How a trio of sisters occupied — and saved — a sacred Native cemetery in Kansas City, Kansas
Before she even had the right to vote, Lyda Conley went to law school, conducted an armed occupation, and took a lawsuit all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in order to protect the Wyandot Cemetery from being sold and excavated.
In the center of downtown Kansas City, Kansas, between the public library and government buildings just off Minnesota Avenue, sits a two-acre cemetery.
The sign reads "Huron Indian Cemetery," but it’s also known as the Wyandot National Burying Ground and has long been a sacred place for members of the Wyandot Nation.
But it wouldn’t be here at all if it weren’t for an armed occupation by a trio of sisters 120 years ago.
“Lyda fought quite a battle to save that cemetery,” says Janith English, a member of the Wyandot nation of Kansas and a cousin of Lyda, Helena and Ida Conley.
Lyda, as Eliza Burton Conley was known, took their case all the way to the United States Supreme Court, becoming the first Native American woman to argue a case before the court in 1910.
“Imagine someone wanting to come in and desecrate the graves of your mother, your father, your grandmother, all of your ancestors just for a profit. This was nothing short of personal for her,” says librarian Samantha Gill, who wrote her thesis about Conley and her history.
The Wyandot nation ultimately gave their name to Wyandotte County. But the story of how hundreds of Wyandots came to be buried in that cemetery is complicated, full of treaties and broken promises.
The Wyandots originally lived along the St. Lawrence River and the Great Lakes region in Canada. (They are sometimes called “Huron” — that controversial name came from an old French term for “bristled boar” describing a hairstyle worn by tribal members.)
By the early 18th century, European settlers and other tribes had pushed the Wyandots to a region in Ontario and the Detroit Bay in present-day Michigan and Ohio. During this time, tribal members gained strength through creating alliances with other Native American groups, white settlers and African Americans.
“They had been influenced by white culture so early on,” says Gill. “I mean, the last known full-blooded Wyandot died in, they think, 1820. So there was a lot of interracial marriages and bi-racial children, and this was actually greatly encouraged by the U.S. government.”
But the Indian Removal Act of 1830 displaced the Wyandot again, and sent about 700 people by steamboat down the Mississippi River, then up the Missouri to where it meets the Kaw — the heart of the present-day Kansas City metropolitan area.
When the Wyandots got there, many were terribly sick from measles. Nearly 100 people died.
“Before they could establish a town, a settlement,” Gill says, “they had to establish a cemetery.”
In 1855, after the Wyandot had been in this Kansas Territory for less than a decade, the U.S. government wanted another treaty that would upend their lives once more. The treaty stipulated that the Wyandot could either move to a reservation in Oklahoma and keep their tribal rights or stay in Kansas but forfeit their claim to the Wyandot nation and become U.S. citizens.
As a result, the Wyandot tribe split between those who decided to stay in Kansas, which entered the Union as a free state in 1861, and those who moved to Oklahoma.
The cemetery, however, was still protected land under the treaty.
Lyda Conley was born between 1868 and 1869 (census records are unclear about which year). Her father was a British farmer and her mother was part Wyandot, a descendant of the famous Chief Tarhe. Conley was one of four daughters.
She had a bleak childhood. Her mother and younger sister died when she was about 11. Then her father and her grandmother also died. All of them were buried at what is now the Wyandot National Burying Ground in downtown Kansas City, Kansas.
Lyda, Helena and Ida basically raised themselves.
“It’s pretty clear that they lived in poverty for much of their adult lives,” says Gill.
Lyda and Helena put themselves through school and paddled a boat across the Missouri River to attend college in Parkville, Missouri.
In 1886, when Kansas City, Kansas, became a city, the location of the Wyandot cemetery was considered prime real estate in a booming area.
In an effort to stop the sacred ground from being desecrated, Lyda Conley went to law school, earning her degree from the Kansas City School of Law in 1902. She was one of only a few women in her graduating class.
“Not only did she go to law school, passed the bar, but she was doing all this before she even had the right to vote,” Gill says. “This was just crazy.”
In 1906, a historian and land surveyor with power of attorney for the Wyandotte Tribe of Oklahoma successfully passed a clause into federal law that stripped the cemetery of its protected status and ordered the bodies to be excavated. Conley wasn’t going to let that happen.
“She said, ‘We’re going into battle,’” says Judy Manthe, Conley’s cousin and a member of the Wyandot Nation of Kansas. “They shut the gates and padlocked them, hung a sign over the cemetery gates: ‘Trespassers beware.’ And they built a shack called Fort Conley.”
Armed with their father’s shotgun, the Conley sisters lived in their makeshift fort every day, through freezing winters and hot summers, protecting the cemetery from trespassers.
As her sisters stood watch over the cemetery, Lyda Conley turned her attention to preparing a legal case to protect the land. She filed a petition claiming that selling the cemetery, which was protected under the Treaty of 1855, violated Article 6 of the Constitution, which states that all treaties are the supreme law of the land.
“It was a tricky argument because it wasn’t just the U.S. government that was wanting to sell this land,” Gill says. “The Wyandotte tribe of Oklahoma wanted to sell the land.”
Lyda lost the case. The court ruled that she had no right to the land because she was not technically a member of the Wyandot tribe. (When the tribe split, Lyda’s mother wrote a letter to reinstate herself and her daughters in the tribe, but the letter was not recognized.)
Conley appealed her case all the way to the Supreme Court, where in 1910 she represented herself. Although the high court ruled against her, Conley became the first Native American woman and the third woman ever to argue a case against the Supreme Court.
While the legal battle hit a dead end, the Conley sisters’ armed resistance continued. Even when the sisters were thrown in jail or their fort was destroyed, they would be back defending the cemetery the next day.
Eventually, authorities destroyed both the shack and its lumber. Still, the time spent protecting the cemetery drew enough media coverage and public interest to pique the interest of Kansas state senator Charles Curtis, who was part Kaw.
In 1913, Curtis wrote and passed a bill protecting the cemetery from future development.
Lyda Conley was murdered in a robbery in 1946.
Every few years, someone made attempts to develop the land. Finally, in 2017 — over a century after Lyda Conley's arguments at the Supreme Court — the cemetery was declared a National Historic Landmark.
Manthe says when she visits the cemetery today, she remembers Lyda's fight to preserve the grounds and the history of her people.
“If we don’t tell the stories, who is?” Manthe says. “And if they’re lost in history, they’re lost. And if you don’t tell the history story, sometimes it repeats itself. Most times it repeats itself.”