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Susette “Bright Eyes” LaFlesche Tibbles

Kathryn S Gardiner | Published on 12/9/2023

Forgotten Foremothers

Profiles of lesser-known heroines in the fight for women’s rights

The Ponca were not a nomadic people. They were farmers who had lived for generations along the Niobrara River in present-day Nebraska. But in 1876, the United States Government ordered them to a reservation in northern Oklahoma. Some complied and migrated. Chief Standing Bear and many others stayed until May 1877 when the U.S. military gave them no choice. 


On the Ponca Trail of Tears, hot weather, insects, illness, and hunger gnawed at them. Nine people died, including Standing Bear’s daughter. Their numbers had already been winnowed down in the years prior as flawed or broken treaties with the government exacerbated hostilities with other tribes now competing for the same scarce resources. Fewer than 800 Poncas remained to relocate to what they called “the hot country.”


That winter, Standing Bear’s oldest son, Bear Shield, died. He was 12 years old. By some tellings, the boy’s dying wish was to be buried on their ancestral land. By others, Standing Bear was simply “unwilling” to bury his son in this harsh and unfamiliar territory. He and a band of around 30 other Poncas wrapped Bear Shield’s body and started for the Niobrara River once again.


Over 60 days and 600 miles into their trek, they were apprehended. On March 27th, 1879, Army General George Crook imprisoned Standing Bear and his traveling party in the Fort Omaha Barracks. 


Chief Standing Bear was an eloquent speaker with a sympathetic cause, but he spoke Ponca, a language used only by the Omaha and Ponca tribes. To share his message, he would need an interpreter. 



Susette LaFlesche was born in April the year her Omaha tribe abandoned their hunting grounds and moved to the Omaha Reservation. She was less than a year old when the nearby Poncas saw their last great hunt in 1855. The plentiful bison of the past had diminished. White settlers had moved in and claimed the most fertile lands.


Her parents were both children of mixed marriages between white men and indigenous women. Mary Gale’s father was New Hampshire-born surgeon and military officer, and her mother an educated Omaha-Iowa-Otoe woman. Joseph LaFlesche’s father was a French-Canadian fur trader and his mother a Ponca woman.


Joseph was called “Iron Eyes,” and he was the last chief of the Omaha. At age 4, Susette was given the name “Bright Eyes.”


She grew up on the Omaha Reservation, the oldest daughter of Joseph’s seven children. From age 8 to age 15, throughout the violent years of the U.S. Civil War, she attended the Presbyterian Mission Boarding Day School. Above all, reservation schools emphasized assimilation into the white settler culture. Native children were prohibited from acknowledging their tribal traditions or using their mother tongues. Susette didn’t object. Many among the Ponca viewed integration as the best means of survival and progress.

“Though she might have roundly approved of the school day assimilation process, it was not out of heartlessness,” wrote Erin E. Pedigo in The Gifted Pen: The Journalism Career of Susette LaFlesche Tibbles. “Proud of her identity, she was only concerned with making sure the children of the reservation had the wherewithal to succeed in the new world being rapidly created and expanded around them without their consent or input. ... Because she had an education she could imagine no other kind of life viable for the younger Omaha.”


At the school, she learned to sew and cook, and also to write and speak in English. These skills served her well when she pursued further education at New Jersey’s Elizabeth Institute for Young Girls in 1869 at age 15. (Her younger sister Susan, who would become the first Native American woman to earn a medical degree, would later graduate from the same school.) Susette showed a talent for writing and even had an essay published in The New York Tribune during her senior year. Following graduation, she returned to the Omaha Reservation where she eventually began teaching at the Mission School.


In 1876, Standing Bear and nine other chiefs of the Poncas were escorted to view the Oklahoma reservation. When they rejected it, their U.S. government escort deserted them, leaving the band to return to Nebraska on foot through winter. The hungry, battered men found comfort and food with the LaFlesche family before completing their journey back to the Niobrara River.


Twenty-three-year-old Susette and her father were curious about the land the Poncas had been offered, so they traveled to Oklahoma to see it for themselves. Like Standing Bear, they were distressed by the dry and crowded conditions of the relocated tribes. Back in Omaha, Susette began working with newspaper editor Thomas H. Tibbles, an abolitionist and Indians’ Rights activist.

