In 1879, Chief Standing Bear of the Ponca people successfully argued that Native Americans are “persons within the meaning of the law” with the right of habeas corpus. The result of case, held in a U.S. District Court in Omaha, meant that Chief Standing Bear became the first Native American judicially granted civil rights under U.S. law.
Nebraska recently unveiled a statue of Chief Standing Bear in the U.S. Capitol. A recent story about the statue and Standing Bear in The Washington Post story quotes Standing Bear’s affirmation of common humanity during his trial:
On the second day, Chief Standing Bear was called to testify, becoming the first Native American to do so. He raised his right hand and, through an interpreter, said: “My hand is not the color of yours, but if I pierce it, I shall feel pain. If you pierce your hand, you also feel pain. The blood that will flow from mine will be the same color as yours. The same god made us both. I am a man.”
“I am a man.” – Sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennesse.
“Ain’t I a woman,” – Sojourner Truth.
“I am a person. I am a human being.” – Countless people in countless situations.
Again and again, people have had to make that assertion as they struggle for civil rights and human rights in the face of oppression, discrimination, and prejudice. The struggle continues today. It is shared across all social identities as structures grant privilege to some but not to all. Key to creating and maintaining that privilege is denying the humanity of other people. When will we ever learn that everyone – everyone – is a human being entitled to basic human rights? When will we ever learn to treat one another with respect and love?
For Chief Standing Bear and Sojourner Truth and the sanitation workers of Memphis, may we renew our efforts to eviscerate, in the word of the CoInspire Conference, racism, sexism, ageism, ableism, homophobia, and all systems of privilege and oppression.
Learn more about Chief Standing Bear:
The Trial of Standing Bear – a PBS film