Standing Bear v. Crook & Brown v. Board of Education

Standing Bear v. Crook & Brown v. Board of Education

by Elizabeth Whipple -
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The decision in Standing Bear vs. Crook was momentous in that it acknowledged Indian’s personhood and rights to life liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and established their right to appear in a United States court of law. However, its legacy has not been one of sweeping change and shifting attitudes. The similarities between the cases of Standing Bear vs. Crook and Brown vs. Board of Education are numerous, and discussed at some length in Mary Kathryn Nagle’s article about the Standing Bear court case. In Standing Bear v. Crook, Judge Elmer Dundy rejected the notion that Indians were racially inferior to whites and acknowledged their personhood, stating that Indians have the same rights under the law as whites. In Brown vs. Board of Education, it was decided that separate but equal was inherently unequal because the law was based on the idea that black people were racially inferior to whites.  However, while Brown v. Board of Education is well known as one of the most important and impactful decisions of the Supreme Court of the 20th century, the case of Standing Bear v. Crook is largely unknown and does not have the same legacy of legal change and tangible impact.

After the handing down of the Brown decision in 1954, school districts began desegregating their schools at the order of both federal and state supreme courts. About twenty years after the decision was made, almost all schools had been legally desegregated, and the percentage of Americans who believed that black and white students should attend school together had increased more than 20%. There were countless measures put in place to ensure the enforcement of the Supreme Court ruling, many of which are still in place today.

In contrast, while appearing to be a great victory for American Indians, the court decision in Standing Bear vs. Crook did not have as significant a legal or social impact. While Judge Dundy did establish the personhood of Indians, he did not tackle the issue of citizenship, resulting in Indians not truly having the same rights under the law as white Americans did. This was exemplified in the Tee-Hit-Ton Indians v. United States case of 1955, when it was decided that Indians were not protected by the 5th Amendment. Although citizenship became available to Indians who gave up Tribal affiliations in the late 1800s, it was not until 1924 that citizenship was granted to all American Indians, and it took many more years for Indians to secure many of their rights as citizens of the United States, such as the right to vote.

After winning the case and being released from custody, Standing Bear went on a lecture tour in Europe and the eastern United States to speak about Indian Rights. It is hard to measure the social impact of the case and of this circuit, but he did manage to gain the support of several prominent Americans. However, the decision of the judge and whatever social impact it may have had was overlooked by the Supreme Court. Dundy’s eradication of racial inferiority as justification for denial of rights was ignored in future cases like Plessy v. Ferguson, United States v. Kagama and Lone Wolf v. Hitchcock. While the Supreme Court reconciled its decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, it has never changed its precedent for cases involving American Indians. In obvious contradiction with the Standing Bear case, the Supreme Court still uses the Plenary Power Doctrine’s outdated racial classification, which considers American Indians an “ignorant and dependent race”.