25-year-old Susette in 1879, the year she translated Standing Bear's words for the court. Photo by José Maria Mora. Public Domain.

When General George Crook arrested Standing Bear and his companions in 1879, he initially intended to order their return to the Quapaw Reservation in Oklahoma, but illness among the travelers and the weakness of their horses forced a delay. That delay kept Standing Bear within the reach of Thomas and Susette, who immediately brought his story to the public in The Omaha-Herald

“The Last Indian Outrage [and] Criminal Cruelty,” read the headlines on page 4 on April 1st, 1879. “‘If we go back to the Territory,’ said Standing Bear, ‘of course all those who are sick will die before we get back.” What necessity demands the lives of these innocent men and women? Is it any thing less than heartless, cruel murder?”


On page 5, Standing Bear said, “My boy who died down there, as he was dying [he] looked up to me and said I would like you to take my bones back to the Omaha agency and bury them there where I was born. I promised him I would. I could not refuse the dying request of my boy. I have attempted to keep my word. His bones are in that trunk.”


In that same issue, a Ponca medicine man named Buffalo Chip said, “I sometimes think that the white people forget that we are human, that we love our wives and children, that we require food and clothing ... Eight days ago I was at work on my farm which the Omahas gave me. I had sowed some spring wheat, and wished to sow some more. I was living peaceably with all men. I have never committed any crime. I was arrested and brought back as a prisoner. Does your law do that? I have been told since the great war that all men were free men, and that no man can be made a prisoner unless he does wrong. I have done no wrong and yet I am here a prisoner. Have you a law for white men, and a different law for those who are not white?”

On May 13, 1879, The Omaha-Herald touted the verdict on page 8.

Buffalo Chip did not ask this question rhetorically. According to the newspaper, he waited for the reporter to answer. “The Herald reporter found himself cornered,” the column read. “The reporter at last replied that there was but one law for all alike.”


“Then why am I and my family held prisoner when we have committed no crime?” Buffalo Chip asked. 


“I cannot tell,” the reporter answered, and fell silent.  


We have these words thanks to Susette’s role as translator. 


Thomas and Susette kept these stories coming. The first article ran on April 1st, then another on April 2nd, then April 6th. Meanwhile, in the background, Thomas also reached out to lawyers. 


The 14th Amendment had been ratified just a decade earlier, and Thomas quickly wrote up nearly 50 pages of a possible defense for Standing Bear and the other imprisoned Poncas based upon its tenets. In short, the amendment asserts that “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” Standing Bear’s arrest, Thomas argued, was unconstitutional.


Joined now by lawyers John L. Webster and A. J. Poppleton, who agreed to represent the Ponca free of charge, Thomas petitioned United States District Court Judge Elmer S. Dundy. They insisted that the arresting agent, General George Crook, must produce a writ of habeus corpus.


The writ of habeus corpus has its roots in the Magna Carta in the year 1215. In Latin, the phrase means, “that you have the body,” and it was introduced to challenge a monarch’s right to imprison whomever they want. This principle was adopted into the United States Constitution following the Civil War to extend protection to the formerly enslaved people who were now to be treated as full citizens of the country under the law. The Poncas’ lawyers hoped to argue they, too, should be treated as citizens.


Standing Bear’s story had first appeared in The Omaha-Herald on April 1st. By April 9th, the demand for the writ had been granted. The newspaper reported, “The Indian, wronged, oppressed, and robbed, as he has ever been since the whites landed on this continent, is to at last have his case presented in the courts.”


The trial began on April 30th. Susette was there, joined by her father Joseph “Iron Eyes.”


The decision to largely assimilate peacefully into white culture benefited the Ponca. The trial transcripts are full of language asserting that, unlike other tribes, they are not “savage,” nor at war with the United States. One witness on the stand, a white man who owned a general store and interacted frequently with the Ponca, told the court that the “Poncas rested on Sunday.”


“Is that material?” asked the attorney representing the U.S. Government. 


Standing Bear’s lawyer replied, “I want to show that they were being Christianized.”


