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Lyda Conley and the battle for Wyandot recognition

Lyda Conley

KANSAS CITY, Kansas – Over the course of four centuries and thousands of miles, The Wyandot Tribe of Kansas suffered through a period of disease, war, famine and several forced relocations, the likes of which has often meant the abject dissolution of similarly fated peoples. But this tribe endured.

In the end, their trust lands stripped from them, their federal recognition denied, their tribal land reduced to a couple of tiny Kansas cemeteries, the intrepid Lyda Conley and her two sisters occupied a 6’ by 8’ shack on the tiny Huron Cemetery, determined to defend the humble vestiges of their ancient heritage from the final identity extinguishing encroachment.

History asserts Conley even shot a policeman in defense of the cemetery, but her cousin, Chief of the Wyandot Nation of Kansas, Janith English, said, “They had a gun, they had a long rifle, and they kept that in the shed, and they threatened the police with it…the story was the thing wouldn’t have fired anyway, and I guess at one point, they had an American flag and they said, if somebody tried to drive them out of their shed, that if the soldiers from Fort Leavenworth came, they would wrap themselves in the American flag and shoot to kill.”

Lyda Conley was born in 1869. She was graduated from Kansas City School of Law in 1902 and was the first woman admitted to the Kansas state bar. In 1909 she was the first Native American woman to argue a case before the United States Supreme Court. These would be impressive accomplishments for any woman of today, especially a Native woman, but given the status of women a century back, especially Native women, it is a remarkable achievement.

The only reason the Huron Cemetery was so valued the Conley sisters were willing to lay down their lives in defense of it, was because the price paid for it, in hardship and sacrifice, in unimaginable human tragedy, can only be understood if we go back to the beginning, somewhere on the North American continent, four thousand years ago.

The ancestral tribe of all Iroquoian speaking people had a name, but it is lost to history. We only know the tribe existed by logical deduction. All linguistic models lead back to this tribe, and at some point the people split into three main groups, who would later form three great nations. The group that headed south, become the Cherokee; the group that settled in the east, became the Iroquois; and the group that settled along the St Lawrence River, we will call by their French name, the Huron, but their descendants today are known as Wyandot, and at the time, they were the Wendat Confederacy.

Although a large and powerful tribe, the Cherokee preferred diplomacy and alliances over warfare and conquest, and in any event, were geographically well to the south. The Huron and Iroquois were northeastern neighbors, and fierce warriors, and despite being close cousins, they became bitter enemies. After Europeans arrived, the Huron allied with the French, and the Iroquois allied with the Dutch. What followed was perhaps the most intense and unforgiving conflict between two aboriginal nations in North American history.

“The Dutch were really pragmatic, they armed all of their trading partners,” English said. “The French were a little more cautious, to be given a firearm, you had to be first baptized into the Catholic Church.

Conley sisters
(Lyda in the center)

In ten years, due to warfare for which we didn’t have any defense, and disease for which we didn’t have any immunity, we lost about 30,000 of our 40,000 people.”

In May of 1649, the Iroquois launched their final assault on the Huron, and when the killing and burning was over, the Huron survivors were forced to seek refuge wherever they could, and over the winter of 1750, many starved.

Today, many Wyandot remain in Canada, but many others were dispersed south into what is now the United States, and although they never came close to regaining their former vitality and numbers, they spent the next century rebuilding their Wendat Confederacy identity, a topic explored in great detail in a 2013 book, Dispersed, But Not Destroyed, by Kathryn McGee Labelle. Eventually, many made Ohio their home, and entered into a treaty relationship with the newly formed United States.

This treaty relationship, like with every treaty relationship with the federal government, did not go well.

“It goes back to when we were disinvited to stay in Ohio,” English said. “After (President Andrew) Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act, we resisted it for a long time. We were allowed to purchase 36 sections of land at the confluence of the Kansas and Missouri Rivers (in 1842), and (the Delaware Tribe) also granted us three sections out of friendship.”

Originally, a tract of 148,000 acres had been promised the Wyandot but when that promise was broken, the Wyandot paid $46,080 dollars for the 36 sections. These they held for seven years, when they were forced by an 1850 treaty to sell the 39 sections for $185,000 dollars.

In 1855 the federal government wanted to abolish the tribe, but no tribe would voluntarily support termination, so the government employed one of their favorite tactics, one used as recently as the Cobell Settlement, where if you don’t remove yourself from the consequence (in other words, do nothing), the consequence applies by default. In this case, unless you exempted yourself, you were made a citizen of the United States, and lost your tribal membership. To be fair, this process should be reversed, but as with Cobell, the idea was to use the ignorance of the process, and the consequence, to keep numbers low, just where the government wanted them.

“The commissioners used fraudulent tactics to keep the exemption list short,” English said.

However, by comparing two different lists from 1867, the Tribe was able to show that 12 years later, the government still considered them wards of the state. English: “We transcribed the 1867 rolls showing that all of our ancestors had never agreed to citizenship.”

Now, the government contends the Tribe must show evidence after 1867 that they were not terminated, but English asserts that when Conley was in Washington, speaking to Congress, this verification was provided: “(Congress) stated that Lyda Conley was a ward of the US government and the cemetery was her reservation.”

Whatever the case, Conley lost her argument before the Supreme Court in defense of her cemetery, but subsequent political events, after her occupation of the cemetery, would play out in her favor. Kansas Senator Charles Curtis got a bill through Congress that stopped the sale of the cemetery and designated it a federal park.

In the years that followed, Conley became the park caretaker and protector, establishing a regular routine of walking from her nearby home to the park, even feeding the birds and squirrels. By 1918 the city of Kansas City took over care of the park but Conley remained relatively vigilant, justifiably still seeing the park as a sacred cemetery. She was arrested and fined $10 for disturbing the peace in 1937 for running some people out of the park. She elected not to pay the fine and happily served ten days in jail.

On the night of May 27, 1946, while walking home from the library, an attacker leapt from the bushes, struck her in the head with a brick, and stole her purse, which contained only twenty cents. She died the next day.

Thousands of fierce Wyandot warriors laid down their lives in defense of their people over the last four centuries, but none ever fought a more difficult and protracted battle than the last Wyandot warrior, Lyda Conley. But in the end, she died still fighting that battle, her most fervent desire being that the federal government would return the Wyandot Tribe of Kansas to their rightful status as a federally recognized tribe.

In 1937, those Wyandot that had agreed to relocate to 20,000 acres in Oklahoma were federally recognized.

“If they were to declare us a tribe than we would have the treaty rights we had in 1855,” English said, and that seems small compensation for a resilient people that have survived a tumultuous history, made that much worse by a treacherous federal government, that could fill a dozen history books.

(Contact James Giago Davies at

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