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Thursday, June 13, 2024

Transitions – Warriors for justice: Walt Longmire, Joe Leaphorn, and Lyda Conley


I enjoy Craig Johnson’s Longmire and Tony Hillerman’s Leaphorn and Chee series. The popular Western series’ feature Sheriff Longmire and his best friend Henry Standing Bear, a Cheyenne, and Navajo Tribal Policeman Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee. The characters are fictional, but Lyda Conley was real. With women’s history month just behind us, I want to present Lyda Conley, the first Native American woman to address the Supreme Court.

Eliza Burton Conley was born in Kansas (1868-69?) to a Wyandotte and English parents. Highly educated, she and her four sisters would row across the river every day to attend Park College. The Wyandotte nation was given land by the government for a cemetery and hundreds of Lyda’s families, including her mother and a sister, were buried there after devastating measles and typhoid epidemics.

The cemetery was soon part of downtown Kansas City and prime real estate. Sensing an upcoming land grab, she fought not with bow and arrows but the law. She went to law school and was admitted to the bar in Missouri and Kansas.

As developers fought to sell the land and move the bodies, Lyda and her sister set up a shack they named “Fort Conley”. Backed up by shotguns they promised “woe” to anyone who would move their relatives’ bodies.

When the case went to the Supreme Court in 1910, Lyda represented herself as a plaintiff. Her arguments did not sway the justices, but publicity did. Three years later, a Kansas state senator had a law passed protecting it. In 2017 the cemetery became a National Historic Landmark.

Our Indigenous people are not just the fables of Rin Tin Tin, but men and women who made a difference like the Choctaw code talkers of WWI and Navajo code talkers of WWII. The Indigenous nations were defeated by Europeans, but remain proud Americans. I salute them.

Information from Emma Rothberg, NWHM Predoctoral Fellow in Gender Studies I 2020-2022.

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Barbara Blomquist
Barbara Blomquist
Barbara Blomquist is a Naperville resident, wife, mother, quilter, and screenwriter. Contact her at BWBLomquist@aol.com.