Chief wants Kansas site included in search for anonymous graves
(AP) – The chief of a Native American tribe fears that a former Kansas residential school could be left out of a federal initiative to determine whether thousands of Native American children have been buried in schools across the country in the years 1800s and early 1900s.
Shawnee Tribe Chief Ben Barnes said federal officials had not indicated whether the Indian Shawnee Mission in Fairway, Kansas would be part of an investigation launched last month by US Home Secretary Deb Haaland . Barnes said he and others feared the Kansas school would be overlooked because it was run by the Methodist Church rather than the federal government, as were many other Native children’s residential schools.
Much of the conversation since the announcement of the Federal Indian Residential Schools Initiative has focused on federally run schools, such as the famed Carlisle Indian Reform School in Pennsylvania, which has promoted the idea of erase Native American culture and assimilate Native children into white society. Barnes noted that many boarding schools, including the one in Kansas, operated for decades before the Carlisle School opened in 1879.
“There have been a lot of rumors and innuendo about what they’re going to investigate,” Barnes said. “We are in contact with the federal government and lobbyists to help them make it clear that the Indian mission system did not start with Carlisle.”
A spokesperson for the Home Office said in an email that the agency had only recently started work on the federal program and that no information was yet available on individual locations.
Barnes said making distinctions between federally run schools that forcibly remove children from their families and church run schools that “persuade” families to send their children to school was offensive, because the two guys had the same mission.
Congress contracted Indian agents to work with missionaries to convince Native American families to send their children to church-run schools. They tried to convince families that they would have no future if they stayed with their tribes, who had been forced to march to Kansas from the 1920s as part of what became known as the Trail of Tears, said Barnes.
“It was coercion,” Barnes said. “(Tribal families) were told that if they wanted to fit in, they shouldn’t act so differently, behave and get along. It was seen as the best solution for our future.
When discussing the initiative in June, Haaland acknowledged that the process will be painful and difficult, but said there is a need to address the lasting trauma caused by schools. The American effort came after nearly 1,000 unmarked graves have been discovered at the sites of former residential schools in Canada in recent months.
Bobbie Athon, spokesperson for the Kansas State Historical Society, owner of the mission at Fairway, said the agency had not been contacted by federal officials but would be happy to work with the initiative if we asked him.
Barnes said the Shawnee Tribe, headquartered in Miami, Oklahoma, has a strong working relationship with the Historical Society and the City of Fairway, which oversees the day-to-day operations of the mission. He said it should be the responsibility of the federal government to investigate the mission site.
The Shawnee Indian Methodist Manual Labor School was founded on its present site in 1939 by Thomas Johnson, a Methodist minister to whom Johnson County was later named. Children from many tribes attended and learned the basics of academia, manual arts and agriculture, according to the historical society. At one point, it consisted of 16 buildings on over 2,000 acres, with nearly 200 students a year aged 5 to 23.
Barnes said Johnson, a slave owner, and others forced Native Americans to pay for building materials and to build the school, and tribal families paid up to $ 20 per student to attend. He argues that Johnson got rich outside of school because kids spent most of their time doing manual jobs rather than academics.
Most of the original 2,000 acres belonging to the mission have been developed. At a minimum, the Shawnee Tribe wants the federal government to conduct ground-penetrating radar searches on the remaining 12 acres at the mission site to search for unmarked graves.
But Barnes said he hoped the new focus on boarding schools would prompt national leaders to make resources available to seriously tackle their painful legacy.
“Let’s use this moment not to just bow to the cause of good and good, to really do something,” he said. We want the names of these children. Someone wrote them down somewhere. Who has the record? Where did they go? What more can they do to find out? “
Barnes said part of him is hopeful that no graves are found at the site, but if they are, the tribe would have private conversations about how to honor the children.
“I’m not sure I could handle it if we were to find them,” he said. “I don’t know how we could work it out. But I have an obligation to families, as a leader, to demand that we watch.
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