By Chaitram Aklu
She was a pioneer in the fight for the preservation of her Native American Cultural Heritage – her ancestral burial ground. Eliza Burton ‘Lyda’ Conley was only the third woman and first Native American woman to argue a case before the United States Supreme Court. And that was in 1910 before the Nineteenth Amendment gave women the right to vote.
Although women lawyers could prepare briefs they were barred from arguing cases before the US Supreme Court. That barrier was removed on February 15, 1879 when President Rutherford B. Hayes signed the law admitting women to the Supreme Court Bar and allowing them to argue cases before the court. The following year on November 30, 1880, Belva Ann Lockwood became the first female lawyer to argue a case before the United States Supreme Court.
Lyda Conley was born in 1868 in the Wyandot tribe in a farming family in Kansas. This was about the time when opportunities for women to work outside the home and in offices opened. For example, in1890 about 75,000 women held office jobs but by 1900 that number increased to over 500,000. She entered the labor force as a trained telegraphic operator and later taught college in Kansas City.
A religious woman who taught Sunday school at her church, Conley’s activism was awakened when the government approved the selling of the Huron Indian Cemetery, located in downtown Kansas City. Conley’s grandfather Isaac Zane, whose Indian name was Mawcasharrow, served in the War of 1812 as a scout and carried mail. He was among the headmen and chiefs of the tribe who arrived in Kansas in 1843 and purchased the land of the Delaware Indians. They and Conley’s mother were all buried in that cemetery and the plan by prospective developers was to remove the 400 – 600 remains to another cemetery.
She decided to stop the desecration of her ancestors and entered Kansas City School of Law to prepare her for the challenge, graduating as the only woman in her class. She was admitted to the Missouri and Kansas bars in 1902 and 1910 respectively. She is reported to be the first woman to graduate with a law degree in Kansas.
The cemetery because of its prime location for business development became an attraction for investors. When in 1906 Congress approved a law that would allow the cemetery to be sold, Conley and one of her three sisters would have none of it. They built a hut on the land and armed with shotguns took turns guarding the entrance.
Conley filed a suit seeking a permanent injunction against the US Secretary of the Interior and Indian Commissioners in US District Court, to prevent the sale. The Suit was dismissed with costs and Conley appealed to the US Supreme Court in 1907.
However it was not heard until January 14, 1910 when Conley, as plaintiff, addressed the court (Conley v. Ballinger (1910)). She argued that the Huron Indian Cemetery was the oldest in the State of Kansas (this is disputed but immaterial) and an 1855 Treaty prevented the selling of the land and as descendants they had the right to enforce the Treaty. She cited article 2 of the Treaty, “The portion now enclosed and used as a public burying ground shall be permanently reserved and appropriated for that purpose.” And further argued, “It is well settled in the United States that Cemeteries are among the purposes for which land may be dedicated, and it is held that, upon such dedication, the owner is precluded from exercising his former rights over the land.”
The Court disagreed and dismissed the case but without costs. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes delivered the decision on January 31, 1910, writing, “The right excepted was a right of a tribe. A descendant of an Indian buried in such cemetery cannot maintain such an action to enjoin the disposition of the reserved property in accordance with an act of Congress. The United States maintained and protected the Indian use or occupation against others, but was bound itself only by honor, not by law.”
Conley was not deterred and actually continued guarding the padlocked cemetery gate on which they posted a no trespassing sign. In 1937, rather than paying a $10 fine, she chose to spend 10 days in jail after being convicted of disturbing the peace for chasing people away from the cemetery. She was murdered during a robbery in 1946. She was buried in the cemetery as was her mother and sister.
Her struggle attracted the attention of others who joined the fight to save and preserve the cemetery, as attempts to sell the land was still continuing.
Real victory was achieved in 1971 when the cemetery was added to the National Register of Historic Places. In 2017 it was designated a National Historic Landmark.
It took Conley her lifetime to fight for a cause she believed in and like many other women her work and dedication led to victory after her death. According to Arthur M. Schlesinger jr., “The signal benefit great leaders confer is to embolden the rest of us to live according to our own best selves, to active, insistent, and resolute in affirming our own sense of things.” This qualifies Lyda Conley to be recognized as a true leader.
The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the THE WEST INDIAN.