The leader of an American Indian tribe is concerned that a former Kansas boarding school will be left out of a federal initiative seeking to determine whether thousands of Native American children were buried at schools across the country in the 1800s and early 1900s.
Shawnee Tribe Chief Ben Barnes said federal authorities have not indicated whether the the Shawnee Indian Mission in Fairway, Kansas, would be part of the investigation U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland launched last month. Barnes said he and others worry the Kansas school could be overlooked because it was run by the Methodist church, rather than the federal government, as were many other boarding schools for Indigenous children.
Much of the conversation since the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative was announced has centered on federally run schools such as the notorious Carlisle Indian Reform School in Pennsylvania, which promoted the idea of erasing American Indian culture and assimilating Indigenous children into white society. Barnes noted many of the boarding schools, including the one in Kansas, operated for decades before the Carlisle school opened in 1879.
“There's been a lot of rumor and innuendo about what they are going to investigate,” Barnes said. “We are in touch with the federal government and lobbyists to help educate them that the Indian mission system didn't start with Carlisle.”
A spokesman for the Department of the Interior said in an email the agency has only recently begun working on the federal program and no information was yet available about individual locations.
Barnes said making distinctions between federally run schools that forcibly removed children from their families and church-run schools that “persuaded” families to send their children to the schools is offensive “hair-splitting" because both types had the same mission.
Congress contracted with Indian agents to work with missionaries to convince Native American families to send their children to church-run schools. They attempted to convince the families they would have no future if they stayed with their tribes, which had been forced to walk to Kansas in the 1800s as part of what became known as the Trail of Tears, Barnes said.
“It was coercion,” Barnes said. “(Tribal families) were told if they wanted to fit in, they needed to not act so different, behave and get along. It was considered the best solution for our future.”
When discussing the initiative in June, Haaland acknowledged the process will be painful and difficult but said it was necessary to address the lasting trauma caused by the schools. The U.S. effort came after close to 1,000 unmarked graves were discovered at former residential school sites in Canada in the last several months.
Bobbie Athon, a spokeswoman for the Kansas State Historical Society, which owns the mission in Fairway, said the agency has not been contacted by federal officials but would be happy to work with the initiative if asked.
Barnes said the Shawnee Tribe, which has headquarters in Miami, Oklahoma, has a strong working relationship with the historic society and the city of Fairway, which oversees the mission's daily operations. He said it should be the federal government's responsibility to investigate the mission site.
The Shawnee Indian Methodist Manual Labor School was started at its present site in 1839 by Thomas Johnson, a Methodist minister for whom Johnson County was later named. Children from many tribes attended and were taught basic academics, manual arts and agriculture, according to the historical society. At one point, it had 16 buildings on more than 2,000 acres, with nearly 200 students a year ranging in age from 5 to 23.
Barnes said Johnson, a slave owner, and others forced Native Americans to pay for the construction materials and build the school, and tribal families paid up to $20 per student to attend. He contends Johnson became rich off the school because the children spent most of their time doing manual labor rather than academics.
Most of the original 2,000 acres owned by the mission has been developed. At a minimum, the Shawnee Tribe wants the federal government to conduct ground-penetrating radar searches on the 12 acres that remain at the mission site to search for unmarked graves.
But Barnes said he is hopeful the new attention on the boarding schools will prompt national leaders to make the resources available to seriously address their painful legacy.
“Let's use this moment, not to just genuflect toward the cause of good and right, let's really do something,” he said “We know Shawnee children died at that mission. We want those kids' names. Someone wrote them down somewhere. Who has the record? Where did they go? What more can they do to find out?”
Barnes said a part of him hopes no graves are found at the site but if they are, the tribe would hold private conversations about how to honor the children.
“I'm not sure I could bear it if we were to find them," he said. “I don't know how we could make it right. But I have an obligation to the families, as the descendants' leader, to demand that we look."
This story has been corrected to reflect the Trail of Tears occurred in the 1800s and that the Shawnee Indian Methodist Manual Labor School was started at its present site in 1839.