By Brandon Marie Miller
|Susette La Flesche, Nebraska Historical Society|
Born in Nebraska in 1854, Susette had French and Native American ancestry. That year the United States government promised the Omaha tribe would keep 300,000 acres of their traditional lands for their reservation. Susette's father believed the Omaha must accept this to survive the surge of white settlers moving west. Young Susette learned to read and write English at the reservation missionary school.
But-- as often happened-- corrupt government agents pocketed tribal funds while doling out shoddy goods and poor food. The Omaha faced hunger and suffering. And they knew, like other tribes, that treaties did not protect them from the threat of removal to Indian Territory, an arid, harsh land in present-day Oklahoma.
This happened to the Omaha's neighbors, the Ponca. In 1868 the government mistakenly handed over the Ponca's homeland to another tribe, so the Ponca had to go. In May 1877 soldiers drove 700 Ponca south "as one would drive a herd of ponies." Susette witnessed their plight first hand. If this could happen to the peaceful Ponca, and so many other tribes, why not the Omaha?
Susette wrote the President, the Indian Commissioner, the Secretary of the Interior. "Because I am an Indian can you order me to the Indian Territory, New Mexico, or any place you please, and I be powerless to appeal to any law for protection?" she wrote. But the government could do what it pleased.
In 1879 Ponca chief Standing Bear and about 30 followers fled the reservation in Indian Territory and headed back to Nebraska. Soldiers arrested the Ponca and marched them to Omaha. There, a journalist named Thomas Tibbles and several lawyers filed a case and took the government to court. Susette supported them, writing about the horrible conditions the Ponca faced in Oklahoma. But the government claimed an Indian was not a person and had no rights under the Constitution. "Discontented and restless or mischievous Indians cannot be permitted to leave their reservations at will and go where they please," came word from the Indian Department.
|Chief Standing Bear of the Ponca|
Susette testified before Congress and met President Rutherford B. Hayes. She asked that Indians be allowed to remain on their homelands-- lands deeded to them by formal treaties later broken by the U.S. government. She wanted Indians to have a say in how the government spent money meant for the tribes. She condemned the government for keeping soldiers on reservations to put down disturbances begun over native peoples' suffering. She decried that an Indian could be arrested without a trial.
|Read more about Susette in my book.|
Susette also wrote magazine articles for children about traditional Omaha life complete with drawings of cradleboards, tipis, drying buffalo meat and clothing. She remembered listening, snuggled in her grandmother's arms, to stories of the old days when the Omaha lived free. "I often wonder," she wrote, "if there is anything in your civilization which will make good to us what we have lost."
Susette worried she had not helped her people enough. She'd saved the Omaha from leaving their homeland only to see the original 300,000 acres shrink to 30,000 acres. Illness cut Susette's life short. She died only 49 years old, her life spent as a champion of native peoples through her pen and eloquent voice.