A little over a year ago, I committed to reading more books by and about people of color, and part of that included a commitment to learning more about the history of Native Americans and reading more Asian literature. I think I’m doing pretty well on my African American literature, but wanted to be sure to branch out to include other groups in my reading.
I came across I Am A Man: Chief Standing Bear’s Journey for Justice by Joe Starita on Goodreads when a friend of mine added it to one of their shelves, so I immediately added it to my TBR and requested the audiobook from my library. Apparently I wasn’t the only one to request it because when it came in, I had to wait for others to finish before I could get it.
Chief Standing Bear was a Ponca chief (one of about 8 or 10) in the 19th century. His tribe was living happily and peacefully in Nebraska and getting along pretty well with the white settlers. In the 1860s they signed a treaty with the U.S. government that granted them the right to their own land, but a few years later the U.S. government signed another treaty with the Ponca’s more violent neighbor, the Lakota, giving them the right to the same land the Ponca had inhabited for generations. The Lakota were violent and prone to causing trouble for pretty much everyone around them and it seemed like the U.S. government gave them the land more to shut them up than anything else.
Meanwhile, the U.S. government had set up an Indian reservation in what is now Oklahoma and forced all the Ponca to march more than 600 miles down to the reservation. They endured massive storms, and when they got there, the “houses” the government provided for them were little more than leaky huts that provided only minimal protection from the elements. To top it all off, the heat was more than the northern tribe was able to handle. Between the storms, the heat, starvation, and illness, almost three quarters of the tribe died either on the way to or on the reservation.
Chief Standing Bear’s own daughter died on the way and his oldest son died shortly after they reached the reservation. His son’s dying wish was to be buried on his homeland, so Chief Standing Bear packed up his few belongings, along with his son’s body, and headed north. But he was violating the law by leaving the reservation, so he was arrested. He responded by becoming the first Native American to sue an American general under habeas corpus.
Oddly enough, the lawsuit was the part I found most interesting. You’d think with the disputes between tribes and settlers and marching all the way to a foreign land, that would have grabbed my interest, but it didn’t in the slightest. What did pique my interest was the idea of a non-white man who was not technically a citizen suing under habeas corpus. The cases made by both sides disputed everything from the precedent set by similar cases by slaves to the question of the status of Native Americans in the United States – were they citizens? were they wards of the state? were they a nuisance to be eradicated?
The question of their legal status had not been fully dealt with at the time Chief Standing Bear filed his lawsuit, but the judge said it didn’t matter because there’s nothing about habeas corpus as set out in the constitution that requires citizenship. And as for the precedent set by slaves who had sued (and lost) under habeas corpus, the judge said those didn’t matter anymore because, at the time, the slaves had been considered property, rather than humans, but the Civil War had changed that, nullifying the precedent set by those lawsuits.
So Chief Standing Bear was free to go, but he still couldn’t go back to his homeland because he still didn’t own it – even though the Lakota didn’t want it and weren’t living there either. And he couldn’t go back to the reservation because, as part of his lawsuit, he and his attorneys had claimed he wasn’t really living as an Indian anymore and had given up all ties to his tribe.
So he petitions the government to let him and the survivors of his tribe return to their homeland. He travels all over the east coast with his daughter and some white men, including a reporter, to drum up support for new legislation that would give them the right to live on their own land.
The government did end up giving in and admitting they had made a mistake in giving the land to two different tribes. They did assign a plot of land to the Ponca, but just a fraction of what they had owned 20 years before.
I had mixed feelings about this story. We all know the atrocities the whites inflicted on the Native Americans, so I was prepared for that and it was awful, but there were some good stories. When a Ponca died on the way to the reservation, her parents asked that the white settlers tend to her grave, since they wouldn’t be able to and it was against Ponca tradition to bury their dead by the side of the road and leave it untended.
That grave is still tended to today (or was at the time of the book’s writing) and always has flowers.
There were also plenty of white citizens who felt for the Ponca and the journalist was instrumental in garnering support for Chief Standing Bear and his tribe by writing about it in the newspapers. In at least one instance, a Native American teacher got a white man’s attention when he ignored her pleas for help by threatening to go to the newspapers with her story.
So I guess white people weren’t all bad? At least not all the time? It was reassuring to hear that at least some of them did feel sympathy for the Ponca as neighbors and as fellow human beings, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t complicit in the atrocities committed by their government.
I also couldn’t help but wonder if they stood up for the Ponca only because they were “good little Indians.” To back up support for the Ponca, they would reference the fact that they were peaceful and often helped defend white settlers against the more violent tribes, such as the Lakota. They also tended to point to things like how they were assimilating into white culture to show they were “civilized.”
Overall, I’m glad I listened to this audiobook because I did learn a lot, even if it was painfully slow most of the time. The narrator wasn’t bad, but he did nothing to help the pacing of the story as he spoke slowly and took many long pauses. I never increased the speed of the audiobook, but I seriously considered it.
I also feel like the book itself could have been better written. Starita spent a lot of time switching from the 19th century to the beginning of the 21st and it wasn’t always clear when he transitioned or even why. It’s a fascinating story of setting legal precedent and the first instance of a marginalized group standing up for their civil rights, but I felt it could have been much better presented.
What did you guys read/listen to this week? Anything else you found disappointing?