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Wedding dress

Wedding dress worn by Inshata-Theumba (Susette La Flesche or Bright Eyes, Omaha, 1854–1903)
ca. 1881
76 x 101 cm (blouse); 112 x 88 cm (skirt)
Gift of Mrs. Vivien K. Barris
and Dr. Joan B. La Noue

“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, it is called a victory.”
—Susette La Flesche, March 10, 1880

Susette La Flesche was born south of present-day Omaha, Nebraska, into a family descended from significant tribal leaders on both sides. As a child she lived in a traditional earthlodge, though she also attended a mission school and later a school on the East Coast, returning to work as a teacher in her Omaha community.

In 1877 La Flesche witnessed the expulsion of the Ponca from Nebraska to Indian Territory and the subsequent imprisonment of Standing Bear and other Poncas who attempted to return to their homeland. These events launched her career as an activist arguing against the involuntary removal of Native people and for Indian citizenship rights. La Flesche performed in eastern cities to great effect. Wearing an Omaha deerskin dress, she enlightened Boston and New York audiences on the suffering of tribal communities and American injustice and called for a new direction in federal Indian policy.

La Flesche found a soulmate in Thomas Tibbles, a reporter for the Omaha Herald. Both La Flesche and Tibbles played major roles in the 1879 civil rights decision that ended the Ponca imprisonment and led to the historic ruling, “An Indian is a person within the meaning of the law of the United States.” Bicultural and bilingual, schooled in Western ways and Omaha culture, La Flesche wore this elegant skirt and jacket trimmed in hand-stitched silk, satin, and lace when she married Tibbles on July 23, 1881. The wedding was held on restored Ponca land.

—Brenda J. Child (Red Lake Ojibwe)
Professor, Department of American Indian Studies, University of Minnesota

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