Eliza Burton “Lyda” Conley (ca. 1869 – 1946) was an American lawyer of Native American and European descent, the first woman admitted to the Kansas bar. She was notable for her campaign to prevent the sale and development of the Huron Cemetery in Kansas City, now known as the Wyandot National Burying Ground. She challenged the government in court, and in 1909 she was the first Native American woman admitted to argue a case before the Supreme Court of the United States.
Her case appears to be the first in which "a plaintiff argued that the burying grounds of Native Americans were entitled to federal protection." Conley gained the support of Kansas Senator Charles Curtis, who proposed and led passage of legislation in 1916 to prevent the sale and establish the Huron Cemetery as a federal park. In 1971 the Huron Cemetery was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
From the late 19th century, the cemetery was at the heart of a struggle between the present-day Wyandot Nation of Kansas and the Wyandotte Nation of Oklahoma. In 1998 the two groups finally came to agreement to preserve the Wyandot National Burying Ground only for religious, cultural and related purposes in keeping with its sacred history.
Lyda Conley was the youngest of four daughters born to Elizabeth Burton Zane Conley (1838–1879), a multi-racial member of the Wyandot Nation. Their father was Andrew Syrenus Conley (about 1830-1885), a Yankee of Scots-Irish and English descent, who migrated west from New Canaan, Connecticut to Ohio and Kansas. Her family history was typical of the Wyandot nation then, as over the years many members had married European Americans, and members were increasingly multiracial. Her family's moves west were also typical of the Wyandots' need to have a place outside of European-American encroachment.
Elizabeth Zane was the granddaughter of Isaac Zane, who had been captured as a child in Virginia by the Wyandots and adopted into the tribe. Isaac Zane lived with the Wyandot nation for 17 years and married White Crane, daughter of Chief Tarhe. They went with the Wyandot to Ohio, where Zane founded Zanesfield. Some of their children were born there, including Elizabeth's mother Hannah, and grandchildren, such as Elizabeth herself. In 1843 the Wyandots left Ohio and migrated to Kansas in a removal under United States government pressure.
Elizabeth Zane and Andrew Conley married 1860 at Logan County, Ohio. They raised their daughters on a 64 acres (0.26 km2)-farm in present-day Wyandotte County. Elizabeth had received the land at age 17 in 1855, when Wyandot tribal land was allocated in severalty. (Later the property collapsed into the Missouri River and the grown sisters moved into Kansas City.) With their variety of heritage, the Conley daughters were one-sixteenth Wyandot, and some parts Scots-Irish and English.
The daughters were encouraged to seek education. Helena (also known as Lena) graduated from Park College in Missouri. Lyda Conley graduated from Kansas City School of Law in 1902 and was the first woman admitted to the Kansas bar. Sarah died at a relatively young age. Ida, Helena/Lena and Lyda were active in civic and public life. They shared a house in Kansas City, where they lived all their lives together. None married.
Career and public life
In 1855 some of the Wyandots accepted the government's offer of United States citizenship, as they were judged ready to join the majority society. Their land in Kansas was divided among the individuals. Members who were not ready to give up their tribal institutions migrated from Kansas in 1867 and went to Oklahoma as part of the 19th century removals. There they kept some tribal structure, and retained legal authority over the tribal communal burying ground, the Huron Cemetery in Kansas.
In 1906, the Wyandotte Nation of Oklahoma approved sale of the cemetery for development, and had Congress authorize the United States Secretary of Interior to convey it for sale, with proceeds to go to the nation in Oklahoma. Kansas City had grown around it, and developers wanted to expand on the prime property. At one corner was a Carnegie Library, the Brund Hotel was on another corner, and the Scottish Rite Masonic Temple was under reconstruction following a fire.
When this controversy arose, the Wyandot descendants in Kansas City were considered an “absentee” or “citizen class” of the Wyandotte Nation of Oklahoma, and did not have legal control of the burial ground. In 1855 they had accepted United States citizenship and land allotments in Kansas. The burial ground had been excluded from the allotments, and as American Indian land, it was considered to be controlled by the Wyandotte Nation of Oklahoma, which has tribal government. The historic burying ground held Conley‘s maternal ancestors and others of both the present-day Wyandotte Nation of Kansas and the Wyandotte Nation of Oklahoma. The earliest burials dated to 1843, when the tribe had first come to Kansas.
Conley and her sisters strongly disagreed with the proposed sale. They erected a structure at the cemetery so they could live there around the clock and protect the burial ground. They took turns standing guard with muskets, and put up “No trespassing” signs around it.
Kansas City newspapers covered the controversy. Kansas City Times (October 25, 1906):
In this cemetery are buried one-hundred of our ancestors ... Why should we not be proud of our ancestors 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.
— Miss Lyda Conley 
We shall keep right on asking bids for the property.
— J.B. Durant, Chairman of the Government commission that is trying to sell the cemetery 
In 1907 Conley filed a petition in the U.S. Circuit Court for the District of Kansas for injunction against the government's authorization of sale. The court ruled against the Conleys, so she appealed. The case went to the Supreme Court of the United States, where Conley was allowed to argue the case directly before the court. Because she had not been admitted to the Supreme Court bar, she appeared in court acting in propria persona (in her own person). She was the first female Native American lawyer admitted before the U.S. Supreme Court. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes ruled in favor of the lower courts, which had determined the government's proposed action was legal.
