American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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LaFlesche, Susette Tibbles

Susette LaFlesche (Bright Eyes, Inshta Theamba, Omaha, 1854–1903) became a major nineteenth-century Native rights advocate through the case of the Ponca Standing Bear [ Standing Bear v. Crook, 1879], the first legal proceeding (decided in Omaha) to establish Native Americans as human beings under U.S. law.

LaFlesche was born near Bellevue, Nebraska, the eldest daughter of Joseph "Iron Eye" LaFlesche and Mary Gale LaFlesche, daughter of an Army surgeon. Like her sister Susan, Susette LaFlesche attended the Presbyterian mission school on the Omaha reservation. Both sisters were among the most brilliant students ever to attend the school. She also studied art at the University of Nebraska.

In the late 1870s, Susette traveled with her father to Indian Territory (later Oklahoma) to render rudimentary medical attention to the Poncas with Standing Bear, whose people had been forced to move there from their former homeland along the Niobrara River in northern Nebraska. When the Poncas attempted to escape their forced exile and return to their homeland, they marched for several weeks in midwinter, finally eating their moccasins to survive, arriving at the Omaha reservation with bleeding feet. The Omahas, particularly the LaFlesche family, granted them sanctuary and sustenance.

Susette accompanied her brother Francis and Standing Bear on a lecture tour of Eastern cities in 1879 and 1880 to support the Poncas' case for a return of their homeland. Newspaper articles about the Poncas' forced exile by Omaha journalist Thomas H. Tibbles helped ignite a furor in Congress and among the public.

Tibbles, an editor at the Omaha Herald, was the first journalist to interview Standing Bear while the LaFlesche family sheltered the Poncas. Tibbles' accounts were telegraphed to newspapers on the East Coast. In the meantime, LaFlesche and Tibbles fell in love and married in 1882. Both also toured the East Coast with Standing Bear, "armed with news clippings on the Ponca story and endorsements from General [George] Crook, the mayor of Omaha, and leading Nebraska clergymen," raising support for the restoration of Ponca lands (Tibbles, 1880, 129).

In Boston, where support for Standing Bear's Poncas was very strong, a citizens' committee formed that included Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. While Susette LaFlesche was visiting Boston with Standing Bear, Longfellow said of her, " This is Minnehaha" (Tibbles, 1880, 130).

In Boston, Tibbles, LaFlesche, and Standing Bear first met Helen Hunt Jackson. The Poncas' story inflamed Jackson's conscience and changed her life. Heretofore known as a poet (and a childhood friend of Emily Dickinson), Jackson set out to write A Century of Dishonor, a best-selling book that described the angst of an America debating the future of the Native American peoples who had survived the last of the Indian wars. Jackson became a major figure in the Anglo-American debate over the future of Native Americans. Standing Bear and his people eventually were allowed to return home to the Niobrara River after Congress investigated the conditions under which they had been evicted. Standing Bear died there in 1908.

LaFlesche also coauthored a memoir with Standing Bear, Ploughed Under: The Story of an Indian Chief (1832). In ensuing years, LaFlesche and Tibbles also toured the British Isles. The couple lived in Washington, D.C., but eventually Susette returned to Lincoln, Nebraska, where she died in 1903. She was buried in Bancroft, Nebraska. In 1994, Susette LaFlesche was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame.

Bruce E. Johansen


Further Reading
Jackson, Helen Hunt. 1972. A Century of Dishonor: A Sketch of the United States Government's Dealings with Some of the Indian Tribes. St. Clair Shores, MI: Scholarly Press. [Originally printed in 1888 Boston: Roberts Bros.]; Massey, Rosemary, et al. 1979. Footprints in Blood: Standing Bear's Struggle for Fredom and Human Dignity. Omaha, NE: American Indian Center of Omaha.; Tibbles, Thomas Henry. [1880] 1972. The Ponca Chiefs: An Account of the Trial of Standing Bear. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.; Wilson, Dorothy Clarke. 1974. Bright Eyes: The Story of Suzette LaFlesche. New York: McGraw-Hill.
 

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