He was not a free man. His people were sick and dying. It had been 18 months since the U.S. government forcibly moved the entire Ponca Tribe from their homeland near the Niobrara River 500 miles to Indian Territory. He described the unjust and painful environment the government had placed his people:
"Starvation so reduced our strength that when the sickness came on in the fall they could not stand it, and our people began to die. It was like a great house with a big fire in it, and everything was poison. We never saw such kind of sickness before. One hundred and fifty of our people have died, and more are dying every day. It is the worst country in the world. It was a place made to die in and not to live in. The ground is all hills and the prairie covered with stones. There is no land there which will raise anything, and we have nothing to farm with, for they never brought us the things they took away. We had nothing to do but sit still, be sick, starve and die."
Bear Shield, his teenage son, died. In his final words, he asked his father to take him home to be buried alongside the bones of his ancestors. The Poncas believed that if they were not buried with the bones of their ancestors, they would wander the next world alone. Family and tradition meant everything to the Poncas. Standing Bear, a loving father, promised his son he would take him home.
On January 2, 1879, a few days after Bear Shield’s death, hungry, sick, and facing death themselves, Standing Bear and 29 men, women and children left the government-designated Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma) to return home. His quest for freedom had begun. All Standing Bear had wanted was the right to live and die with his family on his own land – on the beloved land of his Ponca ancestors.
Sixty-two days into their “Journey of Sorrows,” Standing Bear and his companions arrived near Decatur, Nebraska, at the village of their cousins, the Omaha tribe. Iron Eye, chief of the Omaha tribe, and his daughter Bright Eyes, greeted them with food, clothing and medical care after seeing their awful condition – frostbite, bleeding feet, gauntness, torn clothing, crying children. Everyone was sick and exhausted. Standing Bear shared with his cousins, the sufferings the Poncas had endured.
Three weeks later, General George Crook, Commander of the Department of the Platte, received an order from his superiors to arrest these Poncas for leaving their reservation without government permission. The soldiers came to the Omaha tribe reservation and escorted the Ponca prisoners to Fort Omaha.
Iron Eye and Bright Eyes made the 100-hundred-mile trip from their Omaha tribe reservation to Fort Omaha, also willing to risk arrest for leaving without government permission. They had to tell General Crook the heartbreaking plight of their cousins.
General Crook was so disturbed by their story that he decided to do something unusual for the arresting officer. Shortly after midnight on March 30, 1879, Crook took Iron Eye and Bright Eyes to see his friend, Thomas Tibbles, deputy editor of the Omaha Herald newspaper. They arrived at Tibble’s office in downtown Omaha at 1:00 o’clock in the morning. Tibbles reported that General Crook told him, “Now I’m ordered to do a more cruel thing than ever before. I’ve come to ask if you will not take up the matter.”
Tibbles agreed to help. He immediately secured the expertise of attorneys John L. Webster and Andrew J. Poppleton. Together, they devised a strategy to challenge the government’s right to hold the Ponca prisoners against their will.
Two months later, Federal District Court Judge Elmer S. Dundy issued a ruling that was unprecedented in American History. The first civil rights victory for Native Americans had been achieved. It all began because of one man – Standing Bear.