The story is powerfully told in the book, I am a Man, by Nebraska journalist and prize-winning author Joe Starita (St. Martin’s Press, 2009).
Many tribes suffered their trail of tears in the Indian Removal era and years later in forced marches from their homelands to Indian Territory, now known as Oklahoma. The Ponca Tribe, having been removed from their homelands earlier when the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie resulted in the arbitrary taking of their lands for the Great Sioux Reservation, were again removed in 1877 in a bitter trek to Oklahoma. Many lives were lost along the way, and the tribe arrived in tatters in their inhospitable new lands, many more dying there of starvation and disease.
Such was the fate of Chief Standing Bear’s band. The Chief’s son, Bear Shield, was among the dead; and to keep a death bed promise to his son – to bury him in the Niobrara River valley homeland, Standing Bear left Indian Territory to return to Nebraska, with 65 followers accompanying the party.
After reaching the Omaha reservation, and being welcomed there by the Omaha Tribe, Standing Bear and his people were arrested by General George Crook, who had orders from Washington to march them back to Oklahoma. Moved by Standing Bear’s story and determination, Crook delayed action, and told the Ponca story to Thomas Tibbles of the Omaha Daily Herald, and the story was publicized widely. Omaha attorney John L. Webster offered his services and was joined by Andrew J. Poppleton, attorney of the Union Pacific Railroad. In April 1879, with the aid of the attorneys, Standing Bear sued for a writ of habeas corpus in U.S. District Court in Omaha, Nebraska. In the case, United States ex rel. Standing Bear v. Crook, the general was named as the principal defendant because he was holding the Ponca under color of law.
As the trial drew to a close, the chief spoke on his own behalf. Raising his hand, he said to the Judge, “That hand is not the color of yours, but if I prick it, the blood will flow, and I shall feel pain,” Then he continued, “The blood is of the same color as yours. God made us both, and I am a man.”
On May 12, 1879, Judge Elmer S. Dundy ruled that “an Indian is a person” within the meaning of habeas corpus. In that landmark case, Indians were recognized as “persons” under the law and entitled to its rights and protection.
But in 1966, the Ponca in Nebraska were again removed, this time from the rolls of federally-recognized tribes – terminated. They were dissolved, and no longer a tribe for purposes of trust protection and federal services.
Then as history repeats itself in events, it also repeats itself in the form of new historic heroes; such a person was Fred LeRoy, who rallied the scattered Ponca tribal communities and organized their struggle for restoration of federal recognition.
In the late 1980s I served on the Board of the Native American Community Development Corporation of Omaha, the “Indian center” that served the social and health needs of the city’s Indian community. The NACDC’s offices were in an old commercial garage facility in a very rough section of town. After several monthly meetings I began to notice a person I thought was a new staff member working in a dark corner of the place, with a single desk, a phone, and not much else. Board members asked who he was, and we were told the man was Fred LeRoy, who was working to organize a campaign to get the Ponca Tribe restored. Thereafter, I saw him many times, usually on the phone, rebuilding a nation.
The Northern Ponca Restoration Committee was formed and worked tirelessly to earn the backing of the Nebraska’s Congressional delegation, as well as other tribes, before taking its request to Washington. His daughter Rhonda Weston remembers her father’s frequent trips to Washington to lobby and meet with members of Congress.
In 1990, a quarter-century after it was terminated, the tribe was officially restored as the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska, and Fred LeRoy was named its first Chairman.
Fred LeRoy died on January 11th, 2012, at his home in Omaha. A U.S. Marine veteran of the Vietnam War, Fred LeRoy was 63 years old.
Another outstanding Ponca leader, Judi Morgan Gaiashkibos, said of Fred LeRoy, “He came home after Vietnam and continued to be a warrior for the Ponca people.”
Though he probably could have served as Chairman of the Tribe indefinitely, he chose to serve only two terms, but he continued to serve the tribe as a councilman. According to his daughter, her father was never interested in politics. “It wasn’t about any of that. It was about the people.”