May 17, 2023
Inside the Sunday newspaper I found an article on an honor bestowed on Chief Standing Bear of the Ponca tribe. The US Postal Service released a Forever stamp on Friday honoring the Ponca tribe chief, a civil rights icon known for his “I Am a Man” speech. The stamp’s release comes 146 years after the US Army forcibly removed Chief Standing Bear and some 700 other members of the tribe from their homeland in northeast Nebraska. Standing Bear’s only son was among the more than 100 members of the tribe that died of hunger and disease during or shortly after their 600 mile walk from Nebraska to the Indian Territory in Oklahoma. Standing Bear’s desire was to bury his son in their homeland in the Niobrara River Valley. Standing Bear and 29 others were arrested for their attempt to return to Nebraska in 1879. The ensuing lawsuit established that a Native American is a person under the law.
When I looked online, I found the US Postal Service created the Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee in 1957 to float ideas for stamps. Members from the fields of art, education, science and technology, history, politics, and other areas of public life are appointed by the Postmaster General to evaluate stamp ideas from the public. Today more than 30,000 submissions come to the committee every year. The mail is opened in the office known as Stamp Development, which determines whether submissions meet stamp guidelines and criteria. The staff create binders of potential stamps to be studied and evaluated by the committee members which meet four times a year and the final decision rests with the Postmaster General (Louis DeJoy since June 15, 2020). There are five general guidelines for becoming a stamp. A subject person must have been dead for at least three years. Events of historical significance are commemorated on their 50-year anniversaries. The committee focuses on “themes of widespread national appeal,” as determined by the Postal Service. States are commemorated on stamps in 50-year intervals after the date of their entry into the union. Finally, a stamp only commemorates positive contributions to American life, history, culture, and environment.
When Standing Bear made the perilous trip back to Nebraska in 1879 to honor his son with a burial in the tribe’s homeland, he was arrested and imprisoned at Fort Omaha. His arrest was the catalyst for a lawsuit that led to an 1879 ruling by Judge Elmer S. Dundy in Omaha in favor of the defendants, saying that Chief Standing Bear and the others arrested members of the tribe were “persons”. By determining a Native American was a person under the law they were also ensured the inherent right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. The US Government appealed the ruling, but the US Supreme Court refused to hear the case. The members of the Ponca tribe were freed and returned to their old reservation along the Niobrara River. Chief Standing Bear died there and was buried in 1908. The US Postal Service issued a Forever stamp honoring Standing Bear for championing his 14th Amendment rights.
Thoughts: The irony of Chief Standing Bear is that he went from being considered a “non-person” to the “person” behind the event that granted Native America rights under the law. Section 1 of the 14th Amendment states, “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.” Many residing in the US take this right for granted, but that has not always been the case for Blacks held in slavery, Native Americans forced onto reservations, or Japanese citizens housed in internment camps. Freedom is more than just a word. It was the founding principle of the US Constitution. The “one” cannot be truly free until “all” are free. Act for all. Change is coming and it starts with you.