Born in Nebraska in 1854, Susette, also called Inshata Theumba (Bright Eyes), had French and Native American ancestry. That year the United States government promised the Omaha tribe would keep 300,000 acres of their traditional lands for their reservation. Susette’s father believed the Omaha must accept reservation life to survive. Young Susette learned to read and write English at the reservation missionary school.
But corrupt government agents pocketed tribal funds while doling out shoddy goods and poor food. The Omaha faced hunger and suffering. And they knew, like other tribes, that treaties did not protect them from the threat of removal to Indian Territory, an arid, harsh land in present-day Oklahoma.
This happened to the Omaha’s neighbors, the Ponca. In May 1877 soldiers drove 700 Ponca south “as one would drive a herd of ponies.” Susette witnessed their plight first hand.
Susette wrote to the President, the Indian Commissioner, the Secretary of the Interior. “Because I am an Indian can you order me to the Indian Territory, New Mexico, or any place you please, and I be powerless to appeal to any law for protection?” she wrote. But the government could do whatever it wished.
In 1879 Ponca chief Standing Bear and about 30 followers fled Indian Territory and headed back to Nebraska. When Soldiers arrested them, several lawyers filed a case on behalf of the Ponca. Susette supported Standing Bear, writing about the horrible conditions the Ponca faced in Oklahoma. But the government claimed an Indian was not a person and had no rights under the Constitution. “Discontented and restless or mischievous Indians cannot be permitted to leave their reservations at will and go where they please,” answered the Indian Department.
However, Standing Bear won his case– the judge declared an Indian was a person and couldn’t be forcibly moved or confined without giving consent. The government countered that only Standing Bear and his band of 30 could stay in Nebraska. No other Indians could leave their reservations.
Susette joined a speaking tour of eastern cities. Shy and soft-spoken, she overcame her fears to demand fair and honest treatment of native people. She translated for Chief Standing Bear and spoke to huge crowds. The Ladies Journal wrote, “No such interesting squaw has appeared since Pocahontas.”
Susette testified before Congress and met President Rutherford B. Hayes. She asked that Indians be allowed to remain on their homelands– lands deeded to them by treaties later broken by the U.S. government. She wanted Indians to have a say in how the government spent money meant for the tribes. She condemned the government for keeping soldiers on reservations to put down disturbances begun over native peoples’ suffering. She decried that an Indian could be arrested without a trial.
“When the Indian, being a man and not a child or a thing, or merely an animal, as some would-be civilizers have termed him, fights for his property, liberty, and life, they call him a savage,” Susette wrote. She denounced the corrupt reservation system which prevented Indians from earning their own living and taking care of themselves. Within that system, tribes faced starvation. “This system has been tried for nearly a hundred years and has only worked ruin for the Indian,” Susette argued. “Instead give native people title to their own land and granted them citizenship and protection of the law.”
Susette also wrote magazine articles for children about traditional Omaha life complete with drawings of cradleboards, tipis, drying buffalo meat and clothing. Remembering stories of the old days when the Omaha lived free, she wondered “if there is anything in your civilization which will make good to us what we have lost.”
Illness cut Susette’s life short. She died only 49 years old, her life spent as a champion of native peoples through her pen and eloquent voice.
Written for Sheroes of History by Brandon Marie Miller. Brandon writes history for young people and wrote about Susette in her Young Adult book Women of the Frontier, 16 Tales of Trailblazing Homesteaders, Entrepreneurs and Rabble-Rousers
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Susette was sister to Susan La Flesche Picotte, the first female Native American doctor, who we featured on the Sheroes of History blog a while ago. Find out more about her here.
Watch this short video about Susette and how she has inspired a young Omaha woman today: