In 1804, Lewis and Clark met a small, friendly native tribe called the Poncas. In 1858, the Poncas surrendered their lands in exchange for a guarantee of U.S. government protection and a permanent home near the Niobrara River. But in 1868, the government forced the Poncas off their lands and moved them to Sioux territory. Then, after Custer’s defeat, the government mandated that Poncas—who had no connection to Custer’s defeat—be relocated again.
The passage is a good, if disturbing, example of how the U.S. government used Custer’s defeat as an excuse to escalate authoritarianism over all Native American tribes—including peaceful, friendly tribes like the Poncas.
In January 1877, the Poncas, led by chief White Eagle, learned that they were to be removed from their lands. White Eagle visited his people’s future reservation, in Kansas. He was horrified—the land in Kansas was barren and dry, meaning that his people would surely want for food and other resources. The Ponca leaders were furious that the government was moving their people once again. But by June 1877, soldiers had moved most of the Poncas out to Kansas, their new home. In Kansas, many Poncas died of disease or starvation.
Like almost all Native American reservations of the era, the Ponca reservation in Kansas was barren, miserable, and generally unfit for living—a fact confirmed when Poncas began dying shortly after arriving there.
General Crook learned of the Poncas’ relocation. Even though he’d participated in the relocation or murder of many Native Americans, he was moved by the Poncas’ suffering, and attempted to halt the transfer order by notifying the press. In 1879, the Poncas went to a U.S. court, arguing that they were Americans, and therefore entitled to live wherever they wanted However, the state argued that the Poncas were “not persons within the meaning of the law,” and therefore had to relocate according to government decree. In the end, the judge ruled that the Poncas had the inalienable right to choose a place to live. The Poncas had worked within the U.S. court system to win their freedom to live by the Niobrara River in Nebraska.
Crook, like Sherman, is a complex character. He’s both an agent of genocide and living proof of the personal toll that a life of violence can take on a human being. Crook’s cooperation with the Poncas marked one of the few times in Brown’s book that Native Americans enjoyed some success by working within the legal and political systems of the United States of America.
Although the Poncas had won the freedom to live in Nebraska, many of the Poncas already living in Kansas were forbidden to leave their reservation. General Sherman was sent in to arrest any Poncas who tried to escape from Kansas; publicly, he claimed that the Poncas’ legal victory only applied to Poncas not already living in Kansas.
The problem with the Poncas’ victory was that it couldn’t really be enforced. Even though the court system had granted the Poncas—all Poncas—the right to live where they wanted, General Sherman enforced his own lopsided interpretation of the ruling, splitting the Poncas into two halves.
In October, General Sherman arrested Big Snake, the brother of a Ponca chief. According to eyewitnesses, Big Snake refused to allow soldiers to handcuff him. He struggled with the soldiers, and one of them shot him in the head, killing him instantly. The message to the Poncas was clear enough: “the white man’s law was an illusion.” From then on, the Poncas were split into two halves, one half in Nebraska, one in Kansas.
Big Snake’s death echoes the death of Crazy Horse (and, as with Crazy Horse’s death, Brown leaves it unclear if the killing was really provoked or if it was cold-blooded murder). The chapter arrives at the tragic conclusion that legal means of resistance could only accomplish so much for the Native Americans: while the law could provide the Poncas with some protection, the Poncas were still at the mercy of the military’s superior might.