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Tribe Leaders Demand Search For Any Children Buried At Shawnee Indian Mission

The brick exterior of the North building of the Shawnee Indian Mission in Fairway, Kansas.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Although Shawnee Indian Mission was a one-time Native American boarding school in the early 1800s, Kansas State Historical Society officials say they have yet to be contacted regarding a recent federal initiative calling for the investigation of the history of such schools.

A federal initiative will investigate historic sites of boarding schools for Native American children, but it's unclear how that will affect the Shawnee Indian Mission in Fairway, Kansas.

Nationwide, historic sites of boarding schools for Native American children will be investigated through a new federal initiative — but that effort may not include Shawnee Indian Mission in Fairway.

Still, mission officials as well as Shawnee Tribe leaders say a more thorough accounting of the Shawnee Indian Mission’s history is needed, nearly 200 years after it was founded by Johnson County namesake Thomas Johnson.

The Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative

Last week, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland announced the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative, which will aim to investigate the “troubled legacy of federal boarding school policies” on Native children in the 1800s and early 1900s.

Specifically, Haaland said, the effort will look more closely at the following:

  • Identifying boarding schools and corresponding sites.
  • Collecting known locations and potential burial sites of Native students near or on school property.
  • Coming to know the identities and tribal affiliations of children who were placed at such boarding schools.

“I know that this process will be long and difficult,” Haaland said to the National Congress of American Indians 2021 Mid Year Conference on June 22. “I know that this process will be painful. It won’t undo the heartbreak and loss we feel. But only by acknowledging the past can we work toward a future that we’re all proud to embrace.”
Haaland’s announcement came days after the discovery of 215 unmarked graves near the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia, Canada, near the community of the Tk’emlúps te Secwepemc First Nation.

Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
The Shawnee Indian Mission was once a 2,000-acre, 16-building operation that had 200 Native American children ages 5 to 23 enrolled, according to the KSHS website. Three buildings remain on the now 12-acre site.

Will Shawnee Indian Mission be looked at?

It’s unclear how the new Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative will impact the Shawnee Indian Mission in Fairway. That’s because the mission was not a federal school but operated by the Methodist church.

Johnson was appointed by the Methodist church to go to what later became Kansas, where the Shawnee Nation had been forcibly moved starting in the 1820s.

There, he founded the Shawnee Indian Mission in 1839. (Johnson was originally from the South and was also a slaveholder who brought some slaves with him to the mission.)

Kansas State Historical Society officials told mission site director Jennifer Laughlin after the announcement of the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative that since the Shawnee Indian Mission was not a forced enrollment, federally mandated school, the site may not be impacted by the U.S. Department of Interior’s effort to investigate boarding school history.

Still, since the initiative is barely a week old, Laughlin said specifics are unknown at this time — but she said she has reached out to KSHS and Shawnee Tribe officials so the three entities can begin to collaborate on any future historical survey of the mission.

“We all hold much responsibility to educate and preserve the full story of this important historic site and national historic landmark,” Laughlin said in an email to the Shawnee Mission Post.

Bobbie Athon with KSHS said they have yet to be directly contacted by the Department of Interior regarding the boarding school initiative, but he said KSHS would fully cooperate should it be contacted in the future.

‘The moment to demand accountability’

Ben Barnes, chief of the federally-recognized Shawnee Tribe, wants a deeper look at the Shawnee Indian Mission’s history, too.

Barnes wrote to the Shawnee Mission Post last month, following the discovery at Kamloops but before Haaland’s announcement.

In his letter, Barnes called for a thorough ground-penetrating study to be conducted on the Shawnee Indian Mission’s grounds in order to locate any potential gravesites of children.

 A plaque on the 12-acre site of the Shawnee Indian Mission describes how some of the buildings were used.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Ben Barnes, Chief of the Shawnee Tribe, which gave up 2,000 acres of land for the Shawnee Indian Mission, is seeking accountability for the lives lost at the mission when it operated as a boarding school in the early 1800s.

Barnes letter read, in part:

“We know that Shawnee children died while attending the Mission. I know that our dead children want to come home. To date, there have been no efforts to determine if our children are left among what remains of the Shawnee Indian Mission.

North of the Treaty Line [present-day U.S.-Canada border], the Kamloops Diocese owes answers to our First Nations relatives, and perhaps the Methodists owe answers to the Shawnee as well. I assign no blame to any living person today, but I think this is the moment to demand accountability. I am hopeful that the relationship forged between my office and Fairway’s Mayor Melanie Hepperly will allow for the Shawnee Tribe, Kansas state officials and the city of Fairway to perform a thorough [sic] survey of the Mission’s grounds to locate any of our children’s graves so that we can bring them home.”

A ground-penetrating radar study was conducted at the Shawnee Mission Methodist Cemetery in May, by the KSHS in conjunction with the Shanwee Indian Mission, but Barnes told the Post that the Shawnee Tribe was not consulted prior to that study.

That study’s focus was on the small cemetery where Thomas Johnson and his family were buried, which at the time, was reserved for white people only.

Barnes says that makes it unlikely any graves of Native children will be found there, which is why a broader study of the Mission grounds is needed.

“No effort was made to find those kids, and we’re certainly not going to find them in a whites-only cemetery,” Barnes said. “We’re certainly not going to find them in a cemetery where a slaveholder like Reverend Johnson had his own family members buried. They’re not going to find [Native American children] there.”

Results from the cemetery study conducted in May will not be available until August, Laughlin said.

This story was originally published in the Shawnee Mission Post.

Juliana Garcia is a reporter with the Shawnee Mission Post.
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