Susette La Flesche (Tibbles)

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Susette La Flesche (Tibbles)

Susette La Flesche (1854-1903) was a member of a family of Native American reformers of the Omaha tribe. She lobbied for Indian rights, encouraged assimilation, and professionally advanced in a whiteman's world.

Susette La Flesche was the child of Joseph La Flesche, also known as Inshtamaza or Iron Eye, the last chief of the Omaha tribe (1853-64). The son of a French fur trader, who was also named Joseph La Flesche, and Waoowinchtcha, variously mentioned as a member of the Osage, Omaha, or Ponca tribes, Iron Eye often worked with his father, experiencing the white man's world. After a childhood spent among the Sioux, he joined his father in St. Louis for a time, accompanied him on trading ventures, learned French, and became a Christian. Iron Eye concluded that the only feasible future for the American Indian was to adapt to the white man's ways and to strive for peaceful coexistence.

Still, Iron Eye lived in two worlds; he continued to respect the traditions and rituals of his own people and maintained a close relationship with several tribes. His friendship with the Omaha chief Big Elk, who had no descendants, led to the naming of Iron Eye as successor to head the dwindling tribe (as early as 1830 only 900 Omahas remained). In 1854, Iron Eye was one of several Indian leaders who signed a treaty with the government relinquishing their traditional hunting grounds and accepting the establishment of reservations. The Omaha gave up their lands in eastern Nebraska, and moved onto a small reservation bordering the Missouri River, north of their previous territory near the mouth of the Platte River. According to the ethnologist, Alice C. Fletcher, tribal traditionalists ridiculed the new reservation as the "make-believe white man's village."

As was common among the Omahas, Iron Eye had several wives. Two of them, Mary Gale or Hinnuaganun (One Woman) and Tainne or Elizabeth Esau, bore him children. Mary's mother was an Ioway woman, Ni-co-mi; her father Dr. John Gale was a U.S. army surgeon. Raised by Peter Sarpy, a white fur trader, Mary encouraged her children to leave the reservation and live among whites. She and Joseph La Flesche had five children, including Susette and Susan. Tainne, an Omaha woman, also had five children, but only Francis permanently left the reservation.

In 1854, Susette La Flesche was born on the newly established reservation, the second child of Joseph La Flesche and Mary. Named Inshtatheumba (Bright Eyes), she was often called "Yosette." She entered the Omaha Presbyterian Mission School at the age of eight; her eagerness to learn attracted the attention of her teachers, and she was subsequently invited to attend a Presbyterian seminary for women, The Elizabeth (New Jersey) Institute. Following her graduation in 1873, she returned home and applied for a position as a teacher in a government school. Although the Indian Bureau had an announced policy of giving preference to Native Americans in employment on the reservation, she had some difficulty in obtaining her position.

The opportunity for her to become a spokesperson for Indian rights developed in 1877. The government, confusing the Poncas, members of the Southern Sioux tribes, with the warlike Dakota Sioux, assigned the traditional Ponca territory to the Dakotas, deporting the Poncas to Indian Territory (later the state of Oklahoma). The Poncas sickened and died quickly there; as much as one-third of the tribe may have been lost. The Omahas were also members of the Southern Sioux, and as Iron Eye had many friends and relatives among them, he and Susette went to Indian Territory to investigate the conditions there.

Desperate to rescue his people, in 1879 the Ponca Chief Standing Bear led a forced march of the survivors north from Indian Territory toward Nebraska. When the military arrested and imprisoned him, Thomas H. Tibbles, a journalist employed by the Omaha Herald, publicized his cause. In the following trial, U.S.v. Crook, the court ruled that "an Indian is a person," leading to Standing Bear's release on a writ of habeas corpus, and, eventually, to the government paying the Poncas an indemnity and allowing some of them to homestead in Nebraska.

Following his release, Standing Bear journeyed east to Washington, D.C., to try to stop any future Indian removals. Tibbles and Susette and Francis La Flesche accompanied him, the latter two in the role of interpreters. Dressed in traditional Native American garb and presented as the personification of an Indian princess, Susette made a vivid impression on eastern reformers; she spoke of her people's plight to a wide range of groups, from the Quakers to New England intellectuals, who formed the Boston Indian Citizenship Committee. She visited the home of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow who compared her to Minnehaha, the heroine of his sentimental poem Hiawatha.

More important, Susette influenced more effective reformers, such as Helen Hunt Jackson, author of A Century of Dishonor, a chronicle of federal government betrayals of its Indian treaties, and Massachusetts senator Henry L. Dawes, sponsor of the Dawes Severalty Act (1887), which broke up the reservations and granted the land to individual Indians as homestead plots. Heads of households received 160 acres, single individuals over the age of 18 were granted 80 acres, and minors 40 acres. The act also gave the Native Americans citizenship rights.

In 1882, Susette married Thomas Tibbles, and the two began a series of lecture tours that took them to England and Scotland, as well as the northeastern United States. They testified before congressional committees three times. Susette became an eloquent and persuasive speaker; she presented a paper to the Association for the Advancement of Women on "The Position, Occupation, and Culture of Indian Women," and she edited Standing Bear's Ploughed Under: The Story of an Indian Chief.

In the early 1890s, the Tibbles lived in Washington, D.C., but shortly thereafter returned to Nebraska, where Tibbles edited the Populist newspaper, The Independent. Susette worked with him on the paper, but sustained an artistic and literary career of her own. She illustrated the book Oo-mah-ha Ta-wa-tha (Omaha City) written by Fannie Reed Giffin for the Trans-Mississippi Exposition in Omaha in 1898, and published stories in such magazines as St. Nicholas. In 1902, Susette and Thomas Tibbles moved to her Omaha land allotment near Bancroft, Nebraska, because of her poor health. She died there on May 26, 1903, at the age of 49.

Further Reading

Frederick J. Dockstader, ed. Great North American Indians: Profiles in Life and Leadership. Van Nostrand, 1977.

Green, Norma Kidd. "Four Sisters: Daughters of Joseph La Flesche," in Nebraska History. June 1964.

Hodge, Frederick Webb, ed. Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico, Part 1. Rowman and Littlefield, 1971.

Lamar, Howard R. ed. The Reader's Encyclopedia of the American West. Harper, 1977.

Fritz, Henry Eugene. The Movement for Indian Assimilation, 1860—1890. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1963.

Jackson, Helen Hunt. A Century of Dishonor; the Early Crusade for Indian Reform. Harper reprint, 1965.

Priest, Loring Benson. Uncle Sam's Stepchildren; the Reformation of United States Indian Policy, 1865—1887. Octagon Books, 1969. □