A plan to search for unmarked graves at a former Native American boarding school in Kansas is on hold amid a disagreement between the Shawnee tribe and state and city officials overseeing the site.
The Kansas Historical Society announced last year that the Kansas Geological Survey at the University of Kansas would conduct a ground-based radar survey at the Shawnee Indian Mission in Fairway.
But Fairway officials said last week that the proposal had been put on hold indefinitely after Shawnee Chief Ben Barnes expressed concern that the tribe had not been consulted about the proposal and future plans for the 12-acre (4.86-hectare) site.
The Shawnee tribe last year pushed for a study of the site, formerly known as the Shawnee Indian Manual Labor School. It was one of hundreds of schools run by the government and religious groups in the 1800s and 1900s that took Aboriginal children from their families to assimilate them into white culture and Christianity.
Fairway City Administrator Nathan Nogelmeier said in a statement that the Kansas Historical Society, which owns the site, met with Barnes in August and offered him the opportunity to consult before work began.
On Monday, Barnes said as he was leaving a meeting at the historical society, he received a brief that the organization had begun the process of working with the university to break ground.
“This is not a consultation,” Barnes said. “Consultation is a well-defined term. It’s not like I keep a piece of paper in my hand.”
Several experts told the tribe the proposal was inadequate and did not follow federal law regarding consultation with tribes in such situations, Barnes said.
In a statement, Nogelmeier said the historical society and the city of Fairway expect the Shawnee tribe to try to convince the Kansas Legislature next year to transfer the land from the state to the Shawnee Nation.
“KHS is on record opposed to such a transfer because of its historical significance to Kansas, not only when it operated as a manual labor school, but other events and time periods that were related to Kansas history,” Nogelmeier said. “Chief Barnes has not further committed to what he and the Shawnee Nation believe will be the future use of the land if they become owners of the site.”
While Barnes acknowledged the tribe is not opposed to the transportation, he suggested state and Fairway officials are trying to use the issue as a political ploy, and the timing of last week’s statement raises questions about whether the tribe is welcome in the process.
“That insinuation worries me,” Barnes said. “We have always been clear about our vision for the site. Regardless of who owns it, the focus is on conservation and restoration. To say otherwise is patently false and they know it to be patently false.”
The inspection of the mission’s grounds came after the U.S. Department of the Interior announced a nationwide initiative last year to investigate federally run Indian residential schools. This would not include the Shawnee Indian Manual Labor School, which was founded in 1939 and directed by Methodist minister Thomas Johnson.
At one point it had 16 buildings on approximately 2,000 hectares (800 acres) and nearly 200 students a year, ages 5 to 23. national and state historical registries.
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