Whispers Like Thunder is an upcoming film based on the true story of the Conley sisters, three Native American sisters who fought the government with guns, axes and the law to protect their ancestors burial grounds, and won after 64 years.
In 1909 Eliza “Lyda” Burton Conley was the first Native American woman attorney, and the first Native American woman admitted to argue a case before the U.S. Supreme Court. Her and her two sisters, Helena “Lena” Conley, and Ida Conley gave punches, swung axes, fired guns, and used the law to fight off U.S. troops, police, construction workers, mob thugs, corrupt business men and crooked politicians for several decades to defend their Native American sacred burial ground.
The sisters took up their vigil over the graves after learning the land was about to be sold. They built a 6 x frame structure and placed a fence of iron spikes around it. Helena stood armed with their father's double barreled shotgun, an axe and the American Flag. She used them without fear. Instantly, their new home became known as "Fort Conley."
Vice President Charles Curtis (Ben Kingsley), was the first and only Native American Vice President in the United States came to their rescue after many long years of the sisters turning to him for help.
In July of 1843, 664 members of the Wyandot Nation were moved from Ohio to Kansas. While camped along the Missouri River, illness went through the camp and 50 to 100 of the Wyandots died. Their bodies were carried across the river to the Kansas Territory, to a ridge which overlooked the Kansas and Missouri Rivers and Kansas City's Huron Indian Cemetery was established.
Later that year, the Wyandots were granted the land (from the US) that included the ridge and it continued to by used as a cemetery. When the local members of the Wyandot Nation were dissolved as a tribe and (some) of its members became American Citizens in 1855 (by choice), the cemetery continued to be used. Four years later, the Town of Wyandot was incorporated and the Huron Cemetery was within its boundaries. This community would become part of Kansas City in Wyandotte County.
That is the basis for the Conley sisters; defense of the Indian burial ground. Their mother was buried there (their sister Sarah) and, these, ancestors further back (actually many cousins, Uncles, and Aunts; and their Grandmother, Hannah Zane. The revolt of the three sisters, started in the summer of 1907 as a result of plans broached the previous year for purchase by the city of the Huron cemetery, the United States Congress, having authorized its sale by the secretary of the Interior in 1905 (1906).
As soon as the Conley sisters realized that the sale was pending they announced that they would protect the graves of their ancestors, if necessary, with shotguns. Forthwith, they marched to the cemetery and threw up a 6 by 8 one room frame shack hard by the ancestral resting place and moved in. H.B. Durante, Indian commissioner commented that it was a unique situation and washed his hands of it, suggesting that it was up to the United States Department of Justice and Federal troops.
Troops never were called to eject the sisters, who defended their cemetery fort through 1907, 1908, 1909, and through the summer of 1910. Throughout this period, Lyda prepared herself for legal action by an assiduous study of law books, the better to contest the government order. When the battle began the new Carnegie library stood in the center of the square, the new Brund hotel stood at one corner, and on another preparations were being made for the reconstruction of the Masonic Temple, destroyed by fire.
It was William Rodekepf, paving contractor, who won the distinction of the first actual encounter with the sisters by tearing down a fence which the Conley's with help from their tribal brothers and sisters erected between the cemetery and the temple site.
The sisters rebuilt the fence, and the contractor's men tore it down again. Again Lyda (and her sisters) rebuilt it in defiance of an injunction obtained by the Masonic bodies, and it was again laid low. The writer took a pencil and tried to figure the number of times the fence was destroyed and rebuilt during a fortnight in the winter of 1907, but gave it up. On one occasion the sisters defended their fence with sticks and stones.(It was rumored the towns people would come in the middle of the night, to help rebuild the fence).
Through this early period, the rightful ownership of the cemetery remained in doubt--unless it could be said that the Conley's owned it by right of possession. There was a federal order to remove the bodies to Quindaro cemetery, but it was qualified in such a way as to leave grounds for suits in the federal courts, and Lyda Conley took full advantage of this opportunity, supported by women's clubs and others with whom sentiment outweighed commercialism and twentieth century progress.
Battle in court
And while Lyda fought her battle in the courts, her sister Helena "Lena" Conley, who prefers the name Helene (or Lena Conley), guarded the fort, keeping things trim in the burial ground, felling dead trees with an ax while awed bystanders admired the play of her muscles, resenting intrusion by roaming holiday makers. Because of the intrusions, the sisters finally wired the cemetery gates together and put up a sign:
"You Trespass at Your Own Peril." None disregarded it. They maintained a vigil for over 2 years and in 1909 Eliza (Lyda) Burton Conley became the first Native American woman admitted to argue a case before the U.S. Supreme Court. Although the court was sympathetic it didn't not rule in her favor.
Lyda Conley was admitted to the Kansas bar in 1910 (long before the battle) and in the course of her fight against removal of the Indian graves, made several trips to Washington DC. She is the first Native American Woman Lawyer to plead before the United States Supreme Court. July 29, while Lyda and her sisters were in Wyandotte County District Court hearing arguments in the last legal step they took to hold the cemetery, the United States marshal and his deputies entered the cemetery and destroyed the "fort" and an injunction was issued forbidding the sisters to rebuild it.
Although she lost when Oliver Wendell Holmes upheld the lower court's decision to dismiss the case she persevered in her fight and eventually Kansas Senator Charles Curtis introduced a bill in Congress that precluded the sale and made the land a national monument.
