Another Wednesday, another Woman in History Crush! This past Monday, the U.S. observed the Columbus Day holiday. At this point in time, Columbus Day is highly controversial, as it celebrates a man who as we now know was terrible to the indigenous people of the Americas, one of his most noted cruelties being basically starting the enslavement and trade of captive Native Americans in the late 15th century. Within the last few years, many activist and university groups have protested the observance of Columbus Day, and the city of Seattle in Washington now celebrates Indigenous Peoples’ Day instead. So in the spirit of Indigenous Peoples’ Day, today’s WCW is Lyda Conley.
Born in 1869 in Ohio, Eliza Burton “Lyda” Conley was of mixed European and Wyandot descent. For clarification, the Wyandot tribe originates from the St Lawrence Valley region in Canada, and shares some similarities with the Iroquois tribe. Conley grew up on a sixty five acre farm in Kansas with her three older sisters, with whom she remained close throughout her adult life. In 1902, Conley graduated from the Kansas City School of Law, and became the first woman admitted to the Kansas bar.
Before we get too far into the main court case of Conley’s career, it’s important to understand a brief history of the Kansas Wyandot tribe. Starting in the mid-1850’s, some Wyandot members accepted U.S. citizenship. The tribe’s land holds were soon divided among only the newly declared citizens, so the tribespeople who didn’t become citizens migrated to Oklahoma both to retain land and because they were forced to do so as non- citizens during the carrying out of the Indian Removal Act. While tribal structure suffered with the parting of ways, the Wyandot held continued legal authority over the communal burial grounds, the Huron Indian Cemetery. But in 1906, the Wyandotte Nation of Oklahoma approved the sale of the cemetery to the United States government without holding a vote for the descendants of the tribe in Kansas City.
When Conley and her sisters found out about the deal made without half the tribe’s consent, they were enraged, and vowed to protect the land their ancestors were buried in from development. The sisters immediately built a structure on the burial grounds in which they lived and stood guard with muskets and “no trespassing” signs. In 1907, Conley petitioned to the Kansas District U.S. Circuit Court for injunction against the sale authorization. Following rejection in the Circuit Court, Conley appealed the case to the Supreme Court. During the appeal, Conley was the first female Native American lawyer admitted to speak directly before the Court. The Court supported the rulings of the lower courts, but this didn’t discourage Conley or her sisters. The three women advocated and gained support for their cause, preserving native lands with native peoples, in women’s clubs and small organizations. Around 1913, Conley was actually arrested for shooting a policeman who attempted to remove her from the cemetery. This publicity was what their cause needed; it attracted the aid of Senator Charles Curtis (later Vice President under Herbert Hoover), who three years later introduced legislation to Congress to turn the cemetery into a protected park. Curtis’ bill passed, and the cemetery was safe from urban developers.
The Conley sisters continued acting as guardians over the burial grounds after gaining its’ legal protection, and would provide food for the birds and squirrels inhabiting the park. In 1937, while fending off people from the cemetery, Conley was again arrested, this time for disturbing the peace. Conley served ten days in jail for her sentence, and then was virtually forgotten about until her death on May 28th , 1946. Following her death, Conley was buried alongside her ancestors at the Huron Cemetery.
Despite several years of American history courses in school, I’ve learned more about Native Americans in history this week than ever before. I was inspired to read up on the lives and accomplishments of notable indigenous people after reading the article about Seattle that I mentioned earlier, which is how I learned about Lyda Conley. I think Conley’s story is inspirational; she believed in the preservation of her tribe’s lands and culture so fervently that she took both unconventional and common approaches to advance her cause, and continued appealing and fighting for it until a change was actually made.
Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for more Women in History Crush Wednesdays! I should soon be posting my thoughts about both the last GOP and yesterday’s Democratic debates, so be sure to keep an eye out for that.