“The painful, moving, inspiring, and important story of Chief Standing Bear has found a worthy chronicler in Joe Starita. This excellent book is essential reading for anyone interested in the history of the West, or of America.” —Ian Frazier, author of On the Rez and Great Plains
In 1877, Chief Standing Bear's Ponca Indian tribe was forcibly removed from their Nebraska homeland and marched to what was then known as Indian Territory (now Oklahoma), in what became the tribe's own Trail of Tears. "I Am a Man" chronicles what happened when Standing Bear set off on a six-hundred-mile walk to return the body of his only son to their traditional burial ground. Along the way, it examines the complex relationship between the United States government and the small, peaceful tribe and the legal consequences of land swaps and broken treaties, while never losing sight of the heartbreaking journey the Ponca endured. It is a story of survival—of a people left for dead who arose from the ashes of injustice, disease, neglect, starvation, humiliation, and termination. On another level, it is a story of life and death, despair and fortitude, freedom and patriotism. A story of Christian kindness and bureaucratic evil. And it is a story of hope—of a people still among us today, painstakingly preserving a cultural identity that had sustained them for centuries before their encounter with Lewis and Clark in the fall of 1804.
Before it ends, Standing Bear's long journey home also explores fundamental issues of citizenship, constitutional protection, cultural identity, and the nature of democracy—issues that continue to resonate loudly in twenty-first-century America. It is a story that questions whether native sovereignty, tribal-based societies, and cultural survival are compatible with American democracy. Standing Bear successfully used habeas corpus, the only liberty included in the original text of the Constitution, to gain access to a federal court and ultimately his freedom. This account aptly illuminates how the nation's delicate system of checks and balances worked almost exactly as the Founding Fathers envisioned, a system arguably out of whack and under siege today.
Joe Starita's well-researched and insightful account reads like historical fiction as his careful characterizations and vivid descriptions bring this piece of American history brilliantly to life.
St. Martin's Griffin
January 5, 2010
Joe Starita holds an endowed professorship at the University of Nebraska College of Journalism and Mass Communications. Previously, he spent 14 years at The Miami Herald – four years as the newspaper’s New York Bureau Chief and four years on its Investigations Team, where he specialized in investigating the questionable practices of doctors, lawyers and judges. One of his stories was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in local reporting. Interested since his youth in Native American history and culture, he returned to his native Nebraska in 1992 and began work on a three-year writing project examining five generations of a Lakota-Northern Cheyenne family. The Dull Knifes of Pine Ridge – A Lakota Odyssey, published in 1995 by G.P. Putnam Sons (New York), won the Mountain and Plains Booksellers Award, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in history, has been translated into six languages and is the subject of an upcoming documentary. Starita’s most recent book – “I Am A Man” – Chief Standing Bear’s Journey for Justice – was published in January 2009 by St. Martin’s Press (New York) and has gone into a seventh printing. The book tells the story of a middle-aged chief who attempted to keep a death-bed promise to his only son by walking more than 500 miles in the dead of winter from Oklahoma to Nebraska to return the boy’s remains to the soil of their native homeland. En route, the father unwittingly ended up in the cross-hairs of a groundbreaking legal decision in which a federal judge in Omaha declared - for the first time in the nation’s 103-year history - that an Indian “is a person” within the meaning of the law and entitled to the same Constitutional protections as white citizens.
In the last 3 ½ years, Starita has given more than 150 talks on Chief Standing Bear, the legal significance of the landmark legal ruling for Native people and why this powerful story still resonates in the 21st century. Those talks have included invited appearances at the Miami International Book Fair, the Chicago Tribune Literary Festival, C-Span’s Book Talk, a joint appearance with Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor at the Smithsonian Institution, a presentation to 5,000 National Education Association members and a speech to more than 500 minority lawyers and judges at their 2011 annual conference. In July 2011, the NEA presented Starita with the Leo Reano Award – a national civil rights award for his long-standing work on behalf of Native people.
Recently, he has completed a new book project – a biography of Dr. Susan La Flesche, an Omaha Indian born in a buffalo hide tipi in 1865, who graduated as the valedictorian of her medical school class in 1889 at the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, becoming the first Native doctor in U.S. history. The book will be released by St. Martin’s Press in November 2016.