In the 19th century, the United States government continuously claimed more and more indigenous lands, forcing the native populations to move farther west and into the territories of other nations. The Kansa or Kaw Nation, in what is now eastern Kansas, had to share their lands with Midwestern and Eastern native populations. By 1873, the Kansa were forced to move farther west onto the Osage Reservation in Oklahoma. There was no housing, no work – literally nothing for the surviving 500 members.
It was amid this extreme poverty that Cha-me, or Lucy Tayiah Eads, was born on October 4, 1888, in a makeshift community along Beaver Creek in what today is Oklahoma. Her father, Little Tayiah, was Kansa, while her mother, Lezitte Betrand (Mo Jan Ah Hoe) was both Kansa and Potawatomi. Within five years, both of Eads’ parents had starved to death, leaving her and her younger brother orphans. By Kansa tradition, the children were adopted by their nation’s chief, Washungah.
Eads went to Haskell Institute in Lawrence, Kansas. A relatively new academic program at the school enabled her to become a nurse. Nursing was not yet a nearly exclusively female field, but it was dominated by whites. Eads would have graduated before 1910, when 95.5% of the women in the field were white and 4.3% were black.
After getting her degree, Eads moved to New York City, where she married twice. She was first married around 1908 to Herbert Edward Kimber; the couple had three children. Then after a divorce she married John Rhea Eads in 1912, and they had six children. At some point the couple moved back to the Plains, because by 1922 Eads owned 800 acres of land along the Oklahoma-Kansas border.
Chief Washungah died in 1908, and the Kansa did not choose a new chief until 1922, when the people picked Eads. Not only was she the first woman chief of the Kaw Nation, but it fell to her to piece together a leaderless nation whose population had fallen to 200 by 1902. She quickly took to the task.
In 1924, she delivered a petition to the Federal Commission of Indian Affairs to reestablish the Kansa agency. Sadly, because of the The Kaw Allotment Act of 1902, which had restored a small amount of land to the nation, the Federal Government denied her people autonomy. Even though she was invited to the 1929 Presidential inauguration for Herbert Hoover and Charles Curtis – the Vice-President was from Kansas and also of the Kaw Nation – the federal government was no fan of native peoples.
After Eads won re-election in 1928, the state of Oklahoma and the federal government clashed over indigenous rights, and the Kaw Nation was officially absorbed into a larger, generic group until the Oklahoma Indian Welfare Act of 1936. Regardless of white laws, Eads continued to advocate for her people, fighting for revenue from gas and oil production on the Kaw Nation’s lands and promoting education as a way to increase her people’s power without giving up their customs.
In 1934, after serving two terms as chief, Eads went back to the Haskell Institute to work as a nurse until her retirement. She continued to appear in public from time to time and was spoken fondly of as “Chief Lucy.”
Eads died on October 11, 1961 in Oklahoma at the age of 73. By 2015, that group of 500 who had been forced to leave the Kansa ancestral lands had grown to 3,376 recognized Kaw Nation members. Today, Eads’ granddaughter, Pauline Sharp, is vice president of a cultural committee preserving the Kansa culture and land—a fitting tribute to Eads.