A speech by an Omaha activist about the government’s forcible removal of Indigenous tribes.
Indigenous Resistance to Relocation
Susette LaFlesche Tibbles
José Maria Mora, Susette LaFlesche Tibbles, c. 1879. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.
My people have made desperate struggles, year after year, for a hundred years, for their homes, for their lives and for their liberty. They have writhed under a powerful oppressor.
My people have been oppressed for 100 years by the Americans.
During the last three years three tribes, the Nez Perces, the Poncas and the Cheyennes have been forcibly removed from their homes into strange lands, where many had died in hopeless anguish. What did these tribes do in their defence? You know they would have been less than men if they had submitted meekly like slaves to the authority of this one government official at Washington. The Nez Perces resisted, and there are now a feeble remnant of them left in the Indian territory, to which they were forced to go. Of the Cheyennes who resisted not a man is left to tell the tale. What did the Poncas do? They went into the courts with the writ of habeas corpus in their hand, claiming their liberty like men. This one government official sent an order to his attorney to dismiss the case, that they were not persons, and were not entitled to the writ of liberty. When the Cheyennes fought to maintain their rights, they were exterminated; when the Poncas claimed the protection of the courts, the great secretary of the interior tried to kick them out. Whether he will succeed or not, it is for you to say.
The Nez Perce, Ponca, and Cheyenne tribes were forced to relocate. The Nez Perces and Cheyennes resisted relocation and the American government killed almost all of them. The Poncas unsuccessfully appealed in court.
We offer a solution to the Indian problem. This solution will end all wars; it will end the shedding of the blood of innocent women and children; it will stop all these wrongs which have gone on month after month, year after year, for a hundred years.
The solution of the Indian problem, as it is called, is citizenship. Like all great questions which have agitated the world, the solution is simple — so simple that men cannot understand it. They look for something complicated, something wonderful, as the answer to a question which has puzzled the wisest heads for a hundred years.
The question, I believe, is “what shall be done with the Indian?” one part of the American people try to solve it by crying “exterminate him.” the answer to such people is, that he has a creator who will avenge his extermination. The other part cry “civilize him.”
Indigenous people should be given full rights as American citizens.
When the Indian, being a man, and not a child, or thing, or merely an animal, as some of the would-be civilizers have termed him, fights for his property, liberty and life, they call him a savage. When the first settlers in this country fought for their property, liberty and lives, they were called heroes. When the Indian in fighting this great nation wins a battle, it is called a massacre; when this great nation in fighting the Indian wins a battle, it is called a victory. (…)
The Americans consider Indigenous people to be uncivilized and violent. Americans consider themselves heroes when they defeat Indigenous tribes in battle.
It is either extermination or citizenship for the Indian. This system has been tried for nearly a hundred years, and has only worked ruin on the Indian. It has resulted only in the shedding of blood and mutual hatred between the two nations. It has resulted in the expenditure of vast sums of money, but all the money is as nothing to the loss of a single human life. Set aside the idea that the Indian is a child and must be taken care of, make him understand that he is to take care of himself, as all other men are required to do, give him a title to his lands, throw over him the protection of the law, make him amenable to it, and the Indian will take care of himself. Then there will be no more wars in trying to settle the Indian problem, for there will be no problem to settle.
If Indigenous people are not granted citizenship, they will not survive. If given their own land and protection under the law, Indigenous people will thrive.
Inshata-Theumba (Susette La Flesche, Bright Eyes), “My People Have Made,” 1880. Thomas Henry Tibbles Papers, National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution.
The American government encouraged white settlers to move to territories in the West after the Civil War. The U.S. Army forcibly removed Indigenous communities from their lands to provide more land for white Americans. The government moved Indigenous tribes to reservations, arguing it would keep them safe from violent white settlers. In reality, the reservation system made Indigenous residents completely reliant on the government. Reservations were located on undesirable land, making farming and hunting impossible. The only food available was provided by the government. Indigenous people were not allowed to leave the reservation, except to attend mission school.
About the Resources
Inshata-Theumba, or Bright Eyes, also known as Susette La Flesche, was born in 1854 on the Omaha Reservation in Nebraska. Her father was a chief who believed that the government would only grant Indigenous people rights if they assimilated. For example, the family wore “white” clothing instead of traditional Indigenous dress. Inshata-Theumba balanced Omaha traditions with white society her entire life. When she had her initiation ceremony, her father decided she should not receive the traditional Omaha face tattoo. Her father also encouraged her to receive an education outside of their Indigenous community. Inshata-Theumba attended a mission school and returned to her community to work as a teacher.
In 1877, the U.S. government forcibly removed the Ponca from Nebraska to Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma). The Ponca and Omaha tribes are closely connected because they spoke the same language and lived close to each other. When the Ponca attempted to return to their land, they and their leader, Standing Bear, were imprisoned. Inshata-Theumba witnessed these events, which inspired her to become an activist for Indigenous rights. Her activism led to the end of the Ponca imprisonment in 1879.
Inshata-Theumba delivered many speeches to white audiences, advocating for the rights of Indigenous people. She gave this speech in Boston in 1880. She described the U.S. government’s inhumane treatment of Indigenous people and argued for citizenship rights for Indigenous people. Indigenous Americans received full citizenship rights under the 1924 Indian Citizenship Act.
agitated: Worried or upset.
amenable: Open to doing something.
anguish: Great mental or physical pain.
assimilated: Changed to fit into a certain community.
expenditure: Spending of money on something.
exterminated: Completely destroyed.
Indian problem: The U.S. government’s concern about what to do with its Indigenous communities.
initiation ceremony: Formal event during which someone officially becomes part of a community.
meekly: Gently or quietly.
mission school: A Christian school for Indigenous children. The purpose of these schools was to “Americanize” the students.
oppressor: Someone who treats another group cruelly.
remnant: Small remains when the main part has been destroyed.
reservations: Areas where certain groups, such as Indigenous people, are made to live.
savage: Someone uncivilized and violent.
Secretary of the Interior: Cabinet member who oversees the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
writ of habeas corpus: Legal document that orders the government to prove that an arrested person should be held in custody.
writ of liberty: The right that protects people against unfair imprisonment.
writhed: Twisted one’s body because of pain or discomfort.
How does Inshata-Theumba describe the treatment of Indigenous tribes by the American government?
What is the “Indian Problem”? What solution does Inshata-Theumba offer to solve this “problem”?
Inshata-Theumba gave her speeches to communities across the country. Why might she have chosen this strategy? How could it be effective in pressuring the government?