La Flesche, Susette (1854–1902)

views updated

La Flesche, Susette (1854–1902)

Native American (Omaha-Iowa) writer and political activist who worked on behalf of her nation. Name variations: Inshtatheamba or Inshtatheumba (means Bright Eyes); Susette LaFlesche; Susette La Flesche Tibbles. Born Inshtatheamba also called Susette La Flesche in 1854, on Omaha tribal lands south of the settlement that became Omaha, Nebraska; died in Bancroft, Nebraska, in May 1902; daughter of Joseph La Flesche, also called Inshta'maza, of Omaha-French descent and the last chief of the Omaha Nation, and Mary Gale, also called Hinnuaganun, of Iowa-English descent; sister of Susan La Flesche (1865–1915), Marguerite La Flesche, and Francis La Flesche (1857–1932); attended missionary school, 1860–69, and Elizabeth Institute of Young Ladies, Elizabeth, New Jersey, 1871–75; married Thomas Tibbles, July 23, 1881; no children.

Began teaching on the Omaha reservation (1877); went on first East Coast lecture and fund-raising tour and was the first woman to speak at Faneuil Hall in Boston (1879); testified before Senate subcommittee and went on second lecture and fund-raising tour (1880); published Nedawi, first children's story, and helped to petition Congress on behalf of Omaha nation regarding land grants (1883–84); made lecture tour to England (1887–88); moved with husband to Washington, D.C., became a correspondent for The Non-Conformist, and published additional children's stories (1893); moved with husband to Lincoln, Nebraska, wrote articles and editorials for Weekly Independent (1894–99); illustrated Oo-mah-ha Ta-wa-tha, stories of the Omahas, written by Fannie Reed Griffen , believed to be the first published illustrations by a Native American.

Though the "Indian question" was hotly debated throughout the United States in 1879, no one expected the guest speaker at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Omaha to attract such a large crowd. Among the curious was Thomas Tibbles, a maverick journalist who had recently taken up the Indian cause. In town at the invitation of Bishop Clarkson, head of the Omaha-Ponca Committee, Thomas was doubtful about the cleric's bold, perhaps even foolhardy, move in persuading the English-speaking daughter of the Omaha chief Joseph La Flesche to lecture on behalf of her tribe and its closest allies, the Poncas.

That a woman dared to stand up in the pulpit was radical enough in 1879. This one, moreover, was an Indian, educated or not, and for all his good intentions Tibbles held a typically chauvinistic view toward Native American women. In Tibbles' opinion, the timing of the speech, as well, could not have been worse. With members of the territorial legislature debating laws regarding their Indian "wards," any adverse publicity might push the lawmakers to do exactly what Tibbles feared: expel all native nations from Nebraska.

A hush fell over the waiting audience as the bishop stepped in front of the other ministers gathered on the platform. Bidding the gathering welcome, he voiced his hope that the speaker would be heard with an open heart. To his apparent surprise, the audience then gave a standing ovation to the 25-year-old Omaha woman he introduced as "Miss Bright Eyes." The name was a translation of "Inshtatheamba," her Omaha name, and only half of the name she went by; she was also known as Susette La Flesche—a dual name for the dual identity that was a source of both joy and torment throughout this young woman's life.

Tiny, with huge dark eyes, the speaker accepted the warm welcome in a calm, dignified manner. She gripped the podium for a full minute and silently stared into the sea of white faces, while the people settled more deeply into the church pews. Thomas Tibbles felt his throat go dry, assuming she would not be able to summon the courage to speak. Then came the voice, at first barely audible, but rising as her fear gave way to passion, as Bright Eyes spoke on behalf of the desire of her people to stay in their traditional homelands—as moving and eloquent a speech as any Tibbles had heard. Ever the journalist, he began to take notes; at the end, the audience went wild.

The event was so successful, in fact, that the Omaha-Ponca Committee wanted a change of plans. Their original idea had been to send Thomas Tibbles on a lecture and fund-raising tour around the East, to gain the support of sympathetic whites for the plight of the Indians. With Bright Eyes such an obvious speaking success, why not send her as well? She had been educated in white schools, including a prestigious women's college in the East, and was the ideal person to speak to whites from a native perspective in a way they could understand. In addition, her uncle, the Ponca chief Standing Bear, was set to accompany Tibbles and required an interpreter. The young woman viewed this turn of events with panic. One speech had been terrifying enough. Plans were still under discussion when news came of a bill introduced into the U.S. Congress proposing to put all Indians under control of the Department of the Interior. White resentment and anger against Indians had been growing since the glaring military defeat of George Amstrong Custer by the Sioux three years before. Unless public sympathy for the tribes could be aroused, the Omaha people were at risk of being rounded up and shoved onto alien reservation land.

