Nebraska's license plates and state slogan are in dire need of a rebranding effort. Our license plates are boring and poorly designed. Our state slogans are apparently either "Nebraska Nice" or "The Good Life." In my opinion, neither really highlights what makes Nebraska special. That got me thinking about what is unique about Nebraska that we could feature. The historical figure that stands out to me is Chief Standing Bear. He was a native of what is now Nebraska and his famous trial, establishing that Native Americans are people under the law, occurred in Omaha. Far too many, Nebraskans included, are unfamiliar with his story.
Chief Standing Bear and the Ponca Nation were forced to move from their homes in Nebraska to Indian Territory in Oklahoma. The reservation was malaria infested and the tribe was starving. Chief Standing Bear's son, knowing he was dying, asked his father to return his body to Nebraska for burial. After his death, Chief Standing Bear and a small group of Ponca, seeking to honor his son's request, set out on a cold 600 mile trek back to Nebraska. They were arrested for leaving the reservation and imprisoned at Fort Omaha. The key question at Chief Standing Bear's trial was whether a Native American is a person and thus deserving of rights. His victory went a long way toward establishing civil rights for Native Americans.
We should celebrate this great man and his role in the state's history. In my mind, Nebraska is a land of opportunity, where anyone can live, work, and be treated fairly. Chief Standing Bear's trial was a critical moment in our nation's struggle for racial justice. So I would like to see a profile of Chief Standing Bear on our next license plates, along with what I suggest should be our new state slogan, "Equality Before the Law."
It was late in the afternoon when the trial drew to a close. The excitement had been increasing, but it reached a height not before attained when Judge Dundy announced that Chief Standing Bear would be allowed to make a speech in his own behalf. Not one in the audience besides the army officers and Mr. Tibbies had ever heard an oration by an Indian. All of them had read of the eloquence of Red Jacket and Logan, and they sat there wondering if the mild-looking old man, with the lines of suffering and sorrow on his brow and cheek, dressed in the full robes of an Indian chief, could make a speech at all. It happened that there was a good interpreter present—one who was used to “chief talk.”
Standing Bear arose. Half facing the audience, he held out his right hand, and stood motionless so long that the stillness of death which had settled down on the audience, became almost unbearable. At last, looking up at the judge, he said:
“That hand is not the color of yours, but if I prick it, the blood will flow, and I shall feel pain. The blood is of the same color as yours. God made me, and I am a man. I never committed any crime. If I had, I would not stand here to make a defense. I would suffer the punishment and make no complaint.”
Still standing half facing the audience, he looked past the judge, out of the window, as if gazing upon something far in the distance, and continued:
“I seem to be standing on a high bank of a great river, with my wife and little girl at my side. I cannot cross the river, and impassable cliffs arise behind me. I hear the noise of great waters; I look, and see a flood coming. The waters rise to our feet, and then to our knees. My little girl stretches her hands toward me and says, ‘Save me.’ I stand where no member of my race ever stood before. There is no tradition to guide me. The chiefs who preceded me knew nothing of the circumstances that surround me. I hear only my little girl say, ‘Save me.’ In despair I look toward the cliffs behind me, and I seem to see a dim trail that may lead to a way of life. But no Indian ever passed over that trail. It looks to be impassable. I make the attempt.
“I take my child by the hand, and my wife follows after me. Our hands and our feet are torn by the sharp rocks, and our trail is marked by our blood. At last I see a rift in the rocks. A little way beyond there are green prairies. The swift-running water, the Niobrara, pours down between the green hills. There are the graves of my fathers. There again we will pitch our teepee and build our fires. I see the light of the world and of liberty just ahead.”
The old chief became silent again, and, after an appreciable pause, he turned toward the judge with such a look of pathos and suffering on his face that none who saw it will forget it, and said:
“But in the center of the path there stands a man. Behind him I see soldiers in number like the leaves of the trees. If that man gives me the permission, I may pass on to life and liberty. If he refuses, I must go back and sink beneath the flood.”
Then, in a lower tone, “You are that man.”
There was silence in the court as the old chief sat down. Tears ran down over the judge’s face. General Crook leaned forward and covered his face with his hands. Some of the ladies sobbed.
All at once that audience, by one common impulse, rose to its feet, and such a shout went up as was never heard in a Nebraska court room. No one heard Judge Dundy say, “Court is dismissed.” There was a rush for Standing Bear. The first to reach him was General Crook. I was second. The ladies flocked around him, and for an hour Standing Bear had a reception.