After the official court proceedings, Standing Bear asked to speak. As Native Hope described, he faced the audience and “held out his right hand and stood motionless so long that the stillness of death, which had settled on the audience, became almost unbearable.” 


“That hand is not the color of yours, but if I prick it, the blood will flow, and I shall feel pain,” he said, through Susette’s translations. “The blood is of the same color as yours. God made me, and I am a man. I never committed any crime. If I had, I would not stand here to make a defense. I would suffer the punishment and make no complaint."


Like the Dred Scott v Sanford case 30 years earlier, the legal nuances of citizenship brought forth a deeper, more fundamental question: Who counts as human? Before an individual can sue, before they are granted the citizenship that would permit them redress in the courts, they must first be considered a person in the eyes of the law. In the Dred Scott case, Chief Justice Roger Taney ruled that freed Black people were not, stating, “they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”


With Susette interpreting, Standing Bear spoke powerfully about his stance in that moment in time, as an indigenous man in a land he’d once understood. “I seem to be standing on a high bank of a great river, with my wife and little girl at my side. I cannot cross the river, and impassable cliffs arise behind me. I hear the noise of great waters; I look and see a flood coming. The waters rise to our feet, and then to our knees. My little girl stretches her hands toward me and says, 'Save me.' I stand where no member of my race ever stood before. There is not tradition to guide me. The chiefs who preceded me knew nothing of the circumstances that surround me. I only hear my little girl say, 'Save me.' In despair I look toward the cliff behind me, and I seem to see a dim trail that may lead to a way of life. But no Indian ever passed over that trail. It looks to be impassable. I make the attempt.”


While the trial spanned only two days, the judge took 11 to consider his ruling. Had he been able to rule on sympathy, Judge Dundy said, he could have decided quickly, but his ruling needed to be based in the intricacies of the law. Ultimately, Standing Bear v Crook was decided in favor of Standing Bear. The judge wrote, “The reasoning advanced in support of my views, leads me to conclude: 1. That an Indian is a 'person' within the meaning of the laws of the United States…”


“Standing Bear’s victory,” read The Omaha-Herald on May 13th. “An Indian has some rights which the courts will protect.” Calls for Standing Bear’s release came soon after.


This was a fractional victory, however. The judge claimed a razor’s edge of specificity: Standing Bear and the other Poncas had left their reservation, thereby rejecting the aid of the government. This now prohibited them from receiving any of that aid or setting foot back on any reservation—but they were, officially, citizens of the United States. This extended to them and only them. The case made no change for Native Americans as a group (and indeed, it would be 1924’s Native American Citizenship Act that would complete the task).


Standing Bear resumed his journey to the Niobara and buried his son in their ancestral lands.


(In the following years, it would be revealed that it the arresting agent General George Crook himself who first told Thomas Tibbles about Standing Bear’s plight. He felt that his orders related to the Poncas were wrong and he petitioned the newspaper man to stir up attention for their cause.)


Susette attempted a return to teaching, but Thomas soon swept into her life again. Wanting to use the momentum of the successful court case, he suggested a speaking tour with Susette as both speaker and interpreter. Standing Bear, having fulfilled his son’s request, had agreed. Though reluctant and shy, Susette, now 25, soon agreed as well, and the three—along with several others—began a campaign to bring attention to the conditions endured by the Poncas, Omahas, and all Native Americans.


The welcome from white audiences often gathered in church venues could be patronizing at times. Many expressed shock that an “Indian woman” like Susette was so well-spoken and educated. Erin Pedigo reported that Susette “strongly disliked being compared to the ... ‘Indian maiden’ who existed only in other people’s imaginations, but on this speaking tour she had no choice but to bear it politely.”


During this tour, on July 23rd, 1881, 27-year-old Susette married Thomas, becoming his second wife. “[E]ven prior to marrying her, Tibbles seems to have genuinely valued Susette as a person,” wrote Erin. “He praised her intellect, wit, and facility with the spoken word and of course commented on those ‘wonderful eyes.’ ... The widower’s affections for this woman 14 years his junior were almost certainly genuine, but Susette left nothing in the written record regarding her own feelings.”


