Susette La Flesche Biography

Susette La Flesche

reformer, writer, and lecturer
Born: 1854
Birthplace: near Bellevue, Nebr.

Also known as Inshta Theumba, or “Bright Eyes,” La Flesche was born on the Omaha Reservation just south of present-day Omaha, Nebr. Both of her parents were of mixed blood: her father, Joseph La Flesche, was the son of a French trader and an Omaha woman, and her mother, Mary Gale, was the daughter of an army contract surgeon and an Omaha-Iowa woman.

Although Joseph La Flesche was a chief of the Omahas and lived as an Indian, he believed that the Omahas should adapt to the dominant white culture. His children, therefore, were raised at home according to Omaha tradition, but they received a formal education at the reservation's Presbyterian missionary school, where they learned to speak English and to read and write. Susette and two of her sisters were later also sent to a private finishing school in Elizabeth, N.J. After graduation, Susette returned to the reservation and took a teaching position at the government-run Omaha Indian School.

In 1878 La Flesche and her father paid a visit to the Ponca tribe in Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma). The Poncas, who were closely related to the Omahas, had been forcibly removed from their homeland in Nebraska the previous year and were now suffering from sickness and starvation. The experience galvanized La Flesche, who became active in seeking justice for the Indians. In 1879 she authored a petition on behalf of the Omahas, making public the government's mistreatment of the Poncas.

Through the combined efforts of La Flesche and Thomas Tibbles, a reporter for the Omaha Herald, a group of Poncas who had been arrested for returning to Nebraska were able to present their case before a court of law. The court ruled in favor of the Indians, setting an important civil rights precedent for Native Americans. Shortly afterwards, La Flesche set out on a tour of eastern cities, including New York and Boston, where she spoke out against the government's policy of forced removal of the northern tribes to Indian Territory. She also addressed government officials in Washington, calling for equal rights for Native Americans. She made a second eastern tour in 1880.

In July 1881 La Flesche and Thomas Tibbles were married, after which the couple traveled widely in America and Great Britain, lecturing and writing about the plight of Native Americans. Her work helped secure the passage of the Dawes Act in 1887, which it was believed would improve conditions for Native Americans. Although La Flesche maintained a residence in Lincoln, Nebr., she spent much of her later years on the Omaha Reservation, where she died.

Several of La Flesche's siblings were also teachers and community leaders. Her sister Susan was the first Native American woman to become a medical doctor in the United States. Her brother Francis La Flesche was an ethnologist at the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Smithsonian who also earned two law degrees and published books about the Omahas.

Died: May 26, 1903