Who Was Henry Standing Bear?: Remembering Lakota Activism from the Early Twentieth Century
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Who Was Henry Standing Bear?
Remembering Lakota Activism from the Early Twentieth Century
Key Words

Lakota, Native American history, Pine Ridge, South Dakota, US colonization

We want our equal rights of these treaties, and petition the Honorable Commissioner of Indian Affairs and the Secretary of the Interior to make cash payments to our people in lieu of clothing and other articles.

—Lakota petition from Pine Ridge, South Dakota, 18991

High atop Thunderhead Mountain in South Dakota, the Crazy Horse monument aims to commemorate America, the power of nature, and the greatness of Native Americans in general, if not Crazy Horse in particular. This memorial seems not only impressive due to its size but extravagant based on its claims to Native heritage, authenticity, and support.2 Included alongside the controversial sculpture is an Indian Museum of North America, Native American Cultural Center, and sculptor’s studio as well as a new 40,000-square-foot Orientation Center and theaters. Considering the expansiveness of the Crazy Horse Memorial it seems almost shocking that so little is known about the Lakota man, Henry Standing Bear, who was tied to the creation of this site within prominent scholarship about Native American history. It is equally striking that the other less-publicized aspects of Standing Bear’s life have remained on the margins of historical research, in some ways obscured by the published writings and public persona of his better-known older brother, Luther Standing Bear. This article aims to recover Henry Standing Bear. In the following biography I acknowledge, first, that he was a complicated figure who poses a series of hard-to-understand questions regarding the Native activism rooted in the social and political geographies of the Great Plains, and second, that as a resistant intellectual, he was a distinctive figure in shaping the different approaches to Native social and political activism that became [End Page 157] necessary during the early twentieth century.3 Third, I delineate the ways in which his challenges to federal Indian policy pertaining to Native societies in the Great Plains lay bare the oppression and abuses inherent in these policies and some of the structures underlying settler logics, such as assimilation.4 Fourth, I examine how Native people educated at institutions like Carlisle could successfully use tools from their schooling to their advantage even if their actions were mischaracterized and misunderstood by government officials, agents, and other non-Natives who embraced ideologies that perpetuated settler colonialism in the United States.

Recovering the life and activism of a figure such as Henry Standing Bear adds to current understandings about how American Indians on the Plains maneuvered within a system of “disciplinary paternalism,” which framed Indians as wards of a state that sought first and foremost to secure the legal privileges and social positions of white society.5 Although Standing Bear had uneven success in resisting the intervention of the state into the lives of the Lakota, he persisted in challenging dominant colonial structures during the eras of allotment and assimilation, despite his own personal and legal struggles. His story complicates what we know about Great Plains Indians during the turn of the twentieth century because he maintained strong ties to his people in the Dakotas even as he worked and lived on the East Coast and became a foundational member of the pan-tribal reform group, the Society of American Indians. The mobility of Standing Bear in terms of space, culture, and ideas enabled him to position the needs and rights of the Lakota within distinct local, regional, and national contexts to resist attempts to dispossess them of their land, livelihoods, and culture. This history of Standing Bear in relation to his commitment to the Lakota is also a story of survivance—what Anishinaabe critic and writer Gerald Vizenor defines as “an active sense of presence over historical absence, deracination, and oblivion.”6 Put simply, it is crucial to recall Henry Standing Bear’s role, as a Lakota activist, in the making of the Crazy Horse Memorial. In 1876 US agents hoped to pressure the Lakota into ceding the Black Hills, where gold had been discovered two years earlier, and removing to Indian Territory...