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United States ex rel. Standing Bear v. Crook


The ruling established that Indians are "persons" under U.S. law and those who are not members of tribes have rights to challenge U.S. actions. Issues surrounding Standing Bear's vulnerability to the whim of U.S. officials led reformers to lobby for major changes in U.S. Indian policy. As a result, the 1887 Dawes Act converted communally-controlled reservation lands into individually-owned land parcels. Though passed with good intentions, the act proved disastrous to Indian social and economic well-being; its harmful effects were still felt by the close of the twentieth century. In the 1990s Congress similarly sought to limit the rights of immigrants and foreign terrorist suspects to challenge their detentions.

Before European "discovery" of North America, the Ponca Indians were originally part of a larger Siouan language group in eastern North America. The Siouan group gradually migrated westward, settling in various places. The Ponca and Omaha segments worked their way up the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers before eventually splitting apart. In the thirteenth century, the Ponca settled in future Dakota territory, near the mouth of the Niobara River where it joins the Missouri. With increasing numbers of whites entering the area by the mid-nineteenth century, food sources including wild game significantly declined and foreign diseases such as smallpox spread rapidly. This resulted in the death of a majority of native peoples in the region. Through this trauma, the Ponca remained a small peaceful tribe.

In 1858, the Ponca ceded over 2,000,000 acres of land to the United States in a treaty, keeping less than 100,000 acres for a reservation. The Ponca soon moved onto the reservation and began a transition to an agricultural economy. The United States's delay in providing assistance promised in the treaty led to increased hardships. In addition, the more aggressive Sioux Indians and whites raided the Ponca for their food, possessions, and horses. By 1865, the Ponca signed another treaty, moving their reservation for better protection. However, the following year a treaty between the United States and the mighty Sioux nation inadvertently placed most of the new Ponca reservation in a Sioux reservation. Hostilities renewed, with the Sioux destroying Ponca crops, stealing livestock, and killing tribe members. By the 1870s the Ponca, facing food shortages and continued Sioux raids, were increasingly desperate. The United States, in an effort to appease the Sioux and protect the Ponca, decided to remove the Ponca against their will to the recently established Indian Territory in the future state of Oklahoma.

Meanwhile, in the wake of the Civil War, Congress in 1868 ratified the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution guaranteeing that "all persons" have due process and equal protection of the laws. However, throughout much of the nineteenth century, the legal rights of Indian individuals were not a major concern of the federal government and or the courts. U.S.-Indian relations were largely directed by treaties rather than common law until Congress ended the treaty making period in 1871. Dealings with individual Indians were essentially avoided. In addition, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) had established an extensive system for policing and punishment that essentially operated beyond the reach of the courts. Indian agents with ready access to the military had broad authority. It is likely that within this system thousands of individuals were detained for a wide range of alleged actions through the years. However, by the 1870s Indian issues rose in the national eye as the West became increasingly settled and reformers shifted attention from the slavery issue. A demand for major reforms in the treatment of Indians gathered momentum.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1833 to 1882United States ex rel. Standing Bear v. Crook - Significance, Indians Are "persons", Impact, The Dawes Severalty Act, Further Readings