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Local View: Honoring Standing Bear, a man and a father
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LOCAL VIEW

Local View: Honoring Standing Bear, a man and a father

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Imagine …

It’s early winter.

January 1879.

North-central Oklahoma.

More than a year earlier, your 750 peace-loving people had been ripped from their beloved Nebraska homeland and -- bayonets to their backs -- forcibly marched 550 miles south, dumped on creek bottoms smothered in mosquitoes, humidity and hopelessness.

In less than a year, more than a third of your people had ended up beneath the scorched red earth. From broken hearts. Suicide. Rampant malaria.

Through it all, the one thing you wanted most, the thing you prayed for, was always the same: that your only son would somehow survive. The son you had sent to the white man’s school to learn his language. To study his way of life. To know about his god. The son you had lovingly, patiently groomed to one day take your place as the leader of your people.

But now, on Christmas week 1878, Bear Shield lay curled up on the bottom of a dank Army tent. The 16-year-old’s breathing grew steadily shallower, his heartbeat fainter and fainter.

Before the boy drew his last breath, he begged you to make one last promise: to bury his body in the high chalk bluffs of your Niobrara homeland.

Imagine how proud Bear Shield must have been when you leaned closer, when you spoke to him in a firm voice -- when you gave him your word.

So, on the early afternoon of Jan. 2, 1879, you dressed the boy in his finest clothes and gently laid his body in the back of a rickety buckboard. The morning came in at 19-below and now there was blinding snow and soon you and 29 others -- eight men, 21 women and children -- all began walking into a blizzard toward the sacred white chalk bluffs more than 500 miles away. To keep your promise.

You had few winter clothes, little food, no money. So, you sheltered the very young and the very old in haystacks by night and rummaged for field corn by day. And you kept going, for three months in the dead of winter, until you were two days from the sacred homeland. And then you were caught, arrested by the Army for leaving your reservation illegally, imprisoned at Fort Omaha.

Soon, a local reporter heard about your plight -- about a father who just wanted to bury his son -- and a couple of Omaha lawyers read the story and decided the soldiers had no legal right to stop you from fulfilling your promise, and so they sued the U.S. government.

Late on the last night of the trial, the judge told the crowded courtroom one last speaker had asked permission to address the court. So, they all watched you, a large man with a single eagle feather and bear claw necklace, as you made your way to the front. They watched as you stopped, turned to face them and extended your right hand.

“That 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 of the same color as yours. I am a man. The same God made us both.”

Imagine how proud the boy would have been to hear his father’s words.

Ten days later, Judge Elmer Dundy ruled in your favor, declaring for the first time in the 103-year history of America that those like you were “a person within the meaning of the laws of the United States.” He ordered all the prisoners released, and so you continued your journey to the sacred chalk bluffs, fulfilling the death-bed promise to your son.

On June 8, 2021, the Lincoln Board of Education had the opportunity to name a new high school after someone who embodies many of the values Americans hold dear: courage, honesty, honor, valor, integrity, perseverance, kindness, love of family, love of country. Someone who provides a wealth of educational opportunities for a new generation of students. Someone who greatly enriches the cultural, historical and social fabric of what it means to be human. Someone who comes from a society built on the notion of “We” not “Me.”

Imagine how proud the son would be to know there will soon be a high school named after his father.

Imagine a Standing Bear High School in Lincoln.

Joe Starita is the author of "I Am a Man" - Chief Standing Bear's Journey for Justice, which was the 2011 One Book-One Lincoln selection and the 2012 One Book-One Nebraska selection.

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