Current Research in Digital History

Mary Wise

Sites of Sovereignty
American Indian Earthwork and Burial Site Activism in the Midwest, 1917–1968

Volume: 1 (2018)


This article examines earthwork activism in the Midwest at the turn of the twentieth century. The activism of Emma Big Bear Holt (Ho-Chunk) and the Conley sisters (Wyandot) in the early twentieth century are connected by the history of Indian removal. Earthwork and burial site activists used traditional knowledge, alliance building, family kinship networks, and civic activism. The Midwest is a site of Indian removal and earthwork and burial site activism which revises narratives of Indian removal that textually erased the Ho-Chunk, Miami, and Wyandot. Earthwork and burial site activism bear the marks of indigenous self-determinative action in the past and present. The activists’ history resists narratives of American Indian defeat. Rather it supports the idea that American Indian activism can be found even in the most oppressive periods of federal policy. Furthermore, their story demonstrates that “Indian Removal,” best known as the coerced relocation of the southeastern tribes to Indian Territory, affected many tribes, with devastating effect. Earthwork and burial site activism was self-determinative. The story of Indigenous activism at earthworks in the Midwest is not a simple one. Rather, this is a tale of continuous reform and activism that extends well into the twenty-first century.

In 1917, some McGregor, Iowa residents were surprised when Emma Big Bear Holt and her husband Henry, a Ho-Chunk family, walked down Main Street heading north towards the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi.1 The United States government had forcibly removed the Ho-Chunk from their ancestral homelands in northern Wisconsin from 1830 to 1865. Treaties with the Ho-Chunk forced them from Wisconsin to Iowa, from Iowa to Minnesota, from Minnesota to South Dakota, from South Dakota to Nebraska, and then from Nebraska back to Wisconsin.2 By returning from Nebraska to occupy mound sites, Emma and William Henry Holt strategically rejected federal policies. When the Big Bear Holt family returned to northeast Iowa and camped near the earthworks, they began a five-decade long campaign to increase protections for vulnerable earthworks.

Seven years before the Big Bear Holt family returned to Iowa, Lyda Conley (Wyandot) stood before the nine justices of the Supreme Court and demanded federal protections for a Wyandot burial ground at risk of being lost to developers.3 In her brief, Lyda Conley argued that Native American graves required federal protection. The Conley sisters strategically advocated for the Huron Place Cemetery. While Ida physically occupied the cemetery in a shack she built herself from 1907 on, Lyda studied for and passed the Kansas bar, argued for the restoration of the Kansas Wyandot sovereignty over the cemetery in federal district courts, and managed a brilliant public relations campaign that demonstrated the barbarism of destroying the Huron Place Cemetery.4

Emma Big Bear Holt and the Conley sisters were earthwork and burial site activists. Their activism was a part of a complex American Indian political tradition that preceded, spanned the full breadth of, and extends past the close of the twentieth century. Earthwork and burial site activism was self-determinative because it transformed earthworks and burial sites into sites of sovereignty. Emma Big Bear Holt and the Conley sisters strategically occupied sites, pursued litigation, and circulated petitions to reassert Ho-Chunk and Wyandot control over earthworks and burial sites. The Big Bear Holt family and the Conley sisters exercised their right to care for their ancestral sites according to their cultural proscriptions. The proscriptions were nation-specific. While Emma Big Bear camped near mounds and hosted her extended family when they visited their ancestor graves annually and performed ceremonies at them, the Conley sisters wanted to return the Huron Place cemetery to its original appearance. These activists exercised their sovereign right to care for earthworks according to their system of beliefs.

Activist narratives uncovered in disparate archives and evidenced through visualizations created using mapping and textual analysis fits well within an increasingly expansive historiography on the Indigenous Midwest. Scholars of Native North America explain how some Indigenous families “hid in plain sight” despite federal policies that ordered the expulsion of American Indian people from their Midwest homelands. Putting the primary sources that document the activism of Emma Big Bear Holt and the Conley sisters in conversation with this scholarship explains how earthwork and burial site activists accomplished part of their work. Relationship building helped American Indian families remain in the Midwest but so too did textual histories, celebrations, and memorials which erased American Indian histories, contemporary realities, and violent removal.5 Scholarship on traditional knowledge and gender roles in Native North America, too, adds dimensionality to the function of earthwork and burial site activism. Removal ruptured Ho-Chunk and Wyandot traditional practices and earthwork and burial site activism compensated for Removal. For example, Ho-Chunk and Wyandot women assumed traditional matriarchal roles when they lobbied for earthworks and burial sites.6 While this scholarship helps explains how Emma Big Bear Holt and the Conley sisters returned to the Midwest, only digital methods reveal the complexities of their activism.

