Kim Dayton


On January 14, 1910, Lyda Burton Conley, Kansas attorney and direct descendant of the great Wyandot Chief Tarhe, stood before the United States Supreme Court to appeal the dismissal of the suit that she had filed against Secretary of the Interior James Garfield in 1907. Conley sought a permanent injunction against the sale of the cemetery in which the bodies of her mother and her ancestors lay. In the Court, she formally represented herself as named plaintiff; in spirit, she was there on behalf of her two sisters Lena and Ida, her deceased mother and father, and the ghosts of hundreds of Wyandot Indians buried in a small cemetery in the middle of what had become downtown Kansas City, Kansas. Although she had been admitted to the Missouri Bar in 1902, Conley did not appear before the Supreme Court in her capacity as an attorney. Instead, she was recorded as acting in propria persona, "in her own person." Her appearance before the Court was the culmination of her fouryear effort to prevent the sale by the federal government to private developers of the cemetery, which she characterized then, and which is recognized today, as a sacred and culturally significant Native American burial ground, Conley's case appears to be the first on record in which a plaintiff argued that the burying grounds and cemeteries of Native American peoples are entitled to federal protection. It was probably the first in which an attorney claimed that the lineal descendants of the tribal beneficiaries to a treaty have standing to enforce the provisions of that treaty against the federal government. And it was undoubtedly the first in which the plaintiff-attorney attempted to protect the subject matter of the litigation using not only her legal acumen, but also a double-barrelled shotgun and a threat to shoot anyone who tried to desecrate the graves of her mother and ancestors.

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