Published on February 3, 2013 by Amy
Susette LaFlesche Tibbles, also called Insta Theamba (Bright Eyes) (1854 – 1903), was a well-known Native American writer, lecturer, interpreter and artist of the Omaha tribe in Nebraska. Susette LaFlesche was a progressive who was a spokesperson for Native American rights. She was of Ponca, Iowa, French and Anglo-American ancestry. In 1983 she was inducted into the Nebraska Hall of Fame.
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Susette, also called Insta Theamba (Bright Eyes), was one of five children born to Joseph LaFlesche and his wife Mary Gale. Joseph was the son of the French fur trader Joseph LaFlesche, a wealthy immigrant from France, and his Ponca wife, Waoowinchtcha(who was reported to be a relative of the Omaha chief Big Elk.)
LaFlesche, also called Insta Maza (Iron Eye), had started with the American Fur Company at age 16, after accompanying his father from the age of 10 on his trips. After his parents separated because of his father’s long trips, the younger LaFlesche lived with his mother and her family among the Omaha. She married again, as did his father. Joseph’s half-brother, Frank LaFlesche (White Swan) became a chief of the Ponca and was influential in the lives of Joseph’s children.
After some years of trading with the Omaha while working with Peter Sarpy, the younger LaFlesche was adopted as a son by the chief Big Elk. He named him successor to his position. LaFlesche (Iron Eyes) became the last traditional chief of the Omaha.
Before that, he had married Mary Gale, also called Hinnuaganun (One Woman), the mixed-race daughter of Dr. John Gale, a surgeon at Fort Atkinson (Nebraska) and Ni-co-ma, his Iowa wife. (After Gale abandoned his consort and child in Nebraska, Ni-co-ma married the fur trader Peter Sarpy.)
The LaFlesches were a “prominent, affluent and acculturated family” among the Omaha. LaFlesche and Mary stressed the importance of education for their children: Louis, Susette, Rosalie, Marguerite and Susan, and “favored assimilation”. They thought it offered the best future for their people. The LaFlesche family supported the missionary schools and white teachers for their children.
Mary LaFlesche died about 1855. Joseph married again, to Ta-in-ne (Elizabeth Esau), an Omaha woman. The following year, 1857, their son Francis LaFlesche was born, followed by other children.
After the Presbyterian mission school on the reservation closed, Susette LaFlesche attended a girls’ school in Elizabeth, New Jersey, where she was followed by her younger sisters Marguerite and Susan. Her writing skills were recognized and encouraged during her school years.
The LaFlesche family was very accomplished, and her siblings also became educated and leaders in their professions: Susan LaFlesche Picotte became the first Native American woman physician and founded the first privately funded hospital on an Indian reservation; and Rosalie LaFlesche Player became a financial manager for the Omaha nation, leasing grazing land that was excess to individual household needs. Marguerite LaFlesche Picotte was a teacher on the Yankton Sioux reservation, having married Charles Picotte. Their half-brother Francis LaFlesche became an ethnologist for the Smithsonian Institution, writing about the Omaha and the Osage, and making original recordings of their traditional songs.
As a young woman, Susette LaFlesche became more interested in politics. She first worked as a teacher on the Omaha reservation.
Since her paternal grandmother and uncle were Ponca, she and her father traveled to Oklahoma to investigate conditions after the tribe’s forced removal from Nebraska to Indian Territory. (The US government had reassigned the Ponca land in Nebraska to the Great Sioux Reservation.)
LaFlesche worked with Thomas Tibbles, an editor with the Omaha World Herald, to publicize the poor conditions they found at the southern reservation: the Ponca had been moved too late in the year to plant crops, the government was late with supplies and promised infrastructure and improvements, and malaria was endemic in the area. Nearly one-third of the tribe died within the first two years as a result of the journey and conditions, among them the oldest son of Chief Standing Bear. The chief left the Indian Territory with some followers to bury his son in the traditional homeland of Nebraska. They were arrested and confined to Fort Omaha, by order of the federal government. Tibbles’ coverage of the chief’s imprisonment was instrumental in gaining Standing Bear pro bono legal services by two prominent defense attorneys, including the counsel for the Union Pacific Railroad. Standing Bear filed a suit of habeas corpus against the US government, challenging the grounds for his arrest.
In 1879 LaFlesche acted as the chief’s interpreter during his trial at Fort Omaha, Nebraska. She also testified as to conditions on the reservation in Indian Territory. Standing Bear successfully challenged the lack of grounds of his arrest and imprisonment, arguing before the United States District Court that Indians were persons under the law, and had all the rights of U.S. citizens. Tibbles attended and reported the case, which gained national attention. Standing Bear v. Crook (1879) was a landmark civil rights case, with the judge deciding that Indians had certain rights as “persons” and citizens under the US constitution.
Following the trial, LaFlesche and her half-brother Francis accompanied Standing Bear and others on a speaking tour of the eastern United States, which was organized by Tibbles. In addition to taking turns interpreting for Standing Bear, Susette LaFlesche spoke separately as an orator. During the tour, LaFlesche and Tibbles also testified in Washington in 1880 before a Congressional committee about the disastrous Ponca removal. LaFlesche spoke for the rights of Native Americans. They met prominent American writers, such as the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and writer Helen Hunt Jackson. In 1881 Jackson published a book about US treatment of Native Americans entitled A Century of Dishonor, and in 1884 the novel Ramona, based on Indian issues in Southern California. Longfellow reportedly said of LaFlesche, “This could be Minnehaha”, referring to the legendary Indian heroine in his poem The Song of Hiawatha.
In 1887, LaFlesche and Tibbles, by then married, accompanied Standing Bear on a 10-month speaking tour of England and Scotland. LaFlesche continued to act as the chief’s interpreter. They were heard by many who wanted to learn more about the American Indian issues in the United States.
After their return to Nebraska, LaFlesche and Tibbles became interested in the growing Ghost Dance movement and issues among the restive Sioux bands. They went to the Pine Ridge Agency in 1890 and wrote about its conditions, as well as the Wounded Knee Massacre. This work was likely the peak of LaFlesche’s journalism career. She continued to publish articles and columns in papers in Nebraska, including her husband’s Populist The Independent.
LaFlesche and Thomas Tibbles were married in 1881, after his wife died. During the next 14 years, the couple spent some time in Washington, D.C. (1893-1895), but lived mostly in Nebraska. While in Washington, LaFlesche wrote and lectured on Native American issues. For instance, she gave an address to the Association for the Advancement of Women, on “The Position, Occupation, and Culture of Indian Women.”
In Nebraska, she spent time farming on her allotment of land as a tribal member on the Omaha Reservation and also writing. Her husband managed her father’s property. They lived there most of the time.