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Rosalie La Flesche Stayed Home To Fight for and Love Her People

Rosalie La Flesche
Rosalie La Flesche Farley

Though the future was uncertain, and the past was all too present, Rosalie La Flesche's love of her people and her home was clear.

Throughout her life, Rosalie couldn't help but feel great pride in her illustrious siblings, a veritable "who's who" among the Omaha. Although she would not share the spotlight they did, she made her own mark on our history.

Those prominent siblings included elder sister Susette La Flesche, who went east for school and returned with the college education her father, Chief Iron Eye, wanted for all his children. She'd attained celebrity traveling with the Ponca chief Standing Bear and as an advocate for Native rights all over the east. "Bright Eyes," people called her.

Rosalie's little sister, Susan La Flesche became the very first Native American to graduate from medical school, then returned to practice medicine across the county, even building a hospital serving both Natives and whites.

Sister Marguerite went east and as an accomplished teacher at the government agency school on the reservation.

Half-brother Frank went east, returned as an ethnologist, and devoted his life to recording and preserving the history of the Omaha people, and their Osage neighbors.

Sister Rosalie also got an education, but didn't go out east to get it. She stayed home--which may well be a good way to describe her life: "Rosalie La Flesche Farley, stayed home," handling a load that required considerable heavy lifting. Rosalie and her husband had ten children, loved and educated them all, and spent decades staying put on the reservation, helping her Omaha people.

In the 1880s, what the Omaha feared was being death-marched off to Indian Country, or moved anywhere over the chess board the southern plains had become. They'd seen the Ponca, Ioway, Pottawatomie, and Kickapoo pushed out to get them out of the way of white settlers gobbling up land.

Some recommended getting a head start on what would eventually be the Dawes Act (1887). Each Omaha head of household could claim a piece of paper designating specific acres as their own, what white people called "deeds," to guarantee no one could run them off traditional tribal land.

Submitting required registration, the paperwork that goes with government programs, Rosalie La Flesche Farley found herself in the middle of that mess. No one was better fitted, however: she had an education, was fluent in Omaha and English, and had spent years managing the funds from Susette’s lectures for the benefit of the entire Omaha tribe. What’s more, she was adept at managing the family’s large stock feeding business.

Lot lines on land that just a decades before beheld roaming buffalo herds seemed perfectly ridiculous to the Omaha and wasteful to white squatters who didn’t care what the government did or proposed. The land distribution, meant to help Native people, became a painful legacy, and Rosalie was in the middle of the mess that too often turned friends of both cultures into enemies. In the closing

The first page of the Dawes Act, a policy focused specifically on breaking up reservations and tribal lands by granting land allotments to individual Native Americans and encouraging them to take up agriculture.
National Archives
The first page of the Dawes Act, a policy focused specifically on breaking up reservations and tribal lands by granting land allotments to individual Native Americans and encouraging them to take up agriculture.

years of the 19th century, she was not just the quarterback of the whole land use operation, she was, in essence, head coach of the whole tribe in direct business dealings on leases, rents, and other government projects on the reservation.

The years of her diary list a compendium of responsibilities:

I think Mother doesn't have the right food or her foot would be better.

Wrote for Little Deer and wife for three dollars worth of groceries at grove. We ate and Conlin came to have Me interpret. 

Five Chiefs wife came by and got her things. Did a little washing and sewed balance of day. Henry Ward here. Ed helped him get $5.00 worth of groceries from Hobbs. Going to bed early half past ten.

For nearly two decades Rosalie stayed home and held things together, both the family and the tribe.

Her brother Francis tells a story about the day three boys determined to run away from school and follow the tribe on the hunt instead. When they were returned, Francis was put down on the floor, his hands tied behind him around the leg of a table. Soon, flies started to eat him up, he says, and a chicken pecked at his toe.

Then he realized someone was coming. "A little figure cautiously approached the door, looked all around, and then came up to me." There he sat, as wrinkled up as some ancient breechcloth. "It was Rosalie," he says.

Little Rosalie brought him a drink and stayed at his side, brushing away flies. Francis never forgot.

Rosalie stayed home.

And there's this. No matter how much ink her siblings received and still receive today, look at any map of Thurston County, Nebraska, and you'll see only one “Rosalie.” She's the only La Flesche sibling who has a town named in her honor.

Her tombstone in the Bancroft cemetery states: “The nobility of strength of two races were blended in her life of Christian faith and duty.” For decades, she just mostly stayed home.

Dr. Jim Schaap doesn’t know what on earth happens to his time these days, even though he should have plenty of it, retired as he is (from teaching literature and writing at Dordt College, Sioux Center, IA). If he’s not at a keyboard, most mornings he’s out on Siouxland’s country roads, running down stories that make him smile or leave him in awe. He is the author of several novels and a host of short stories and essays. His most recent publications include Up the Hill: Folk Tales from the Grave (stories), and Reading Mother Teresa (meditations). He lives with his wife Barbara in Alton, Iowa.
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