Emma Big Bear Holt and Earthworks in Northeastern Iowa, 1917–1968

Emma Big Bear Holt and her family camped near earthworks in northeastern Iowa and their site occupations changed amateur archaeological practice. Emma Big Bear Holt moved her campsite to earthworks that amateur archaeologists targeted frequently (figures 1–2).7 When amateur archaeologists encountered Emma Big Bear Holt at an earthwork site, she, Henry, and their daughter Emiline might engage them in conversation. For example, in 1934, Ellison Orr, Iowa’s most prominent amateur archaeologist, encountered the Holts about one half mile north of Waukon Junction, Iowa. After interviewing Emma through Henry (Emma did not speak English), Orr elected not to open the earthworks near their lodge.8 Emma was successful at defending earthworks because she built relationships with amateur archaeologists and because she strategically represented herself: the Big Bear Holts lived in a ciporoke (traditional Ho-Chunk housing), Emma spoke Hocak, and she sold traditional handmade goods (baskets, beadwork, jewelry and more). Because McGregor residents identified her as a Ho-Chunk person, she was granted limited authority over earthworks.

Amateur archaeologists in northeastern Iowa respected Emma’s authority in inconsistent ways. Though they identified Emma as the descendant of a powerful Ho-Chunk family, they would inevitably describe her in newspaper articles as illiterate and poverty-stricken.9 When they encountered the Big Bear Holts at earthworks, they did not report her to federal authorities nor did they forcibly remove her from earthworks. Though amateur archaeologists saw no link between her family and the builders of the massive effigy mounds in northeastern Iowa, Emma’s distinguished family made it easier for amateurs to accept her authority over earthworks. Emma was the granddaughter of a nineteenth century Ho-Chunk leader.

A map showing amateur archaeologists sites in northeast Iowa marked with red dots.

Figure 1. Amateur Archaeologists Sites in northeast Iowa, 1909–1916; size of the points indicates the frequency of the site excavated.

A map showing campsites where Emma camped frequently, indicated by green dots.

Figure 2. Green dots are campsites where Emma camped frequently.

While the only scholarship on Emma Big Bear labels her the “last Winnebago in northeastern Iowa,” she was far from the last or even the only Winnebago in Allamakee County.10 Crucial to Emma Big Bear Holt’s activism was her proximity to active indigenous communities. Family members from Black River Falls certainly helped the Big Bear Holts accomplish their strategic site occupations but their contributions to the success of Emma’s protests remains unrecognized. For example, Robert Holt, Emma’s nephew, stayed with the Big Bear Holt family in the summer of 1930.11 Beyond her family, Emma and her family relied on their Ho-Chunk neighbors. The Big Bear Holt family had to accommodate federal surveillance and this accommodation involved traveling hundreds of miles to either the federal agent in Wisconsin or Nebraska annually. To mask her activism, Emma Big Bear Holt reported that she lived with family members at the Grand Rapids agency rather than report her address in Allamakee County and her neighbors helped her physically travel to the agency annually. Even after 1930, when the Bureau of Indian Affairs mandated that agents create a census of all enrollees whether on the reservation or elsewhere, Emma continued to report that she lived at the Grand Rapids Agency to mask her mound site occupation.12

Emma Big Bear Holt’s site occupations achieved moderate success; where she camped, amateur archaeologists did not excavate. Emma Big Bear Holt was not the only Indigenous activist who lobbied for earthworks and burial sites in the Midwest. Simultaneous to but independent from the activism of Emma Big Bear Holt, Lyda Conly fought to protect a nineteenth century burial site from corporate development from 1907 to 1910.

Lyda Conley (1869–1946) was a member of a multi-ethnic Wyandot family that experienced removals and attempted cultural erosion. The Wyandot removal experience, where the federal government forcibly removed the Wyandot from their ancestral homelands in Ohio to Kansas and Oklahoma, profoundly impacted Lyda Conley’s journey from Kansas to the Supreme Court in Washington D.C. In 1842, the federal government forced the Wyandot to cede all of their claims to lands in Ohio and Michigan in exchange for lands in the Kansas territory; families and elders were marched from northern Ohio, and the federal government forcibly re-settled the Wyandot on the Missouri river in the Kansas territory.13 On their forced march, a typhoid epidemic claimed the lives of one hundred Wyandot people. On July 12, 1843, the Wyandot established the Huron Place Cemetery and interred the remains of those who had perished during their removal.14 From 1843 to 1907, families buried nearly two hundred Wyandot citizens there. An 1844 treaty with the Wyandot guaranteed that the Wyandot would always control the cemetery.15

In 1868, when Lyda Conley was born, the federal government allotted Wyandot lands in Kansas and her family acquired a sixty-four-acre farm in Wyandotte County, Kansas. With their proximity to Kansas City, the Conley sisters had access to an emerging Midwestern cosmopolitan city; three of the four daughters graduated from high school and Lyda and Ida attended a women’s college in Kansas City.16 Familiar with their family’s rich and multiethnic heritage, their cultural rites, and their Wyandot national history, the Conley sisters were outraged to learn that the Wyandotte Nation in Oklahoma had approved the sale of the Huron Place Cemetery.

