Joe Starita's I Am A Man: Chief Standing Bear's Journey For Justice begins as the chief and his law-abiding, farming, Christian people are forced on a heartrending journey on foot from their legally-owned Nebraskan homeland in May, 1877 to the Indian Territory many hundreds of miles away and where no log cabins or anything awaited them. Half the tribe died from malaria, including many of Standing Bear's family, by the time he and twenty-nine others fled during the heart of 1879's winter for their home, again on foot. Detained in Omaha while visiting their relatives, the arrested chief provoked great legal interest.
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At the end of testimony and three long closing arguments in the federal court case of Ma-cha-nah-zha vs. (Brigadier General) George Crook on May 2, 1879, presided by Judge Elmer Dundy in Omaha, Nebraska, the defendant Chief Standing Bear rose, asked permission to speak and approached the front.
When he got to the front, he stopped and faced the audience, and extended his right hand, holding it still for a long time. After a while, it is said, he turned to the bench and began to speak in a low voice, his words conveyed to the judge and the large crowd by Bright Eyes (an English-fluent, young woman from the Omaha tribe). "This hand is not the color of yours, but if I pierce it, I shall feel pain. The blood that will flow from mine will be of the same color as yours. I am a man. The same God made us both."
Standing Bear goes on to illustrate why he cannot fight anymore and the judge is the only man who may help him to be legally recognized as a person and allowed his freedom after being detained in Omaha by the military for leaving the Indian Territory (now Oklahoma). Dundy carefully prepared for his landmark decision on May 12, 1879. He found that 1) an Indian is a person within the meaning of the laws in the United States, 2) that General Crook illegally detained the Ponca, 3) the military had no legal authority to forcibly remove the Ponca to Indian Territory, 4) Indians possess the inherent right of expatriation as well as the more fortunate white race, and 5) the Ponca must be discharged from custody.
But Standing Bear does and must continue to fight. His people had nowhere to live because the federal government "mistakenly" gave their Niobrara land to the Custer-murdering Lakota and they still owned it. Dundy's decision, based on the still-young Fourteenth Amendment and other legal sources, did give the weary band of Ponca their freedom, but no home. They couldn't even go back to the "Warm Country." Their predicament soon gets noticed more and more with the persistent efforts of a newsman, not only by Christians and attorneys but businessmen and politicians who were disturbed by the military's treatment of the Ponca. Standing Bear, Bright Eyes, the newsman and another Ponca raise enough money to take a speaking tour of Eastern cities and the nation becomes a bed of furor over the Ponca. After two Senate Committees report their findings on the situation, President Rutherford B. Hayes ends his one term anxious to right the wrong his administration committed against the civilized, hard-working Indians.
I Am A Man is quite a moving, descriptive, well-researched book that reminded me of reading about the much larger number of Cherokee who were also forcibly removed to Indian Territory, but they weren't like the Ponca who for many years had sought to assimilate into American civilization by farming, schooling their children and attending church. They didn't need government hand-outs and were well-liked by their white neighbors. In spite of this, the federal government, always confused as to how to treat Native Americans, was in the process of removing all the "savages" to Indian Territory.
Standing Bear was the first indigenous person to fight for his rights, paving the way for other minorities to fight too. He alerted Americans to the need to change how they thought of and treated the "red man."
I became aware of this book because it's been nominated for a One Book, One Lincoln book in my public library. I'm very glad I was finally able to grab a copy. To enjoy it as much as I did, you don't need to be a Nebraskan, but only a person desirous of human rights for all seeking it and who is intrigued by how the journey for minorities began with Standing Bear in an Omaha, Nebraska courtroom in 1879.
Starita is an investigative reporter who couldn't have told Standing Bear's journey with more professionalism and grace. The chief is still a hero to his people today and to me too.
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