On this day in 1903 was the death of Susette “Bright Eyes” La Flesche (Tibbles), a member of the Omaha tribe who was a writer, interpreter, artist, and lecturer, known for her support of Native American causes. Susette was born in 1854 in Bellevue, the same year that the Omaha tribe gave up their hunting grounds in Nebraska and agreed to move to a reservation in northeastern Nebraska instead, to Joseph LaFlesche (the last recognized Chief of the Omaha) and Mary Gale (whose mother was from the Iowa tribe).
Susette was raised on the reservation, but left to get further education at a private school in New Jersey. Even then she was known for her writing ability; an essay she wrote her senior year was published in the New York Tribune. After graduating, Susette returned to the reservation as a teacher for several years. In 1877, however, she went with her father (whose mother had been Ponca) to investigate the living conditions of the Ponca tribe, which had been dislocated. Upon their return, Susette helped to publish a story of the Ponca’s plight in the Omaha Herald along with Thomas H. Tibbles, who she would later marry.
Nearly a third of the Ponca tribe died during the first two years of their relocation, due to the journey and the living conditions, including the son of Chief Standing Bear. When Standing Bear left with some of his tribe members to bury his son in their traditional homeland, they were arrested and confined. It was due to Tibbles’ (and Susette’s) coverage that Standing Bear received the pro-bono services of two defense lawyers. At the trial, Susette stood as Standing Bear’s interpreter, and also testified about the conditions at the reservation. Standing Bear v. Crook was a massively importantly, landmark civil rights case, which ended in the judge deciding that Native Americans did in fact have all the rights as U.S. citizens under the constitution.
After the trial, Susette– known more publicly now as “Bright Eyes”– went on a speaking tour with Standing Bear and her half-brother, among others, around the Eastern U.S., interpreting for Standing Bear but also speaking for herself as well. She testified in Washington before a Congressional committee about the Ponca tribe’s removal from their land, met with well-known American writers like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (who saw her and stated she could be “Mennehaha” from his poem “The Song of Hiawatha”), and after marrying Tibbles, went on a tour of England and Scotland where she met and spoke with both nobility and those in literary circles. They also traveled to Pine Ridge South Dakota in 1891 to inquire about the Battle of Wounded Knee and the issues faced by the Native Americans at the reservations there.
Through her life, “Bright Eyes” continued to testify on behalf of Native Americans, as well as to write, lecture, and advocate for them. In 1902 she and her husband moved back to the Omaha reservation, where she lived until she died in 1903. She was eulogized in the U.S. Senate, was inducted to the Nebraska Hall of Fame, and will always be remembered as the first woman to speak out (to congress, the courts, etc) for the cause of Native Americans.