Colonial assimilationist policies physically and culturally divided the Wyandot in Kansas beginning in 1855. Though the Huron Place cemetery had been founded a dozen years earlier, in 1843, this burial ground became a site of colonial contention. In 1855, the United States government offered or forced U.S. citizenship upon select Wyandot; those who were literate, owned property, or had a trade were invited or forced to give up their Wyandot citizenship. For example, Elizabeth Zane Burton Conley and her daughters were stripped of their Wyandot citizenship in 1855 when the federal Indian agent listed them on the Kansas Wyandot rolls.17 Between 1855 and 1867, those Wyandot deemed unworthy of U.S. citizenship relocated from Kansas to Oklahoma where they created the Wyandotte Nation of Oklahoma; the United States government refused to recognize the tribal sovereignty of the Wyandot who remained in Kansas and the Wyandotte in Oklahoma retained legal authority over the Huron Place Cemetery. In 1906, the Wyandotte Nation in Oklahoma approved the sale of the cemetery for development and had Congress authorize the United States Secretary of the Interior to convey it for sale.18 Lyda Conley and her sisters strongly opposed the sale of the cemetery and protested the federal government’s continued efforts to terminate the Kansas Wyandot’s legal sovereignty. Because Lyda Conley was a prolific public speaker, editorialist, and correspondent, her entire corpus can be visualized.

Visualizing Lyda Conley’s public speeches and her legal briefs reveals the variety of rhetorical strategies that Conley used to advocate for Huron Place Cemetery. For example, in public, she relied on Christian metaphors. Lyda also perpetually linked Wyandot and Kansas to ensure the legitimacy of the Kansas Wyandot land claims. In her legal briefs, Lyda Conley consistently linked the Kansas Wyandot to treaties and appropriated treaty language.

A Voyant visualization created using Lyda Conley's corpus.

Figure 3. A screenshot of a Voyant visualization created using Lyda Conley’s corpus. An interactive version is also available.

In 1910, Lyda Conley traveled to Washington D.C. to argue her case before the Supreme Court. Though she lost her case, she and her sister continued to occupy the Huron Place Cemetery. In 1913, under pressure from Kansas City Women’s groups, Congress repealed the bill that authorized the sale of the cemetery. In 1916, Senator Charles Curtis introduced a bill in Congress that precluded the sale of the cemetery and designated it a federal park.19


Indigenous activism that increases protections for earthworks and burial sites in the Midwest is a narrative of continuous reform and activism. This is not a story of a single legislative or litigative victory. Recent Indigenous activism at Standing Rock represents not an aberration from but rather the latest chapter in the long duree of Midwest Indigenous activism. When Pan-Indian activists joined Standing Rock water protectors to protest the construction of an oil pipeline near their community, they cited concern over burial and sacred sites that a pipeline leak would destroy. Twenty-first century water protectors used familiar tactics to protest the destruction of Indigenous sovereignty and burial sites: they challenged the legality of the construction of the pipeline in court, they utilized relationship building and lobbying to call attention to their plight, and they occupied sites to prevent the physical destruction of burial sites. The Midwest will continue to be a site of Indigenous activism especially when earthworks and burial sites are threatened.


Buss, James. Winning the West with Words: Language and Conquest in the Lower Great Lakes. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2011.

Carman, Mary. “The Last Winnebago In Northeast Iowa” Journal of the Iowa Archaeological Society 35 (1988): 72–76.

Clark, Florence. “Economic Problems No Bother to Indian Family; Lives Close to Nature.” Cedar Rapids Gazette and Republican, July 18, 1931.

Clark, Florence. “Indian Quonset: Old Stuff to Emma Big Bear.” Dubuque Herald Telegraph, November 2, 1946.

Cobb, Daniel M. and Loretta Fowler, eds. Beyond red power: American Indian Politics and Activism Since 1900. Santa Fe: School for Advanced Research, 2007.

Dayton, Kim. “Trespassers, Beware: Lyda Burton Conley and the Battle for Huron Place Cemetery.” Yale Journal of Law and Feminism 8, no. 1 (1996): 1–30.

Dean, Samantha Rae. “‘As Long As Grass Grows And Water Flows’: Lyda Conley And The Huron Indian Cemetery.” Master’s thesis, Fort Hays State University, 2016.

English, Jan. “A Chronological History of the Wyandot Nation of Kansas at 1902.” Unpublished manuscript, on file with author. Wyandotte County Historical Society, 1994.

Indian Census Rolls, 1885–1940. National Archives Microfilm Publication M595, 692 rolls. Records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Record Group 75. National Archives, Washington, D.C. Accessed at Provo, UT:, 2007.

