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Lyda Conley's battle for Huron Indian Cemetery in KCK

Conley was 1st Native American woman to present to Supreme Court
Lyda Conley
Conley Family Graves
Eliza "Lyda" Conley's grave
Posted at 5:00 AM, Mar 22, 2023
and last updated 2023-03-22 14:47:47-04

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — In the heart of Kansas City, Kansas, the Huron Indian Cemetery reminds visitors that history is found in buildings, trails and even under one's feet.

"It's kind of like an Easter egg hunt," said Chief Judith Manthe of the Wyandot Nation of Kansas.

Many of her tribe's ancestors are buried in the cemetery.

"They looked for the highest place because they didn't have any place of their own to bury their dead, and our dead to us are very, very important," Manthe said. "It's like the only thing we have left of them."

The Huron Indian Cemetery was built in 1843 to bury nearly 200 Wyandot people who died from disease and flooding. Since then, hundreds have been buried in the cemetery, many in unmarked graves.

Thanks to the efforts of Eliza "Lyda" Conley, the cemetery is still in KCK today.

"She is the sister to my second-great-grandfather," Manthe said. "She was tenacious, she was a force to contend with."

Conley showed her tenacity by breaking barriers.

She graduated from the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law and was admitted to the Missouri Bar in 1902. Conley was one of the only women in her class to do so.

"In 1899, the city of Kansas City, Kansas, decided they wanted this ground," Manthe said.

When Congress voted in 1906 to approve the sale of the cemetery land and removal of the bodies buried there, Conley filed an injunction.

The case ended up in the Supreme Court, and she became the first Native American woman to represent herself in the nation's highest court.

"Her (Conley) and her sisters got together and really fought to protect the cemetery, and it was a lengthy battle," said Amy Loch, director of the Wyandotte County Historical Museum.

Conley fought legally and physically for the preservation of the cemetery.

The Wyandotte County Historical Museum has an exhibit that displays the shotgun the sisters used at their shack, named Fort Conley, inside the cemetery to defend the burial grounds.

"The story goes that they never actually loaded the gun, but they often had the shotgun with them," Loch said.

For those the Conleys respected, they showed peace.

"If they're happy with you, they'll do anything for you. But you turn on them, and holy cow, watch out," Manthe joked.

The burial grounds defense took place while Conley prepared and presented her case before Supreme Court justices.

Despite the court ruling against Conley in 1910, her efforts did not cease.

For decades, Conley and her family demonstrated, guarded and fought any way they could.

Manthe recalled family stories, one involving Conley chasing people off the property with a broomstick in 1937.

"[The judge] gave her the choice of a $10 fine or 10 days in jail. She took the 10 days in jail," Manthe said. "June 6, 1937, headlines read: 'Miss Conley leaves jail.' And man, she's got the biggest smile on her face."

Conley died suddenly on May 28, 1946, when was hit on the head with a brick and robbed for 20 cents.

But her battle didn't end when she died.

In 1971, the Huron Indian Cemetery was added to the National Register of Historic Places. The honor gave the grounds federal protection, despite the Supreme Court's ruling over 60 years before.

Today, Conley's legacy lives on in the site she fought to protect.

"We still get a lot of questions about the Conleys here at the museum, and we get several researchers every year looking to explore her story further," Loch said.

CREDIT: Wyandotte County Historical Museum