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United States ex rel. Standing Bear v. Crook


Standing Bear was the first case to challenge the U.S. government's extensive use of military authority over Indians and to question the legal authority of the United States to confine Indians on reservations against their will. The decision was the first recognition that Indians were persons under the Fourteenth Amendment. However, Indians still did not have citizenship status, and their precise legal standing remained poorly defined. The Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 later provided some clarification.

Freed, Standing Bear, and the others promptly returned to the Niobara River area but were without a country, living on an island overlooked in the Sioux treaty. Standing Bear filed suit to reclaim reservation lands given to the Sioux, eventually winning judgment in December of 1880 with Judge Dundy again presiding. However, a presidential commission including General Crook was created to study the Ponca situation. Based on the commission's findings, President Rutherford B. Hayes recommended to Congress in January of 1881 that each Ponca be provided 160 acres of land, either in Indian Territory or on the Niobara, whichever the individuals wished. The allotment would be nontaxable for 30 years and funding for agricultural supplies would be provided. Congress passed an act adopting the recommendations, but another nine years passed before the Niobara Ponca received their lands. Meanwhile, Standing Bear became a spokesman for Indian rights touring the eastern states before his death in 1908.

The court held in Standing Bear that any person not a citizen of the United States and in custody of U.S. authorities has the right to challenge the custody's legality through the writ of habeas corpus. That Indians on reservations had writ powers posed a significant new threat to the previously unchallenged powers of BIA Indian agents. Indians now had much the same rights as foreign nationals. However, the Standing Bear decision was largely ignored as court precedent in this regard. Few legal challenges to the authority of Indian agents followed. Many continued to argue that Indians should be subjected to military authority due to their "conquered" status.

Importantly, Standing Bear contributed toward a major change in U.S.-- Native American policy with substantial implications across the nation. The earlier policy of isolating Indians on reservations dramatically changed in the 1880s to a policy of forcing Indians to blend into the dominant white culture. In 1887, Congress passed the General Allotment Act, also known as the Dawes Act. The act applied the basic concepts of the Hayes commission report to Indians throughout the nation. The act authorized the BIA to divide communally-owned tribal land, such as reservations, among tribal members in small sections, called allotments. Supporters of Standing Bear's cause believed this act would free Indians from arbitrary relocation by U.S. authorities by making them private property owners. Actually, the Indian controlled land base in the United States substantially eroded from 138 million acres in 1887 to only 52 million acres in 1934. "Surplus" lands, often the more agriculturally productive, were made available to whites. Towns grew within reservation boundaries. Congress, upon seeing the devastation to Indian society that allotments had wrought, ended the allotment era in 1934.

The issue of individuals' status under the Due Process Clause rose again in the 1990s, spurred by an increasingly anti-immigrant mood in the United States. Congress fundamentally changed U.S. immigration laws with passage of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996. The law substantially reduced the legal rights of alien immigrants who were subject to either expulsion or criminal prosecution for attempting to reenter the United States. Immigrants could be deported without a trial or hearing before a judge. As with the BIA in the Ponca case, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) was given broad powers in an expedited removal process that stripped federal courts of their authority to review INS decisions. Similarly, Congress passed the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 which allowed detention of noncitizens in U.S. jails outside the rules of due process by prohibiting the filing of habeas corpus petitions.

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