing Bear statue in Lincoln and the state’s historical society artifacts. I will also be stalking two Native women leaders in the Lincoln community to end the series on a high note. Stay tuned.