These Lawrence students are reconnecting with Native culture using the art of thatching
Some of the very first homes in Kansas were built by members of the Wichita Tribe with cut bundles of native bluestem grass. A new generation of students at Haskell Indian Nations University are learning the skill, and reconnecting with a Great Plains tradition.
As a late fall wind rustles through a field of tall marsh plants, students from Haskell Indian Nations University, in Lawrence, Kansas, harvest cattails. In the wetlands behind the school, MK Kerron is teaching the art of traditional thatching.
Kerron, a member of the Wichita and Affiliated Tribes and a master's-degree student in geography at the University of Kansas, learned how to work with grass from her grandfather.
“His artist name is Wayneokchat,” Kerron says. “It means 'yellow bird' in our language."
Kerron’s grandfather is well-known for the replicas of grass houses he creates for arts and crafts shows in Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas.
“I originally learned how to do thatching back during the COVID pandemic, so that was the hobby I learned during the COVID,” Kerron says with a laugh. “I just really loved it, and now I feel happy that I can pass along these skills.”
Generations ago, the Wichita built large grass homes from big bluestem, which can grow 6 to 8 feet tall. Grasses were sewn together using bone needles and tall cedar poles were used for support. But local prairie grasses are in short supply on Haskell’s campus these days, so they’re using cattails.
Kerron and her students take the cattails to a small field where several domed frames made of slender wood await.
“I always have wanted to learn how to thatch,” says Courtney King, a senior at Haskell. “I tried looking up YouTube videos and usually it's white men in Britain doing it. That didn't feel right to me.”
King is the lead student researcher at the Haskell Greenhouse.
King’s focus is restoring native species to the school’s campus. Finding a way to use the invasive cattails that clog the wetlands was her idea.
“It's just to reconnect people with the land and partake in traditional ecological knowledge, as our ancestors have for thousands of years,” King says. “And many, many tribes thatched wigwams, grass houses, sweat lodges — not all of us are Plains Indians, as far as teepees and all of that kind of stuff. So we’re reconnecting with that culture and bringing that back.”
'Rebuilding slowly but surely'
According to legend, in 1541, when the Spanish conquistador Francisco Vázquez de Coronado saw sunlight reflecting off the Wichita tribe’s domed, grass homes he thought he’d found a golden city.
“Our first encounter with colonizers was the conquistadors and in a lot of notes from way back then ... they would describe grass houses to look like a beehive, which, you can kind of see it,” Kerron says.
With King’s help, she gathers the cattail’s narrow leaves and root stalks into tight bundles, soon to become the house's walls or roof.
“Whenever we are thatching the grass in, you want to pack it tight,” Kerron says, “because this is the insulation back then, so you want it really tight.”
The cattail bundles are tied together with string and attached to the wooden frame. Once in place, Kerron trims the tops with garden shears to create a clean line.
Kerron says classes like this are an important way to keep Indigenous traditions alive, and, though thatching classes are over for the season, Kerron says they’ll be back at work in the spring.
“Haskell, at one point, was a boarding school where a lot of these traditions were taken away,” Kerron explains. “We're here now rebuilding slowly but surely. And, you know, a lot of people say a lot of these things are going to die out, but I refuse to think that.”