For generations before the 1854 birth of Susette La Flesche, white traders in North America had been marrying into Native American tribes and raising families according to native custom; her paternal grandfather had been a French fur trapper, and her maternal grandfather an English army surgeon. But by the mid-1850s,

the pressure of white invaders seeking to push the Native Americans off tribal lands was causing such intermarriages to be looked upon with increasing disfavor by most whites and some natives. The personal conflict of this young woman over her mixed heritage was to become inextricably intertwined with the struggle between an ever-more aggressive U.S. government and native nations. On a collision course for nearly 200 years, the once "liberal" attitude of "kill the savage, keep the man" was losing ground to the proponents of a deadlier, more final solution. The blunt view of the U.S. general George Sherman that "the only good Indian I've seen is dead" had become the chilling reality of wholesale slaughter of native women and children, taking place at the hands of the U.S. Cavalry at the very time Susette La Flesche was pleading their case. In the fall of 1879, she set out on the lecture circuit with Thomas Tibbles, Standing Bear, and her younger half-brother, Francis La Flesche, fully aware of the importance of rallying support for their cause. Without it, the Omaha and Poncas faced the same fate that had been suffered by the Cherokee nation in 1838, when its survivors were driven from the Carolinas along the infamous "Trail of Tears." Those who did not die on the forced march were confined in Indian Territory, "the land of the heat" that is the modern state of Oklahoma. Now an unsympathetic Republican administration was threatening to crowd her people onto that same occupied land.

To the lecture audiences, La Flesche often spoke lovingly about her childhood among the Omahas, a peaceful tribe who had for 450 years occupied the same homelands, in what became Nebraska, Kansas, and Iowa. By the time of her birth, her people had already ceded part of their lands to the United States, but enough tribal land remained for the buffalo to roam freely. Like most nomadic plains tribes, the Omahas were dependent on the buffalo herds for virtually everything in their daily lives—food, clothing, weapons—and their religious ceremonies revolved around the great beasts. Always introduced as Bright Eyes, she told her enraptured white audiences about the ancient traditions of the buffalo hunt, and vision quests, and the yearning of her people to remain free on their lands.

She did all she could to make the world happier and better.

—Thomas Tibbles

Through La Flesche's eyes, her audience witnessed the horror she grew up with, watching the old ways systematically destroyed. In a mere 25 years, most of the buffalo had been exterminated, as treaty after treaty had been broken; her tribespeople died in smallpox and influenza epidemics brought by the white settlers; those who managed to survive disease faced persecution by intolerant missionaries for their religious beliefs. Again and again, she asked how such injustices could have been inflicted on the Omaha and Ponca nations, when her people had been willing to peacefully coexist with whites.

Years before, her father Joseph La Flesche, the last recognized Omaha chief, had seen what lay ahead for his people. The son of a French fur trader and an Omaha woman, Joseph had been named chief by Big Elk, his adopted Omaha father and long-time head of the tribe, and had become a controversial leader. Understanding that the white invasion was never going to end, he insisted that the Omahas' survival depended upon their learning the ways of the whites. What he failed to recognize was that there were "civilized" whites, many of whom occupied power positions among the Washington capital's elite, with a hidden agenda that involved the total annihilation of the "red savages." Over the protests of his more traditional Omaha brothers, Joseph sent his two eldest children, Susette and Louis La Flesche, to a missionary school. He understood that his children's learning English would enable them to read and interpret future treaties so that the Omahas might never again be cheated. Susette was one of several remarkable siblings, including a sister, Susan La Flesche Picotte, who would become the first Native American woman physician; Francis La Flesche, an anthropologist, and Marguerite La Flesche Diddock, a reformer.

Susette had been five years old when she was sent away to the white missionaries' boarding school. Her only comfort was the fact that her older brother, Louis, was already there. Boys and girls at the school were segregated, but she could see her brother playing in the adjacent schoolyard. Although she never understood why she and other children were beaten if they dared speak the Omaha language, she was a bright child and liked school. She quickly learned English and developed a passionate love for books that was to last a lifetime.

The narrow-minded attitude of the Christian missionaries toward Omaha religious beliefs was something that remained with La Flesche until the day she died. In her lectures, she often spoke of Louis, who had already been on his first vision quest when he entered the mission and was harshly punished at one point for having participated in a "heathen" ceremony. Bitterly, Louis asked his sister why, if the Biblical Isaiah was deemed a prophet after having a vision, an Omaha who had experienced a vision was deemed heathen? Shortly after this incident, Louis contracted an unexplained illness and died within a few days, leaving his sister devastated. Away from home, and with her remaining siblings still too young for the school, the quiet child became even more reclusive. For years, her only solace was in her studies.

In 1869, when Susette was 15, the "peace policy" of President Ulysses S. Grant was enacted. In the name of maintaining "civilization," all tribal governments were dissolved and all native nations were to be segregated onto reservations, by force if necessary. Because native children were not allowed to leave the reservations, the missionary schools were closed and Susette was sent home. It was a terrible time for the young girl, who found her chieftain father mired in tribal conflicts, and the fate of her people uncertain. As well, she had difficulty discerning her own identity. Was she Inshtatheamba, an Omaha girl who should be looking for a husband, or Susette La Flesche, the young woman with dreams of becoming a teacher?

