Gateway to the Classics: Indian History for Young Folks by Francis S. Drake
Indian History for Young Folks by  Francis S. Drake

Joseph's Nez Perces and the Story of the Poncas

As we have seen in the preceding chapter, Chief Joseph surrendered to General Miles on October 5, 1877. Upon this memorable occasion he gave up his gun and said, "From where the sun now stands I will fight no more against the white man."

His people needed rest—they wanted peace. With Chief Joseph there surrendered four hundred of his people. It was General Miles's desire and Chief Joseph's fondest hope that, in accordance with the terms of the surrender, the Nez Percés would be sent back to Idaho—to the Wallowa Valley in North-eastern Oregon, their ancestral home. Instead, however, the terms of this surrender were shamefully violated. Joseph and his band—men, women, and children—were first taken to Fort Leavenworth and finally to the far-off Indian Territory, where, under the warmer climate, they speedily succumbed to disease. Here they regarded themselves as exiles, and in the first two years of their residence nearly one-third of the tribe died. There was a tinge of melancholy in their bearing and conversation that was pathetic. When they had surrendered, over one thousand of their horses had been taken from them and never returned, and of which Joseph said, only, "Somebody has got our horses." Joseph would never have surrendered if General Miles had not promised to send him back to Idaho. What a pity that these fine men and women were not allowed to return to their native Wallowa Valley, for which their hearts yearned and where they would have lived happy and contented! Joseph and his band, like all brave people, had great love of country and home, and they longed "for the mountains, the valleys, the streams, and the clear springs of water of their old home." Indeed, no people that ever lived had love of country more deeply rooted in their hearts than these Nez Percés.

Finally, in 1883, the work of undoing this great wrong was begun and the remnant of the tribe was removed to the Lapwai Reservation in Idaho; there they joined those Nez Percés who had not resisted the removal ordered in 1875. The exiles were received with great rejoicing. Indians from every part of the Lapwai Reservation gathered to welcome the wanderers; the leaders of the tribe made addresses of welcome and offered up thanks to the Great Spirit for answering their prayer to have their brothers back once more in the home of their fathers. Chief Joseph himself, however, was not to share in this general rejoicing. The authorities feared that his presence might be a danger, and so, with about one hundred and fifty of his followers, he was sent to the Colville Reservation, in Washington Territory. Here Chief Joseph continued to live until his death, September 21, 1904. Shortly before his death this noble Indian, in 1903, visited Washington, where he was the guest of President Roosevelt and General Miles. In his later years he had become reconciled to the changed conditions, and realized that his people must also change in order to have any chance of holding their own with the white man. He became a strong advocate for the education of the Indian, aiding personally in the education of his own children, and urging day in and day out that parents should send their sons and daughters to the reservation schools. Only thus, he saw, could the Indians hope to succeed in solving their problem. As an appreciation of his worth and to preserve his memory to future generations the State of Washington erected a monument on the site of his grave at Nespelin and dedicated it to this prince among Indians, June 30, 1905.

Before we discuss the Indian wars which raged in the North-west and South-west for varying intervals from 1877 down to 1891, when occurred the uprising of the ghost-dancing Sioux, and which, happily, was destined to be the last of the Indian wars, let us relate the story of the wrongs done the peaceful Poncas, whose removal from their homes in the spring of 1877 every one now admits was an outrage.

"In 1875 it was desired to push the Sioux Reservation eastward in order to wrest from them the gold-yielding Black Hills of Dakota; but the way was blocked by the small reservation of ninety-six thousand acres occupied by the peaceful Poncas, which lay directly east of the Sioux in the south-east corner of Dakota. Here they dwelt under a treaty of 1855, raised their crops, built their houses, opened schools, constructed a church, and prospered as much as the frequent raids of their neighbors, the Sioux, would allow. They represented probably the best results of the application of the peace policy to the savages, and it was once officially said of them that no Ponca had ever killed a white man. Yet on the chessboard of inland diplomacy they must be shifted hundreds of miles to the Indian Territory in order to allow the Sioux to occupy their position, and to make way for the miners and capitalists in the Black Hills. At the same time the Sioux, coming into possession of the tilled land, one hundred houses, and other property of the Poncas, would receive an impulse towards civilization. Congress at first made the consent of the Poncas a condition of their removal; but when this could not be secured from the intelligent Indians by the usual promises, Congress ordered their unconditional removal and permanent location in the Indian Territory.

"Yielding to the inevitable, these Indian farmers, with their families, about six hundred persons in all, journeyed for fifty-two days through the spring rains and over muddy trails to the Territory, where they found a precarious lodging in tents on lands belonging to the Quapaws. During the first year eighty-five deaths were recorded officially, the Indian count being one hundred and fifty-seven. The survivors were now shifted to a new location on the Kaw River, where they must begin new improvements. Without tools or implements, devastated by death, and sick in spirit, small bands of the Poncas began stealthily to return northward to their old home in Dakota. They carried the bones of their dead to be interred in the land of their fathers. As the story of their wrongs spread through the public prints, a great storm of popular indignation broke upon the head of Secretary Schurz, the vicarious sacrifice of Congress in the removal of the Poncas. Newspapers teemed with editorials and articles demanding the return of the expatriated Indians to their Dakota homes and the restoration of their lands.

"Among the Ponca chiefs was Standing Bear, who, with twenty-five followers, disobediently left the Indian Territory and migrated to their friends, the Omahas, in Nebraska. They declared their intention of abandoning their tribal relations and becoming self-supporting. Nevertheless, they were arrested by Brigadier-general Crook on orders from Washington for having left their reservation without permission. Here was a new point in law. The prisoners were released on a writ of habeas corpus  by Judge Dundy, of the United States district court of Nebraska, May 12, 1878, on the ground that an Indian was a 'person' within the meaning of the laws of the United States, possessed of the inherent right of removing from place to place, and entitled to the privilege of habeas corpus. Evidently the Indian was rapidly passing, as the negro had done, from being a ward of the Republic to a citizen thereof. Whether the new status in which the Indian was placed by the decision would have been upheld by the Supreme Court was unfortunately never determined, because Standing Bear gave no bond for his appearance in a higher court after the case had been appealed by a representative of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the whole controversy was dropped.

"Standing Bear immediately toured the country with an educated Ponca girl named Bright Eyes, both addressing large audiences, organizing Ponca relief associations and arousing public indignation with the story of their wrongs. President Hayes freely acknowledged that enough responsibility for the wrong consummated on the Poncas attached to him to make it his particular duty and earnest desire to do all that he could to give them the redress which was required alike by justice and humanity. He created a Ponca Commission, composed of two army officers and two civilians, who visited the scattered Poncas and reported, February, 1881, that five hundred and twenty-one were living contentedly in the Indian Territory and had no wish to return; and that about one hundred and fifty were dwelling in Dakota and Nebraska, and desired to remain there. This disposition was eventually made, and the excitement subsided."

Standing Bear made his home among the hills of his ancestors, and lived on the old reservation in peace and prosperity until September, 1908, when he died at the ripe age of seventy-nine.

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