From the Kansas City Star and Times, May 17, 1959: The Wyandot Indian curse, reputed never to have failed will be tested again tomorrow morning before a congressional committee. No mention of the curse will be made by a delegation going to Washington in an attempt to save the historic Huron Indian Cemetery in Kansas City, Kansas, but the threat remains. In the 116 year old burying ground of the Wyandot lies Miss Helena Conley, self-styled sorceress of the tribe. While she lived, two Presidents members of Congress, mayors, professional persons, policemen and others had the curse placed upon them. Now her tombstone proclaims to all: CURSED BE THE VILLIAN THAT MOLEST THEIR GRAVES
Since 1890 there have been periodic battles in the United States Congress and in the courts including the U.S. Supreme Court for preservation of the tract in downtown Kansas City. But the odds were never greater against those who today would save the site from commercialization.
Current pact with government
What Lyda Conely and her sisters were able to accomplish, set such a precedent that currently there is a peaceful pact in place.
There is peace at last between the Wyandotte Tribe of Oklahoma and the Wyandot Nation of Kansas over the future of the Huron Cemetery in downtown Kansas City. There will never be a gambling facility at the cemetery, a sacred Indian burial ground, under terms of a newly signed agreement between the Wyandotte Tribe of Oklahoma and the Wyandot Nation of Kansas. The agreement, expected to get formal approval by the U.S. Department of Interior soon, was signed on Saturday by Chief Leaford Bearskin of the Wyandotte Tribe and Chief Janith English of the Wyandot Nation. The agreement absolutely prohibits the use of the Huron Cemetery for anything other than religious, cultural or other activities compatible with the use of the site as a burial ground.
Also, the pact says the Wyandotte Tribe will not oppose the Wyandot Nation's current application to be declared a federally recognized Indian tribe. Currently, the Wyandotte Tribe is a federally recognized tribe whereas the Wyandot Nation is not. However, the Wyandot Nation has recognition from the state of Kansas. The agreement is a historic reconciliation between two entities that have feuded since the 1880s over what's best for the Huron Cemetery and who has the right to do what there. The Wyandotte Tribe has asserted control over the cemetery based on an 1855 treaty with the federal government. That was the year the original sole tribe split, thus forming the Wyandotte Tribe of Oklahoma and the Wyandot Nation of Kansas. Ancestors of both the Wyandotte Tribe and the Wyandot Nation are buried in the cemetery located near 7th and
Over the years the Wyandotte Tribe has considered the cemetery its sovereign land under federal trust, something the federal government concurs with. However, the Wyandot Nation continues to assert it has some legal right to the site also.
'British actor Sir Ben Kingsley intends to make a film about the history of the Wyandot First Nation and its struggle for survival' reads the headlines for the Sun Times Oct. 2008, 'Wyandot chief returns to people's roots, British actor planning movie' Posted By Don Crosby.
The announcement was made on Monday by Janet English, principal chief of the Wyandot Nation in Kansas. She was visiting the Craigleith Heritage Centre, a former train depot at the corner of Highway 26 and County Road 19 east of Craigleith, Southern Ontario, Canada. With the blessings from Chief Jan English of the Wynadot Nation of Kansas, she read a letter from Ben Kingsley at an opening and celebration the Craigleith heritage station "... Craigleith was the birth place of Wyandots,” English said. English read a letter to a handful of people gathered at the Craigleith heritage centre from Kingsley, in which he indicates his intention to make a film about the struggle of the Wyandot to maintain a historical burial sight in Kansas. “... It is with this passion that I finally like to formally announce my intent to bring their story to life with a film project - Whispers Like Thunder - which will dramatize the cemetery and keep the memory of the Wyandot alive,” said the letter from Kingsley.
In Courier-Herald on October 23, 2008, it announces Chief English also announced that a movie was in the works about the history of the Wyandot people. Sir Ben Kingsley, who achieved fame and an Academy Award for his portrayal of Mohandas K. Gandhi in the movie of the same name and who is now principal of SBK Pictures, with his partners Simone Sheffield and Valerie Hoffman, has announced his intention to spread the historic significance of the Wyandot people to the rest of the world. On Sir Ben Kingsley's behalf Chief English formally read the announcement of the film project Whispers Like Thunder, for which the script was written by Trip Brooks and Luis Moro, which will portray the fight by the Wyandot Indians in Kansas to save their Cemetery in the heart of commercial Kansas City, Kansas, and particularly the role of the Conley sisters to preserve their ancestor's sacred burial ground and legacy.
Chief English commented that many ancestors and relatives of hers, including the two Conley sisters, are buried in the Wyandot cemetery in Kansas. Lyda Conley became the first native woman attorney to argue a case before the Supreme Court of the United States. Sir Ben's announcement included a welcome to Chief English to the Depot, his regret at not being there personally, and his special thanks for the efforts that made the Depot a reality.
Although the film is set to the English language, many scenes incorporate the Iroquoian language. Wyandot is the Iroquoian language traditionally spoken by the people known variously as Wyandot, Wendat, or Huron. It was last spoken primarily in Oklahoma and Quebec. Wyandot no longer has any native speakers, but is being studied and promoted as a second language.
The translator for Whispers Like Thunder is John Steckley, an anthropologist and scholar specializing in Native American Studies and the indigenous languages of the Americas. He currently teaches at Humber College in Toronto, Canada. Steckley is reportedly the last known speaker of the Wyandot (or Huron) Language. Steckley published an authoritative Huron-English dictionary, the first such volume in more than 250 years. Laval University also just received a $1 million federal grant to develop Huron-language teaching materials, drawing on Steckley's expertise.