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Light drifted sleepily through the south-facing windows of the Nebraska Supreme Court chamber Saturday afternoon, all eyes in the packed room directed at one man.

Taylor Keen, dressed in the clothing of Standing Bear, was re-enacting the Ponca chief's famous speech from his 1879 trial. 

Keen faced Nebraska Supreme Court Chief Justice Mike Heavican, playing the role of Judge Elmer Dundy. 

"I am a man," Keen said. "God made us both."

The re-enactment of the United States ex rel. Standing Bear v. Crook trial, which originally took place in Omaha, concluded that Native Americans were persons. It was part of a sesquicentennial event called “NE 150: Diverse Origins,” sponsored by the Boy Scouts of America and the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs at the Capitol on Saturday.

Hundreds of scouts from across Nebraska came to the Capitol for the event.

The re-enactment featured Omaha Daily Herald editor Thomas Tibbles, who latched onto Standing Bear's story.

For Keen, a member of the Omaha tribe who has re-enacted the role of Standing Bear for five years, the trial was an important milestone during a time where Native Americans weren't allowed to leave their reservations.

Years before the trial, the Ponca tribe had been forced to relocate from its ancestral home in northeast Nebraska to Oklahoma, then known as Indian Territory.

"Everything up that point was just getting worse and worse, to the point where under U.S. law, they weren't even considered human beings," said Keen.

Standing Bear, who wanted to bury his son in Nebraska, was a key figure in the law being changed.

"Across the nation and across the world, Indians became humanized by this story," Keen said. "He (Standing Bear) was a man and he was trying to do something on behalf of his own family in full disregard of what the rules were."

Event chairman Chad Brassil said he wanted to merge the Boy Scouts' annual Spring Event with the Nebraska Commission of Indian Affairs and the sesquicentennial.

From there, organizer Kevin Abourezk and the commission had the idea for the re-enactment.

"We had this whole cast of people who were really excited to do it," Brassil said. "The trial was the No. 1 event."

Two blocks north of the Capitol, the White Tail Singers, a drum group from Macy, performed as part of the event. Other activities for Boy Scouts were held on the first and second floors of the Capitol,  as well.

Keen believes the Standing Bear trial marks a shift in Native American and Nebraska history.

"He took a horrible situation and brought out the humanity of so many people — leaders and founders of Omaha and this state," Keen said. "... and he was courageous and therefore was a pioneer of civil rights."

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7214 or zhammack@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @zach_hammack.

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