Christine Lesiak and Princella Parker

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Christine Lesiak and Princella Parker

Standing Bear’s Footsteps, the new historical documentary by Christine Lesiak and Princella Parker (Omaha), tells the story of one of America’s original civil rights activists, Ponca Chief Standing Bear.

“The film is about what it means to be a person as told through the life of a Ponca Indian Chief, and his struggle to be free,” said Christine Lesiak, executive producer, writer and director of Standing Bear’s Footsteps.

Standing Bear and other members of the Ponca Tribe were arrested near Omaha, Neb., in March of 1879. They were taken into custody for leaving the Indian Territory in Oklahoma, a government-imposed place of exile for Native Americans. They were detained by the U.S. Army while walking north to bury Standing Bear’s son at the Ponca homeland near the Niobrara River in northeastern Nebraska.  

At the time of their arrest, Standing Bear and the Ponca were not considered to be people or citizens under the law of the U.S. government. Because of this, Standing Bear and the Ponca lacked all rights granted to America’s citizens.    

By leaving the Indian Territory in Oklahoma, Standing Bear had broken federal law. Following the arrest, Standing Bear sued the U.S. government for his freedom. In Federal court he won his case after arguing that he was as much a man as any other man in America.

“My hand is not the same color as yours,” Standing Bear said to the judge. “If I pierce it, I shall feel pain. If you pierce your hand, you too will feel pain. The blood that flows will be the same color. I am a man.”

The court’s ruling was groundbreaking because the U.S. government recognized Standing Bear, a Native American, to be a person under U.S. law. Despite the significance of his victory, Standing Bear’s story is not well known.

“As attorneys put it, his trial was an anomaly,” she said. “It [Standing Bear’s victory in court] didn’t lead to the kind of victories you would hope it would (including citizenship for Native Americans), and that’s the irony in the story I find so powerful.”

Lesiak’s associate producer, Princella Parker, a member of the Omaha Tribe, became involved with Standing Bear’s Footsteps after meeting Lesiak through the Native Daughters class at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln journalism school.

“I got to learn a ton,” Parker said. “I am very thankful for the information I do know now.”

Lesiak, who is non-Native, said having Parker as co-producer helped the film immensely.

“Having Prince by my side really gave me a sense of confidence that we weren’t doing insensitive things,” Lesiak said. “She and my Ponca consultant Judi gaiashkibos kept me from getting into trouble out of sheer ignorance.”

Parker also played a critical role in collecting and integrating archival materials, including what Lesiak described as a “treasure trove” of still photos.  

“It was really fun, I liked it...it was finding history,” Parker said.

Accompanying Standing Bear’s Footsteps is a 5-minute short film by Parker entitled Nebraska Stories: Bright Eyes. Parker said her personal piece includes elements of her own life woven together with footage from Standing Bear’s Footsteps that tell an abbreviated story of Chief Standing Bear.

“I bring up my own family, being Omaha, and what that meant to me,” Parker said.

Standing Bear’s Footsteps is the first documentary to tell the story of Standing Bear’s life and activism work for Native American rights in America.  

“He accepted the challenges that life threw at him and he did his very best to overcome them,” said Lesiak. “I really admire him, and I want other people to know his story.”

Written by Ben Kreimer.

Interviews conducted and edited by Ben Kreimer with support from Alex Epperson

 
 

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