As the case gained national attention, the Conley sisters worked to build other kinds of support. Women's clubs in Kansas City and similar associations strongly opposed development of the cemetery. US Senator Charles Curtis of Kansas, also of mixed Native American ancestry, introduced a bill in Congress that precluded the sale of the cemetery and made the land a national park. This was passed in 1916 and the cemetery was protected.
Protecting the cemetery
The Conley sisters believed that it was wrong to sell and dismantle the cemetery. Their grandmother Hannah Zane, mother Elizabeth and sister Sarah were buried there, as well as numerous cousins, uncles, and aunts. The revolt of the three sisters got underway in 1907, after plans broached the previous year for the city's purchase of the Huron cemetery for private redevelopment as retail property. The Congress had authorized its sale by the Secretary of the Interior in 1905 (1906).
The Conley sisters announced that they would protect the graves of their ancestors with shotguns, if necessary. They marched to the cemetery and threw up a 6' by 8' one-room frame shack and moved in. H.B. Durante, Indian Commissioner, commented that it was a unique situation because of the conflict between two groups of Wyandot over the land. Only one had federal recognition for legal responsibility. He suggested it was up to the Department of Justice and Federal troops to solve it.
In 1913 Congress repealed the bill authorizing the sale of the cemetery. The dispute between those wanting to preserve the cemetery, and those wanting to develop the land continued. One year Lyda Conley was arrested for shooting a policeman in the Huron Indian Cemetery.
Although she lost in the Supreme Court, Conley persevered in her fight, gaining support for preservation from women's clubs and civic associations in Kansas City. In 1916 Kansas Senator Charles Curtis introduced a bill in Congress (and secured its passage) that precluded sale of the cemetery and designated it a federal park.
With the land protected, Conley acted as a guardian over the property, extending her care to its birds and squirrels. She often walked from her home at 1816 North Third street to carry water and nuts to them. The federal government had agreed to keep the cemetery "improved" by entering into a 1918 contract with Kansas City to forever maintain, protect and provide lighting and police protection to the cemetery.
In June 1937, Conley chased some people from the cemetery. She was charged by the police with disturbance. A young judge gave her choice of a $10 fine for disturbing the peace or a 10-day jail sentence. Proudly Conley served the sentence. A newspaper item of June 16, 1937, headed "Miss Lyda Conley Leaves Jail", was the last article about her until the notice of her death in 1946.
Conley was buried near family at the Wyandot Burying Ground on May 31, 1946.
Groups continued to press for development. In 1959 the Wyandot Nation of Kansas incorporated and was recognized as a legal tribe by the state, but still had no control over the Huron Cemetery. It has been seeking federal recognition.
Over the decades Kansas City and the Wyandotte Nation of Oklahoma floated many proposals for development of the cemetery. Preservation groups succeeded in 1971 in having the Huron Cemetery listed on the National Register of Historic Places in recognition of its significant historical and cultural value.
That only made new proposals more complicated to implement, but groups continued to put them forward. The development of gaming as revenue generators for Native Americans added new pressure. In the 1990s the Wyandotte Nation of Oklahoma evaluated the Huron Cemetery for redevelopment as a gaming casino. New protections under the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act would have required agreement by lineal descendants of people interred at the cemetery. Those in Kansas City were strongly set against any development. Finally in 1998 the Wyandot Nation of Kansas and Wyandotte Nation of Oklahoma came to agreement to preserve the cemetery only for purposes that were religious, cultural and in keeping with its sacred use.
Announcement of Film about Conley
Ben Kingsley announced 2008 to produce a film about Lyda Conley's life under the title Whispers Like Thunder. Kingsley plans to act as Senator Charles Curtis. Screenplay is written by Trip Brook and Luis Moro.
- Kim Dayton, "Trespassers, Beware!: Lyda Burton Conley and the Battle for Huron Place Cemetery", Yale Journal of Law and Feminism, 1996, at Women's Legal History, Stanford University, accessed 25 Feb 2009
- Albert Henry Conley, "Genealogy of Conley Family", c. 1921-1923, Conley Family Website, accessed 25 Feb 2009
- "Descendant Of Wyandot Tribe Dies", Kansas City, Kansan, September 16, 1958: p. 1, at "Conley Sisters", People Collection, Kansas City Public Library, accessed 24 Feb 2009
- Henry Van Brunt, "Three Sisters' Defense of Cemetery Continued for Nearly Forty Years", Kansas City Times, 7 Jun 1946, at Wyandot Nation of Kansas, accessed 26 Feb 2009
- “About the Wyandot Nation of Kansas”, Wyandot Nation of Kansas, accessed 25 Feb 2009
- “Huron Cemetery Chronology”, Wyandotte Nation of Oklahoma Website, accessed 24 Feb 2009
- "The Inns of UMKC: Lyda Conley", University of Missouri - Kansas City Law School, accessed 24 FEb 2009
- „Ben Kingsley's SBK announces slate“, Variety, 17. November 2008.
- "Vincent J. Lane Obituary", Wyandott Herald, 4 January 1872, on Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools Website
- Kim Dayton, "'Trespassers, Beware!' Lyda Burton Conley and the Battle for Huron Place Cemetery", Yale Journal of Law and Feminism, vol. 8: 1, 1996, pp. 1–30.
- Henry Van Brunt, "Three Sisters Defense of Cemetery Lasts Nearly Forty Years: Recent Death of Miss Lyda Conley Recalls Long Series of Outbreaks and Defiance of Law by Women Who Built Shack on Indian Burial Ground in Heart of Kansas City, Kansas and Lived beside Graves of Ancestors", Kansas City Times, June 7, 1946, on Wyandot Nation of Kansas Website