Kappler, Charles L., ed. Indian Affairs: Laws and Treaties 2. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1904.

O’Brien, Jean. Firsting and Lasting: Writing Indians out of Existence in New England. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010.

Oestreich, Nancy Lurie. Wisconsin Indians. Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society, 2002.

Papers of Ellison Orr. “The Iowa (Oneota)” State Historical Society of Iowa, Iowa City.

Sleeper-Smith, Susan. Indian Women and French Men: Rethinking Cultural Encounter in the Western Great Lakes. Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2001.

U.S. Census Bureau. 1930 Federal Census. Enumerated by Bernadette Kensaw. April 8, 1930.


  1. The date is based on both Mary Carman’s biography of Emma Big Bear Holt and Federal Indian Census Records that report Emma’s change in address. See Carman, “The Last Winnebago In Northeast Iowa.” On June 30, 1918, Emma Big Bear Holt reported at the Grand Rapids Agency in Wisconsin. See “1920 Indian Census,” Grand Rapids Agency, Grand Rapids Wisconsin, Roll M595, Line 17, in Indian Census Rolls, 1885–1940

  2. For a general history on the Ho-Chunk Removals, see Oestreich, Wisconsin Indians

  3. There is only limited scholarship on Lyda Conley. See Dayton, “Trespassers, Beware,” 1–31; Dean, “‘As Long As Grass Grows And Water Flows’.” 

  4. In her newspaper editorials, Lyda Conley consistently emphasized the barbarity of disturbing the burials in the Huron Place Cemetery. The visualizations I created rely on her corpus of newspaper editorials and this claim is evidenced by the proximity and frequency of barbaric synonyms in her newspaper editorials. 

  5. Buss, Winning the West with Words; O’Brien, Firsting and Lasting. These two texts explore how texts, memorials, and celebrations reinforced the progressive-traditional binary. This binary, a product of United States colonialism, declared that American Indian people who appeared assimilated were not truly Indigenous. 

  6. For more on gender in Native North America in the Great Lakes region and Midwest, see Sleeper-Smith, Indian Women and French Men. The case studies in this article are of three women activists and this ties into other forms of activism in other contexts beyond removal. For more on American Indian politics at the turn of the twentieth century, see Cobb and Fowler, eds., Beyond Red Power

  7. These visualizations are based on data gleaned from the Papers of Ellison Orr at the State Historical Society of Iowa. Amateur archaeologists like Orr were incredibly well organized and they corresponded frequently. Because Emma Big Bear was a minor celebrity in northeastern Iowa, it was possible to glean important biographic data from newspaper articles written about her. 

  8. Papers of Ellison Orr, (MS 79) Box 6 Folder 3, “The Iowa (Oneota)” State Historical Society of Iowa, Iowa City. 

  9. Clark, “Indian Quonset,” 23; Clark, “Economic Problems No Bother to Indian Family,” 7. Florence Clark, an amateur archaeologist and resident of McGregor, Iowa, wrote several times about Emma Big Bear Holt in Iowa newspapers. In her articles, Clark would quote Emma or her family speaking in pidgin English and her articles would inevitably speculate about how Emma and Henry made their living. 

  10. Carman, “The Last Winnebago,” 72–76. There is only one scholarly article on Emma Big Bear Holt and this article labels Emma Big Bear Holt “The Last Winnebago in Northeast Iowa”. Mary Carman does not describe any of the other Indigenous families in northeastern Iowa in this article despite the fact that both state and federal census enumerators list these families in several censuses at the turn of the twentieth century. 

  11. U.S. Census Bureau, 1930 Federal Census, sheet no. 2B, pg. 940. In the 1930 Federal Census, Bernadette Kensaw listed Robert F. Holt as a nephew to William Henry Holt, a resident of Allamakee County, Iowa. 

  12. For general information on the Indian Census, see Indian Census Rolls, 1885–1940, National Archives. Emma Big Bear reported to the Grand Rapids Agency from 1919 to 1937. 

  13. Dayton, “Trespassers, Beware,” 4–10. 

  14. Dayton, “Trespassers, Beware,” 4–10. 

  15. Dayton, “Trespassers, Beware,” 4–10. 

  16. English, “A Chronological History of the Wyandot Nation of Kansas at 1902.” Jan English is Second Chief of the Wyandot Nation of Kansas. 

  17. See Treaty with the Wyandot, Jan. 31, 1855, U.S.-Wyandot, 10 Stat 1159, reprinted in Charles L. Kappler, ed., Indian Affairs: Laws and Treaties 2 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1904), 677. 

  18. Dayton, “Trespassers, Beware,” 13. 

  19. Dayton, “Trespassers, Beware,” 27. 



Mary Wise, History Department, University of Iowa,, ORC ID logo0000-0003-1551-1033