Standing Bear (c. 1829–1908) (Ponca official orthography: Maⁿchú-Naⁿzhíⁿ/Macunajin; other spellings: Ma-chú-nu-zhe, Ma-chú-na-zhe or Mantcunanjin pronounced [mãtʃuꜜnãʒĩꜜ]) was a Ponca chief and Native American civil rights leader who successfully argued in U.S. District Court in 1879 in Omaha that Native Americans are “persons within the meaning of the law” and have the right of habeas corpus, thus becoming the first Native American judicially granted civil rights under American law. His first wife Zazette Primeau (Primo), daughter of Lone Chief (also known as Antoine Primeau), mother of Prairie Flower and Bear Shield, was also a signatory on the 1879 writ that initiated the famous court case.
By 1789, when Juan Baptiste Munier acquired trading rights with the Ponca, they had villages along the Niobrara River near its mouth, and ranged as far east as present-day Ponca, Nebraska, at the mouth of Aowa Creek. A smallpoxepidemic had reduced their numbers from approximately 800 to 100 at the time of the Lewis and Clark Expedition in 1807.
When Standing Bear was born circa 1829, the Ponca traditionally raised maize, vegetables, and fruit trees in these sites during the summer. They ranged westward for the winter bison hunt. The hunts brought them into frequent contact with their traditional enemies, the Brulé and Oglala Lakota. Sometimes the Ponca allied with their enemies to raid Pawnee and Omaha villages, but they also suffered raids by them.
In Standing Bear’s childhood, Brulé raids forced the Ponca to rely more on agriculture and less on the winter bison hunt. In his adolescence, the tribe split into two villages: Húbthaⁿ (Fish Smell, pronounced [huːꜜblᶞã]), near the mouth of Ponca Creek; and Wáiⁿ-Xúde (Grey Blanket, pronounced [waꜜĩ xuꜜde]), on the northwest bank of the Niobrara. Standing Bear learned the ways of the men, how to hunt and fish, and prepared to take his place in the tribe.
In 1859, when Standing Bear was a young man, the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 had encouraged a flood of European-American settlers, and the United States government pressured the Nebraska tribes to sell their land. At the same time, they were suffering raids from the North by the Brulé and Oglala. Because tribal land claims overlapped, the Omaha treaty of 1854 included a cession of a 70-mile-mile-wide strip (110 km) of land between Aowa Creek and the Niobrara, which was also claimed by the Ponca.
By 1862, white settlers were quickly moving in and building the town of Niobrara where the Ponca summer corn fields had been. The Brulé raids from the north cut off the winter hunting grounds and forced the Ponca to abandon Húbthaⁿ. In 1858, under this pressure, the Ponca ceded much of their lands to the United States. They reserved the land between Ponca Creek and the Niobrara, approximately between present-day Butte and Lynch, Nebraska.
The land to which the Ponca moved proved unsuitable; poor farming conditions led to persistent famine. They were still subject to raids by hostile tribes. The Ponca spent years attempting to hunt and raise crops and horses near their old village of Húbthaⁿ and the town of Niobrara. The government failed to provide the mills, personnel, schools, and protection that it had promised by the 1858 treaty. It did not keep up with the increasing Ponca tribal enrollment in distribution of annuities and goods. Relatives sought annuity payments, people lost resources to sickness and starvation, and raids from hostile tribes were frequent.
In 1865 a new treaty allowed the Ponca to return to their traditional farming and burial grounds, in the much more fertile and secure area between the Niobrara and Ponca Creek east of the 1858 lands and up to the Missouri River. With the Treaty of Fort Laramie (1868), however, the government illegally gave the new Ponca reservation to the Santee Dakota as part of its negotiation to end Red Cloud’s War. The government soon began to seek to remove the Ponca to Indian Territory.