An early civil rights story, set in Nebraska

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February 27th, 2012

Omaha, NE – This year’s selection for One Book One Nebraska is a story of one of the earliest victories in the struggle for civil rights: a universal story of humanity and courage and a true story – one that took place right here in Nebraska.

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“After a while, he turned to the bench and began to speak in a low voice, his words conveyed to the judge and the large crowd by the Omaha Indian poet Bright Eyes. 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.”

That’s an excerpt of I Am a Man: Chief Standing Bear’s Journey for Justice, written by Joe Starita, a professor in the College of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Starita is also a long-time reporter, who’s written Pulitzer Prize-nominated investigative stories. He recently read from his book at the Omaha Public Library in Florence, just a few miles from where much of his story takes place.

“It’s a home grown story that has almost this mythological arc to it,” Starita said. “It’s the classic story of the hero triumphing over all of these obstacles and in the end winning a moral victory against overwhelming forces.”

1877 photo features Big Elk, Standing Buffalo Bull, White Eagle, and Standing Bear. Standing are John Baptist LeClair and Charles LeClair. (Photo credit Stanford Taylor via Ponca Tribe of Nebraska)

Standing Bear’s story begins in 1877 when the U.S. government ordered his tribe, the Ponca, off their homeland along the Niobrara River. The tribe walked for days to what is now Oklahoma, and what was then, to them, very foreign country. Hundreds died along the way, in what became known as the Ponca Trail of Tears. Standing Bear’s son was one of the casualties. And on his deathbed, he elicited a promise from his father, the Chief, that he would take his body back home to be buried in his homeland. Standing Bear then walked through bitter cold back to Nebraska, but was caught before he made it home. That began a struggle in Federal Court in Omaha, where Standing Bear fought for, and won, recognition as a free man – with basic human rights.

Joe Starita is a professor in the College of Journalism and Mass Comm. at UNL, and the author of "I am a Man: Standing Bear's Journey for Justice. (Photo courtesy UNL)

“It’s very important, and what’s really frustrating about it is far too few people really know that this, in many ways, kind of was the lead domino in the whole civil rights movement,” Starita said. “And if you talk to the Ponca people, and the Indian people, they will tell you, looking you right in the eye, that Standing Bear is their Martin Luther King.”

“Standing Bear is their man who had a dream, and his dream was to return his son to homeland and recover his homeland,” he said.

Standing Bear’s story will become a little better known around the state this year. Starita’s book was chosen as the 2012 One Book One Nebraska selection.

One Book One Nebraska is an opportunity for people all over the state to come together as a community of readers, and read the same book, and all over the state be talking about the same book, and learning from it, and learning from each other,” said Mary Jo Ryan, the Communications Coordinator for the Nebraska Library Commission, which helps sponsor the contest.”

“So it’s a wonderful way for people to connect around a piece of literature,” she said.

Each year, around this time, people across the state nominate their picks, under the criteria that the book must be written by a Nebraska author or be about Nebraska. The nominees are then whittled down to five finalists and one winner. I am a Man was selected in October for the competition’s eighth year.

I am a Man: Standing Bear's Journey for Justice was selected as this year's One Book One Nebraska.

“This is a book about Nebraska,” Ryan said. “It’s a true story of Nebraska, of the original Nebraska people, and an experience that an individual had on behalf of a group. And I think we can all relate to that experience.”

Starita said he’s honored his book was selected for the award. But much more satisfying, he said, is knowing more people will get to know this vitally important story: one that kept him up at night, trying to get each sentence just right, to properly honor a courageous man in Nebraska history.

“What is amazing is that despite all of this abuse and fear and anger, and all of these obstacles that were set in front of Standing Bear, and he just kept plowing ahead, plowing ahead, knocking them over and he never became bitter,” Starita said.

“Somehow he managed to triumph without becoming bitter, without becoming so racked with hatred that all of his humanity was drained from him.”

Book discussions, readings with the author and other events about the book will continue throughout the year. Click here for a link to a complete listing.

WEB EXTRA:

Joe Starita says one of his favorite aspects of Standing Bear’s remarkable story is the people who came out of the woodwork to help him:

“One of the really great things about this book, and that one that created a lot of traction within me is the number of white heroes replete in the narrative arc of this story. And you don’t find that in most of the history of the 19th century. When the forces of manifest destiny collided with the forces of the Native people, it generally wasn’t a case where all of these representatives from all of these different parts of the white strata came forward and began to rally around Standing Bear’s flag. That’s totally unique to this story.

Thomas Tibbles. (Photo credit Ponca Tribe of Nebraska)

“The Jewish community of Omaha coming out of the woodwork to hit up white people for money to aid in defense of American Indian, go back through the 18th and 19th century and show me where that’s happened before. Show me where the most venerable lawyer in the state of Nebraska, Andrew Jackson Poppleton, the first lawyer admitted to the bar in Nebraska, a former Mayor of Omaha, show me another time where the most venerable lawyer of some state came out of the woodwork and offered to represent an American Indian pro bono in a Federal Court.

“Show me where a crusading reporter (Thomas Tibbles), who was a very complex individual, where a certain cause, in this case Standing Bear, became his Moby Dick, and he pounded out article after article after article. Show me where the entire religious community in the eastern third of Nebraska came out of woodwork to write telegrams to the Secretary of Interior, to do everything they could, take up food collections, take up clothing collections for these Ponca people.

“At every level of American society, you find all of these white people who… there was something about this man, there was something about this story that was so human that they did things, and acted in a way they never had before. The story of a man who simply wanted to bury his son to honor that deathbed wish, there’s something so human about that, that it created a situation that was unique in American history.”

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