Saturday, June 6, 2009

"I Am a Man"

Published in L Magazine, March 2009
Copyright 2009 by L Magazine, used with permission
(This is my original, unedited copy)

Joe Starita, a journalism professor at the University of Nebraska, is surprised at how few people know the story of Chief Standing Bear. It’s something he’s hoping to remedy with his new book, I am a Man, recently published by St. Martin’s Press.

“It’s such a powerful, compelling, magnificent story,” he said. “And it’s really surprising to me how relatively few people know the story of what happened to a middle-aged father when he set off to bury his only son by walking 600 miles on a bitterly cold January morning. I want to expand that audience.”

Chief Standing Bear was a leader of the small, peace-loving Ponca tribe who lived in the northeast corner of Nebraska, at the confluence of the Missouri and Niobrara Rivers. In 1877 the U.S. military forced the Ponca to relocate to “Indian Territory” in present-day Oklahoma, a 600-mile journey of hardship, disaster and death. After two difficult years in an unforgiving land, Standing Bear’s son, Bear Shield, was near death. He asked his father to bury him in the ancestral burial ground overlooking the Niobrara River. Upon Bear Shield’s death, Standing Bear and 29 other Ponca loaded Bear Shield’s body onto a rickety buckboard wagon and set out in a blizzard to keep the chief’s promise. When they reached northeast Nebraska, they were arrested and ordered to return to Indian Territory.

In what Starita calls an “improbable sequence of events,” General George Crook, the brigadier general who was ordered to arrest the Ponca, realized he did not have the heart to send these exhausted people back. Instead he rode by horseback under the cover of night to tell the story to Thomas Henry Tibbles, the assistant editor of the Omaha newspaper. Tibbles took up Standing Bear’s cause, and for the first time in our nation’s history, a federal judge declared that an American Indian is a person within the meaning of the law.

“For one moment in 1879 you had white ranchers and white farmers and white judges and white brigadier generals of the United States Army and white newspaper reporters and white Episcopal bishops and white clergymen and white wealthy citizens and governors and senators and congressmen—all rallying around the Standing Bear flagpole to do everything they could to make sure that this man was accorded the kind of justice that Americans were supposed to believe in. That’s not a story?”

It’s also the story of all three branches of the U.S. government working exactly as our Founding Fathers had planned, Starita explained. The court system did its job, in the form of Judge Dundy weighing the evidence and ruling in Standing Bear’s favor. The legislative branch conducted days of hearings and concluded that Standing Bear had been wronged. The executive branch of government, in the form of President Rutherford B. Hayes, dispatched a commission to interview the Ponca and agreed that the chief had been wronged. Furthermore, it’s an example of the press doing its job of informing the public.

I am a Man is not a “musty old relic packed away in mothballs,” Starita said. “One of the things I like very much about this book is the great variety of themes and the great variety of questions that it raises,” he said. “Some of those themes and questions resonate as loudly in the opening years of the 21st century as they did in the waning years of the 19th century. If you look at the relationship between the government and the native people of this country, you can see that it was one that was fraught with problems from day one, and those problems are still going on. One of the things that I think is important to take away from this is the notion that it simply may not be possible to impose American style democracy on tribal based societies.”

Starita’s interest in Native Americans began as a young boy growing up in Lincoln. Because of what he calls his “obsessive personality,” that interest continued into his adult years. “It’s something that clicked with me at an early age and it never stopped clicking,” he said.
His first book, The Dull Knifes of Pine Ridge, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and has been translated into seven languages. It chronicles the changes that occurred in five generations of a single Lakota-Northern Cheyenne family on the Pine Ridge Reservation. This powerful story of struggle and survival is the result of three years of research and writing. Starita would throw a tent, a fishing pole and a couple of pairs of jeans in the back of his car and drive 500 miles to the Pine Ridge Reservation. There he would set up his tent on the ancestral homeland above Red Water Creek, where for two weeks he would spend 18-20 hours a day with the Dull Knife family. After six months, the family came to trust him and began telling him “rich, wonderful, textured stories that sank really deep into their family roots.”

He approached the story of Standing Bear with the same “Captain Ahab-like” determination. With the help of Kyle Wyatt, a graduate student majoring in history, he studied every article published about Standing Bear. He spent numerous hours in the traditional Ponca homeland in northeast Nebraska, talking with every Ponca he could find. Then he’d get in the car and drive to Oklahoma and talk to the key Ponca figures there. He also spent many hours exploring the land along the Niobrara River.

“You cannot write one word of the story unless you understand how sacrosanct the land was to the Ponca people,” he said. “So you have to go up there and you have to see it. You have to understand how the whole ecosystem works, what kinds of plants there are, how the rivers flow into one another, what kind of wildlife is there, what kind of fish, what kind of food can be grown there, how rich the valley was. You can’t write this story unless you spend a lot of time on the land so you understand why they would walk 600 miles to get back to this piece of property along the Niobrara River.”

The result is a book drawn from extensive historical research as well as rich oral history from real people, written in a well-structured, yet fast-paced, easy-to-read format. Starita wrote the book so each chapter stands on its own, at the same time forming a mosaic that fits together to tell a powerful story. It’s already generated positive reviews, including what Starita calls an “embarrassingly good review” in the Pequot Times, a newspaper produced by an influential New England Tribe.

What’s next for Starita? “What is really starting to get me excited is the story of Susan LaFlesche Picotte,” he said. “The more I hear about this story, the more I can feel the obsessive genes kicking in. It’s just a marvelous story.” Picotte was born on an Omaha Indian reservation and became the first Native American woman to receive a medical degree.

He’s also excited about a year-long class entitled “Native Daughters” he’s co-teaching at the University of Nebraska. Through a grant from the Carnegie/Knight Foundation, the University is bringing in some of the most impressive Native American Women in our country. Out of this year-long process of looking at the role of American Indian women in U.S. society, students will produce a 100-page full-color magazine, a one-hour documentary, a major website and several blogs.

For Starita, what started as a childhood interest has become a lifelong passion. He plans to continue researching, writing about and teaching about Native Americans and their place in our country.

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