Right in the center of downtown Kansas City, Kan., between the public library and government buildings just off Minnesota Avenue, is a little two-acre cemetery.
The sign reads "Huron Indian Cemetery," but it’s also known as the Wyandot National Burying Ground. Over the years this place has been a gathering spot and a sacred place for members of the Wyandot Nation, but it has also been the site of controversy, confusion and a curse.
If you call the cemetery Huron to a Wyandot, they will most likely correct you. Huron is French for bristle boars, referring to the way Wyandot’s head pieces look.
“It was a slang word and kind of an insult really … it stuck. You know what do you say about that? Some words just stick,” says Judy Manthe.
Manthe is of the Wyandot Nation of Kansas and is the commissioner for the cemetery. She refers to the area as the Wyandot National Burying Ground.
Some of the 170 year old graves that rest on the hill maintain their engravings. While other limestone headstones are worn down, knocked over, marked unknown, or are missing headstones completely. Nobody knows exactly how many lay to rest here.
Trail of Tears
“This cemetery started in 1844,” says Manthe. “Their Trail of Tears was brought by a steamboat down the Ohio, through the Mississippi River, up to the Missouri, and pretty much dumped off where the influence of the Kansas and the Missouri River come together.”
When the Wyandots got to what’s now the West Bottoms, many were terribly sick from measles. Nearly 100 people died.
Only about a year after their arrival, a six week rainfall completely flooded the area killing many more. They purchased some land from the Delaware Tribe in what’s now Kansas City, Kan., and the Delaware gifted them land including the hill where the cemetery is today. Those who passed from the disease and flood were the first buried there. Later on, soldiers from the Battle of Westport were also put to rest there. The community settled on the slopes of the hill in what became Wyandotte City.
Around that same time in 1868, the city of Kansas City, Kan., was created. It brought together five surrounding towns including Wyandotte City. And as the city started to grow, developers started to look into acquiring the burial ground, which was in a prime location.
“It was reported that a provision to sell the cemetery, the graveyard, had been buried in a 65 page Congressional bill. And the many remains, the number of which were unmarked, or in mass graves, were to be transferred to the Quindaro Cemetery,” says Manthe.
The Conley sisters
This is when the Wyandot Conley sisters, Eliza (Lyda), Helena (Lena), and Ida got involved in a big way. In protest, they built a sturdy fort on the cemetery to protect their parents’ graves.
“They just wanted to preserve their history and their ancestors, their mother and father,” says Manthe.
The three sisters stayed there and defended the cemetery. They put up no trespassing signs and were armed. Lyda Conley was supposedly arrested at one point for shooting a policeman for trespassing. She graduated from law school in 1902, and became the first woman admitted to the Kansas Bar. In 1909, she sued the Secretary of the Interior and challenged the sale and development of the cemetery before the United States Supreme Court. She was the first American Indian to try a case before the Supreme Court.
Even though Lyda Conley lost her case, she continued to work to preserve the integrity of Wyandot graves. The sale of the land was stopped and she worked with the city to protect the land until she passed away in 1946. Today the Conley sisters lay to rest, together, right by their parents. Their gravestones etched with a message to the public to preserve this land — or else.
Judy Manthe stands near Helena Conley’s grave at the Wyandot National Burying Ground. She reads the engraving, “Helena Conley, floating voice. Cursed be the villain that molest their graves. They had fought such a hard battle, and so many people were trying to get this land that she put a curse on it.”
Over the years Kansas City Kansas’ downtown development, expansion of Minnesota Ave, and efforts from the Wyandot Nation of Oklahoma to expand their casino, have continued to put the cemetery in danger. But today it stands protected and is on the national register of historic places.
Through compromise and diplomacy the graves have remained protected. Even though it’s surrounded completely by bustling downtown commerce and construction, Manthe says she can block out the noise and find serenity in this sacred place that’s a huge part of her heritage.