Smithsonian Institution/ National Anthropological Archives // Public Domain
In 1879, one of the most popular speakers on the East Coast of the United States was a young Native American woman who would eventually help earn several important “firsts” for herself and her people.
Susette La Flesche was born in 1854 in Bellevue, Nebraska and given the name Inshata-Theumba, or Bright Eyes. Her father, Joseph La Flesche—also known as E-sta-mah-za, or Iron Eye—was the last traditionally recognized chief of the Omaha tribe, and the year Susette was born, he and other tribal leaders signed a treaty with the federal government giving up traditional Omaha lands and moving their people to a small reservation in what is now northeastern Nebraska, near a related tribe called the Ponca.
Like many Native American children of that era, Susette and her siblings attended a mission school, where she learned English as well as domestic skills such as sewing and cooking (several of the La Flesche siblings would also go on to illustrious careers, including Susette's sister Susan La Flesche Picotte, who became the first Native American woman to earn a medical degree). Susette attended college at New Jersey’s Elizabeth Institute for Young Ladies, where she studied art and excelled at writing, and after she graduated, she decided to return to the Omaha reservation to teach. In the late 1870s, however, her life took a turn.
Around 1875, after decades of conflict with both the U.S. government and Sioux tribes that had been relocated to their land, the Ponca nation considered an offer to move to Indian Territory in Oklahoma, about 500 miles away. But when Ponca leaders visited potential settlement sites in early 1877, they rejected all of them as uninhabitable, with "stony and broken land" and poor, dispirited residents [PDF]. The government agents who were trying to find a resettlement point were unable to get further instructions from Washington and refused to transport the leaders back home, so the Ponca leaders walked back to Nebraska (except for two elders who were too frail to make the trip), arriving footsore and hungry in March 1877.
Although the specifics are debated, many historians think what happened next was due to a poorly translated deal that the Poncas thought would allow them to move to Omaha land but actually committed them to move to Indian Territory. The majority of the tribe was eventually made to walk to Baxter Springs, Kansas in the spring of 1877, an echo of the Cherokee Trail of Tears of the 1830s and the Long Walk of the Navajo in the 1860s, and with similarly devastating results. As many as one-third of the Ponca nation died of disease and starvation during the march and their first year in Indian Territory, including the son of Chief Standing Bear. After a miserable winter, the remainder of the tribe walked to a new reservation on the Arkansas River, in what is now Oklahoma. In January 1879, Standing Bear and a small party of Ponca set out for Nebraska again so that Standing Bear could bury the bones of his son on ancestral land. Once back in Nebraska, Joseph La Flesche and his daughter helped shelter them in the Omaha village. But after a confrontation with the U.S. government, Standing Bear and his companions were arrested and tried in 1879 in a federal district court in Omaha.
La Flesche was fluent in English and French as well as the Omaha and Ponca languages. Though she was incredibly shy, she became translator for Standing Bear, testifying during the trial in 1879 and writing for newspapers about the plight of Nebraska’s native peoples. At last, Judge Elmer Dundy issued a narrow but consequential ruling in favor of the Ponca: “An Indian is a person within the meaning of the law, and there is no law giving the Army authority to forcibly remove Indians from their lands.” Standing Bear v. Crook marked the first time Native Americans were recognized as people, entitled to protections under U.S. law.
As a result of the trial, the Ponca were allowed to return to a portion of their land in Nebraska. La Flesche, however, was only just getting started. With Standing Bear, her half-brother Francis, and an Omaha newspaperman named Thomas Tibbles—a lifelong reformer who had been instrumental in raising awareness of the Ponca's plight and whom she later married—La Flesche went on a speaking tour back East. She wore a deerskin dress and presented herself using her translated tribal name, Bright Eyes, speaking out about conditions on reservations and calling for overhauls of federal Indian policies. By 1887, she was touring England and Scotland during Queen Victoria’s Jubilee Year, lobbying for the rights and fair treatment of Aboriginal peoples in Canada. “Bright Eyes” had become an international sensation.
La Flesche also testified before Congress, met with President Rutherford B. Hayes and the first lady at the White House, and gained the admiration of poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. She embarked on a distinguished writing and journalism career, one that would take her to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in in southwestern South Dakota to report on both the Ghost Dance movement and the massacre at Wounded Knee. She also wrote about Native American life for children’s magazines, and illustrated at least one book. For her efforts, she has been called the first published Native American writer and artist. She was also deeply involved in the Populist Party (a group that championed agrarian interests and industrial workers against bank and railroad titans), writing for papers like the American Nonconformist and the Lincoln Independent.
La Flesche died on May 26, 1903, at the age of 49. She was inducted into the Nebraska Hall of Fame in 1983. “Peaceful revolutions are slow but sure,” she once wrote. “It takes time to leaven a great unwieldy mass like this nation with the leavening ideas of justice and liberty, but the evolution is all the more certain in its results because it is so slow.”