The Plight of the Ponca Indians
November 25, 1879 — Faneuil Hall, Boston MA
I have lived all my life, with the exception of two years, which I spent at school in New Jersey, among my own tribe, the Omahas, and I have had an opportunity, such as is accorded to but few, of hearing both sides of the “Indian question.” I have at times felt bitterly toward the white race, yet were it not for some who have shown all kindness, generosity and sympathy toward one who had no claims on them but that of common humanity, I shudder to think what I would now have been. As it is my faith in justice and God has sometimes almost failed me but, I thank God, only almost.
It crushed our hearts when we saw a little handful of poor, ignorant, helpless, but peaceful people, such as the Poncas were, oppressed by a mighty nation, a nation so powerful that it could well have afforded to show justice and humanity if it only would. It was so hard to feel how powerless we were to help those we loved so dearly when we saw our relatives forced from their homes and compelled to go to a strange country at the point of the bayonet. The whole Ponca tribe were rapidly advancing in civilization; cultivated their farms, and their school houses and churches were well filled, when suddenly they were informed that the government required their removal to Indian Territory. My uncle said it came so suddenly upon them that they could not realize it at first, and they felt stunned and helpless. He also said if they had had any idea of what was coming, they might have successfully resisted; but as it was, it was carried rigidly beyond their control. Every objection they made was met by the word “soldier” and “bayonet.” The Poncas had always been a peaceful tribe, and were not armed, and even if they had been they would rather not have fought. It was such a cowardly thing for the government to do! They sold the land which belonged to the Poncas to the Sioux, without the knowledge of the owners, and, as the Poncas were perfectly helpless and the Sioux well armed, the government was not afraid to move the friendly tribe.
The tribe has been robbed of thousands of dollars’ worth of property, and the government shows no disposition to return what belongs to them. That property was lawfully theirs; they had worked for it; the annuities which were to be paid to them belonged to them. It was money promised by the government for land they had sold to the government. I desire to say that all annuities paid to Indian tribes by the government are in payment for land sold by them to the government, and are not charity. The government never gave any alms to the Indians, and we all know that through the “kindness” of the “Indian ring” they do not get the half of what the government actually owes them. It seems to us sometimes that the government treats us with less consideration than it does even the dogs.
For the past hundred years the Indians have had none to tell the story of their wrongs. If a white man did an injury to an Indian he had to suffer in silence, or being exasperated into revenge, the act of revenge has been spread abroad through the newspapers of the land as a causeless act, perpetrated on the whites just because the Indian delighted in being savage. It is because I know that a majority of the whites have not known of the cruelty practiced by the “Indian ring” on a handful of oppressed, helpless and conquered people, that I have the courage and confidence to appeal to the people of the United States. I have said “a conquered people.” I do not know that I have the right to say that. We are helpless, it is true; but at heart we do not feel that we are a conquered people. We are human beings; God made us as well as you; and we are peculiarly his because of our ignorance and helplessness. I seem to understand why Christ came upon the earth and wandered over it, homeless and hated of all men. It brings him so much nearer to us to feel that he has suffered as we suffer, and can understand it all — suffered that we might feel that we belonged to him and were his own.
I will relate a single instance out of many, given me by my father, who knows the individuals concerned in it. I do not select it because it exceeds in horrors others told me by my Indian friends, but because it happens to be freshest in my memory. My father said there was in the Pawnee tribe a warrior holding a prominent position and respected by all the Indians. A white man was given the position on the reservation of government farmer for the Pawnee tribe. The Pawnees expected, of course, that he would go around among them and teach them how to plough and plant. Instead of doing that, he had fenced in a large piece of land, and had that sown and planted with grain and produce of all kinds. The Indians planted it and thought they would receive a part, at least, of the harvest. They never got any of it.
The warrior mentioned above was one day in the field killing the blackbirds which had alighted in the field in large numbers. While engaged in doing this the powder gave out. He went to the government farmer’s house to ask for more. He saw a jeweled flask hanging up in the outside of the door, and as the farmer came to the door he pointed his gun to show that it was empty, and motioned to the flask to make known that he wanted some more powder. The government farmer shook his head and refused. The Indian, thinking he had misunderstood, raised his arm to take the flask to show him what he wanted. The government farmer, I suppose, thinking he, the Indian, intended to take the flask without his permission, raised a broadax lying on the ground, swung it in the air, and at one blow chopped the man’s arm and cut into his side. The farmer then fled.
