In her day, Lucy Tayiah Eads made history.
She was a novelty among newspaper writers, who quickly pointed out what an unconventional woman she truly was.
The Tulsa Daily World proudly exclaimed, “Mate’s Folks Were Pilgrims.” On Nov. 26, 1922, the paper wrote of her: “Lucy Tayiah Eads, full blood, college graduate, trained nurse, and model housewife, who knows how to chum and sew and bake and does all of them constantly, has been elected chief of the Kaw tribe of Indians ... by a majority vote of the members of the tribe.”
She was the first woman to hold the distinction. It came just two years after the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified, granting women the right to vote.
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Eads, 34 at the time, was the mother of seven children and the owner of 800 acres of land near the Oklahoma-Kansas state line.
“I cannot tell just yet how I feel about being chosen chief of the Kaws, for the honor is too new,” Eads told the Tulsa Daily World. She asked people to call her “Lucy.”
And although she grew up in Oklahoma, she and many other Kanza Indians believed their hearts belonged elsewhere. Kansas owes its name to the Kanza Indians, known as “People of the South Wind.”
It was 17th-century French mapmakers who first named the territory after the Kanza or Kaw people. In the early 1800s, the Kanza claimed a territory that covered roughly two-fifths of modern-day Kansas.
But by the mid-19th century, as European settlement claimed more and more land around Council Grove, the Kaw Nation was forced into what is now Oklahoma. At that time, between 1872 and 1873, less than 500 people belonged to the tribe. And by 1902, less than 200 were entered into the tribal rolls.
The Kaw Indians ended up just across the Kansas line, near Newkirk and Ponca City.
Eads was born on Oct. 4, 1888. Her father, Little Pah-Yah, died when she was 6.
She grew up at a time when the federal government was pushing American Indians farther and farther away from their culture and heritage. When she and her brother were orphaned, they were adopted by Chief Washunga. She was sent to study at the Haskell Indian College in Lawrence, where she trained as a nurse.
In 1908, she married her first husband, Herbert Edward Kimber, but the marriage was short-lived. She married John Eads in 1913.
Chief Washunga died in 1908, leaving a void among the Kaw Nation. According to an article in the Tulsa World in 1922, when the Kaw Nation was assembled to choose a tribal head, they searched for a person who was a full-blood and who could speak on behalf of the Kaw Nation but also understand the workings of a white society.
Eads was a logical choice, according to J.C. Clendenning, the U.S. Indian agent then in charge at Washunga. The 1922 article quoted him as saying, “She is the finest example of what an Indian should be.”
While the Kaw Nation struggled with land claims, oil and gas rights, treaty provisions and dealings with businessmen who weren’t always ethical, Eads tried to right wrongs.
She became one of the most beloved chiefs of the Kaw Nation. She died on Oct. 11, 1961.