After three years, her prayers seemed to be answered when La Flesche, now 18, was given the rare opportunity, through a teacher from the missionary school, to attend a private college for young women in the East. Joseph La Flesche, convinced that her education would ultimately benefit the tribe, allowed her to go. For the next four years, she studied at the Elizabeth Institute of Young Ladies in New Jersey, a time she considered wonderful, though it did nothing to ease her conflicted identity. Away at school, she missed her tribe and family; during her vacations, she longed to be back with her white friends at school.

In 1875, La Flesche was 21 when she graduated as a fully qualified teacher. However, the fact that she was also "Indian" made her a "ward of the state." Uniquely skilled to teach at a reservation "day" school, she found that the Omaha Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) agent absolutely refused to hire her, even though his refusal was against government policy. When she wrote the BIA commissioner threatening to publicize the failure of the agent to implement the bureau's own policy of giving preference to a qualified Indian over a white employee, her point was recognized. In 1877, she was hired as an assistant teacher, at half the salary paid the white staff.

Nevertheless, La Flesche loved teaching. She would probably have been content to spend the rest of her life occupied with her students and her books, had it not been for the crisis in 1879. With the remaining homelands of the Omahas at risk, her father too ill to fight, her older brother dead, and her other siblings still too young, it fell on her to speak for the tribe to the white people at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, beginning a crusade that was to last for the next nine years.

Criss-crossing the country, La Flesche gave hundreds of speeches, raised money for the Ponca-Omaha Committee, and lobbied before the U.S. Congress at every opportunity. Received as Bright Eyes in some of the most prestigious homes in the East, she eventually included Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), Ralph Waldo Emerson and Harriet Beecher Stowe among her patrons. Eventually, her main supporter was Thomas Tibbles, 15 years her senior. A widower with grown children, he was one of the most outspoken white men of his generation. The two were temperamental opposites, but Tibbles, like Susette's father, was a steadfast fighter on behalf of Native American rights. She was 27 when they were married in July 1881.

The two had been on the road together stumping for fair treatment of natives for two years, and so the marriage changed their lives very little. There was still much to be done, starting with a petition to be sent to Congress, asking the government to irrevocably grant a section of land for the Omahas. The major thrust of their lobbying efforts resulted in the passage of the Dawes Act in 1887. In retrospect, the Dawes Act was far from perfect, but, given the alternatives, it seemed the best course of action at the time. The Act provided for the general allotment of native lands, by which each family head received 160 acres, single persons over 18 and orphans under 18 were given 80 acres, and 40 acres went to single persons under 18. What everyone except diehard traditionalists failed to recognize was that native communities were just that—communities. All possessions, all land, had traditionally been held in common. Dividing up the land, which native belief says cannot be owned, only served to further destroy the culture. Once this land came under state jurisdiction, it also became subject to property taxes, which few natives could afford. By the mid-1920s, most "allotment land" had either been foreclosed upon by the various states for back taxes or had been swindled from the natives by greedy whites.

For La Flesche and Tibbles, however, passage of the Dawes Act meant their efforts had paid off. The couple settled in Washington, D.C., where Tibbles turned his endeavors to the Populist Party and La Flesche started to write, first as a reporter for The Non-Conformist, a Washington-based weekly, and later as a writer of short stories based on her childhood. Published in a children's magazine called Wide Awake, these works are some of the most realistic descriptions of native life ever to reach print.

After a few years in Washington, La Flesche wanted to return home to her family. In 1894, she and Tibbles moved back to Nebraska, where he took a job as an editor of the Weekly Independent and she often worked as a contributing writer. She never became reconciled to her dual identity, as Inshtatheamba—Bright Eyes—to her family but Susette La Flesche, teacher and organizer, to her college chums and the literary community. As Mrs. Thomas Tibbles, reporter, in the growing state of Nebraska, she still felt a part of two worlds and never completely at ease and happy in either one. At age 48, she died after a brief illness at her home in Bancroft, Nebraska, with her husband by her side. On her tombstone, he had both names—Susette La Flesche and Bright Eyes—inscribed, along with the epitaph: "She did all she could to make the world happier and better."


Bataille, Gretchen M., and Kathleen Sands. American Indian Women: A Guide to Research. NY: Garland, 1991.

Green, Norma Kidd. Iron Eye's Family: The Children of Joseph La Flesche. Lincoln, NE: Johnson, 1969.

Wilson, Dorothy Clarke. Bright Eyes: The Story of Susette La Flesche. NY: McGraw-Hill, 1974.

suggested reading:

Clark, Jerry C., and Martha Ellen Webb. "Susette and Susan La Flesche: Reformer and Missionary," in Being and Becoming Indian: Biographical Studies of North American Frontiers. Edited by James A. Clifton. Chicago, IL: Dorsey Press, 1989, pp. 137–159.

La Flesche, Susette. "The Indian Question," in Christian Union. Vol. 21, no. 100. March 10, 1880, pp. 222–223.


La Flesche Family Papers, Nebraska State Historical Society, Lincoln, Nebraska.

Tibbles Papers (MS 1644), Nebraska State Historical Society.

Deborah Jones , freelance writer, Studio City, California

About this article

La Flesche, Susette (1854–1902)

Updated About content Print Article