The Pawnee Indians gathered around the dying warrior, and were making preparations for war on the white people in revenge for the dead, but the dying man made them promise him that they would do nothing in return. He said, “I am dying, and when I am dead you cannot bring me back to life by killing others. The government will not listen to you, but will listen to the farmer and send its soldiers and kill many of you, and you will all suffer for my sake. Let me die in peace and know you will not have to suffer for me.” They promised him, and none but the Indian people ever knew anything about it.
It is wrongs such as these which, accumulating, exasperate the Indians beyond endurance and prompt them to deeds of vengeance, which, to those who know only one side of the story, seem savage barbarism, and the Indians are looked upon with horror as beings whose thirst for blood is ever unslaked. I tell you we are human beings, who love and hate as you do. Our affections are as strong, if not stronger, than yours; stronger in that we are powerless to help each other, and can only suffer with each other.
Before the tribal relations were voluntarily broken up by the Omahas, my father was a chief. He helped make some of the treaties with the government. He had been acquainted with the last eighteen agents who have transacted the business for one tribe on the part of the government, and out of those eighteen agents four only were good and honest men.
The following instance will show how these agents squandered the money of the tribe: About four years ago one of them, without counselling the tribe, had a large handsome house built at a cost of about five thousand dollars, at the expense of the Omaha tribe. The building was intended by the agent, he said, for an infirmary, but he could not get any Indian to go into it, and it has never been used for anything since. It is of no use to the tribe, but it was a good job for the contractors. The tribe is now endeavoring to have it altered, to use it as a boarding school for the Indian children.
I have been intimately acquainted with the affairs of the Poncas. The Poncas and Omahas speak the same language and have always been friends, and thus I have known all their sorrows and troubles. Being an Indian, I, of course, have a deep interest in them. So many seem to think that Indians fight because they delight in being savage and are bloodthirsty. Let me relate one or two instances which serve to show how powerless we are to help ourselves. Some years ago an Omaha man was missed from one of our tribes. No one could tell what had become of him. Some of our people went to look for him. They found him in a pigpen, where he had been thrown to the hogs after having been killed by the white men.
Another time a man of our tribe went to a settlement about ten miles distant from our reserve to sell potatoes. While he stood sorting them out two young men came along. They were white men, and one of them had just arrived from the East; he said to his companion, “I should like to shoot that Indian, just to say that I had shot one.” His companion badgered him to do it. He raised his revolver and shot him.
Four weeks ago, just as we were starting on this trip, a young Indian boy of sixteen was stabbed by a white boy of thirteen. The stabbing took place near my house. The white people in the settlements around wondered that the Indian allowed the white boy to stab him, when he was so much older and stronger. It was because the Indian knew, as young as he was, that if he struck a blow to defend himself, and injured the boy in defending himself, the whole tribe would be punished for his act; that troops might be sent for a war made on the tribe. I think there was heroism in that boy’s act.
For wrongs like these we have no redress whatever. We have no protection from the law. The Indians all know that they are powerless. Their chiefs and leading men had been to Washington, and have returned to tell their people of the mighty nation which fill[s] the land once theirs. They know if they fight that they will be beaten, and they only fight when they are driven to desperation or are at the last extremity; and when they do at last fight, they have none to tell their side of the story, and it is given as a reason that they fight because they are bloodthirsty.
I have come to you to appeal for your sympathy and help for my people. They are immortal beings, for whom Christ died. They asked me to appeal to the churches, because they had heard that they were composed of God’s people, and to the judges because they righted all wrongs. The people who were once owners of this soil ask you for their liberty, and law is liberty.
Source: Boston Daily Advertiser, November 26, 1879.
Also: Outspoken Women: Speeches by American Women Reformers, 1635-1935, ed. Judith Anderson, (Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company), 1984, pp. 102-105.