Summer 1906, Kansas City, Kansas.
Lyda Conley wiped the beads of sweat from her forehead with the sleeve of her dress. It was a warm, humid late June day. She carefully laid the hammer into the box of her late father’s tools and stepped back next to her sisters, Lena and Ida. The Conley Sisters viewed their handiwork—an 8’ by 6’ cabin constructed mere feet away from their parent’s gravesites in their Wyandot tribe’s burial land, Huron Indian Cemetery.
A hundred feet away behind the “TRESPASS AT YOUR OWN PERIL” sign hanging from chain-locked iron cemetery gates, a small crowd gathered along the downtown street in the heart of the rapidly expanding business district of young Kansas City, Kansas. A crowd of people clapped and cheered their support of the Conley Sisters and their defense of a prized, downtown park. Other scowled at the sisters; seeing their illegal occupation of this piece of prime real estate in the heart of the city as standing in the way of the city’s growth and prosperity.
The game was on.
Fort Conley was built.
The occupation of Huron Indian Cemetery, in opposition to a 1906 United States’ Congressional Bill authorizing the Secretary of the Interior to remove the bodies of the Wyandot tribal dead to nearby Quindaro Cemetery in order to sell the land, had begun.
Buried in the appropriation bill, actually buried in the middle of some treaty business with the Sac and Fox Tribe of Kansas for fee-simple patents, payment appropriation for a school, and land payments, is the authorization to sell Huron Place Cemetery from under the rightful ownership of the Wyandot Tribe.
On that June day, the Conley Sisters, behind the intellectual leadership of the youngest sister, Lyda, and the spiritual leadership of Lena, began a lifelong battle which would ultimately save their tribal burial ground from the destructive forces of economic development.
The battle that started in the streets of downtown Kansas City, Kansas, would take many detours. From Washington, D.C. when Congress passed the 1906 bill authorizing the sale of the cemetery, to the downtown cemetery occupation by the Conley Sisters. The fight would move to the courts, starting with the United States Circuit Court of Kansas in Topeka, Kansas and eventually, it would land with an appeal at the highest court in the land, the Supreme Court—where Lyda became the first woman of Native American heritage to argue a case before the court.
What made the Conleys take up arms and occupy their tribal burial ground?
“In this cemetery are buried one-hundred of our ancestors…why should we not be proud of our ancestry and protect their graves? We shall do it, and woe be to the man that first attempts to steal a body. We are part owners of the ground and have the right under the law to keep off trespassers, the right a man has to shoot a burglar who enters his home.”
– October 25, Kansas City Times quotation from Lyda Conley.
First and foremost, it was to protect the sacred ground on which their relatives and tribal kinsmen were buried.
They builded [sic] a hut within the grounds, close to the graves of their parents, with tiny windows overlooking the cemetery on all sides. They loaded their guns and took up their abode in that city of the dead, and the “word went out that the first man to turn a sod over one of those graves, would either turn another for the Conley sisters, or have some other person perform a like service for himself. Threats were made, a treaty of peace was attempted, the federal troops were announced as being on their way to take the Conley Fort, but the sisters remained firm. The commission remained in Kansas City for a stated period and then left — surrendered to the Indian maids. The fall passed into winter and the winter into spring, but the Conley Fort remained, with the Conley sisters on guard. They braved the biting blasts of the winter and plowed their way through the snow and over the mounds of their forefathers, to the tiny fort from which they were determined to defend, against the federal government, what was more to them than life and all that it could give them.
-Kansas Magazine, July 1909.
According to Lena, the reason for their act of civil disobedience was triggered by a dream she had when the cemetery was threatened. “My father’s spirit came to me in a dream and was unhappy and I knew what that meant. The dead want this holy place defended and it will be.”