First in their Field: Lyda Conley

In 1909 Lyda Conley became the first Native American woman admitted to argue a case before the Supreme Court of the United States.

Conley graduated from Kansas City School of Law in 1902. She was the first women to be admitted to the Kansas bar.

lydac1.gifConley, a member of the Wyandot Nation, was upset by the sale of the tribe’s burial ground to the federal government in 1906. The Wyandot Nation was originally from the area that is now modern-day Ontario. In the 1640s the tribe was driven out fo their land and relocated to Ohio. In the 1840s they once gain were moved and ended up in Kansas. It is in Kansas where they established their cemetery, in an area that is now Kansas City.

After the Civil War members of the Wyandot Nation who did not become American citizens were relocated to Oklahoma. The tribe that lived in Oklahoma lay claim to the land back in Kansas and in 1906 they began to sell the land to the Kansas government.

Conley believed it was wrong to sell the land and dismantle the cemetery. She and her sisters took up camp outside the cemetery and took turns guarding the land with muskets and put up no trespassing signs. Writing to the Kansas City Times in October of that year Conley explained how she had the right to defend her tribe’s land.

In this cemetery are buried one-hundred of our ancestors … Why should we not be proud of our ancestors and protect their graves? We shall do it, and woe be to the man that first attempts to steal a body. We are part owners of the ground and have the right under the law to keep off trespassers, the right a man has to shoot a burglar who enters his home.

Miss Lyda Conley
Conley argued for an injunction against the government’s authorization of the sale of the land in court. Her fight took her all the way to the supreme court where her case became the first in which a plaintiff argued that the burying grounds of Native Americans were entitled to federal protection.

Like Jacob of old I too, when I shall be gathered unto my people, desire that they bury me with my fathers in Huron Cemetery, the most sacred and  hallowed spot on earth to me, and I cannot believe that this is superstitious  reverence any more than I can believe that the reverence every true American  has for the grave of Washington at Mount Vernon is a superstitious reverence.

Although she lost the case, Conley continued to protect the burial ground. In 1914 she was arrested for shooting a police officer who entered the cemetery. She didn’t stop guarding the land even when the land was turned in to a federal park, forever protected from being sold. When she was 68 years old she spent ten days in jail for chasing people off the parkland.

On May 28, 1946, Lyda Conely passed away. She was buried in the cemetery that she dedicated her life to protect.

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