While their relationship caused friction with members of Susette’s family and Thomas’s daughters with his first wife, the couple seems to have been content and compatible. Both continued their journalistic pursuits. Susette also translated some childhood Ohama stories into English.


On Dec. 30th, 1890, both Susette and Thomas were among the 20 journalists to witness the Wounded Knee Massacre in South Dakota. For years, the peace between the white population and the natives of the Lakota Pine Ridge Indian Reservation had been uneasy. Recently, a ritual had spread across the plains’ tribes. The white people called it the “Ghost Dance” and saw it as a preamble to war. 


In the weeks prior, Susette repeatedly asserted that the Lakota responses were reasonable, and entirely human, considering their circumstances. “Why are they starving,” asked one of her headlines, followed by the summary, “Bright Eyes tells how the crops at Pine Ridge were allowed to wither.” On Dec. 19th, she even described in detail the Ghost Dance itself, making clear that it was not a war dance. 


The U.S. Government sent forces and mustered white civilian militias to surround the Pine Ridge Reservation. Though the Lakotas were drastically outnumbered, starving, cold, and surrounded, the government viewed them as the aggressors. By Dec. 31st, over 250 Lakotas had been murdered. Most of the dead were the Lakota elders, children, and unarmed women. 


Erin wrote that “Susette’s work about the human side of the Wounded Knee massacre was solely in the accepted realm of the female writer. She let America and the world ponder the social and human aspect of violence—the misery of the aftermath and the task of reasoning with readers comprised her writing’s bulk.”


While her involvement in Standing Bear’s case understandably dominates accounts of her life, Susette’s journalism in the early 1890s provides a crucial glimpse into the historical indigenous experience. Beyond the bullet-point battles was the slow grind of despair. Most Native American tribes experienced broken treaties, forced relocation, and starvation, but each tribe, each person, had their own story of resistance or acceptance, surrender or attack. In Susette’s accounts of her friends among the Lakotas, the Omahas, and the Poncas, we hear the individual voices of people navigating a hostile, uncertain time. A single withering crop in 1890 is preserved as the tragedy it was to those starving from it.


Yet, Susette’s contributions are under-researched. In her essay, Erin noted, “[T]hese most powerful and clear-headed of articles have been ignored even in a survey of Native Americans’ contributions to journalism.” 


Susette and Thomas settled back in Nebraska for a brief time before political interests took them to Washington, D.C., to do reporting on the Populist movement, then to Chicago to report on the World’s Columbian Expedition in 1893. Susette closed out the century writing about the minutia of the Senate, reporting on politics over which her gender and race denied her any influence.


“A struggle for existence is not a decent living,” she wrote in December 1895. “A man or woman or child may die of starvation in a city teeming with plenty. ... The people of the United States based their laws on those of England. It is not many generations ago, that in England, the law exacted a life for the theft of a loaf of bread. It is nothing to the law. A human being to sustain life steals a loaf of bread or lump of coal. Immediately the power of the law is invoked to protect the rights of property but it did not protect the right of the human being to live.”


After years of travel and writing, Susette’s health began to deteriorate. She returned to live with her sister Rosalie, who then died in 1900. With her physician sister Susan overseeing her care, Susette died May 23rd, 1903, at age 49. A bereft Thomas couldn’t bear to be in the room. Her sister Susan and mother Mary were by her side.





The Gifted Pen: The Journalism Career of Susette La Flesche Tibbles by Erin E. Pedigo

The Newspaper Writings of Susette La Flesche--A Selected Edition

The Omaha-Herald archives: April 1, 1879April 9, 1879May 1, 1879May 13, 1879 A Brief History of the Ponca People

Nebraska Public Media: The Trial of Standing Bear

Native Hope: Chief Standing Bear’s legacy, civil rights leader of his time

Casetext: U.S. ex Rel. Standing Bear v. Crook

Library of Congress Blogs: Chief Standing Bear and His Landmark Civil Rights Case

Iowa State University: Susette La Flesche Tibbles

Metis Museum: Mary Gale

National Archives: 14th AmendmentMagna Carta 1215

Cornell Law School: Habeus Corpus