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Shawnee Tribe seeks control over Indian Mission in Fairway, says historic site is in 'deep distress'

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 report commissioned by the Shawnee Tribe concluded up to $13 million in restoration and repairs are needed at the longtime Native American boarding school. But the city of Fairway, which is responsible for maintaining the site, says it has no plans to transfer ownership.

The Shawnee Tribe is seeking to take control of the Shawnee Indian Mission in Fairway, saying the historic site is deteriorating and in need of millions of dollars in repairs.

But city officials dispute some of the key findings of a tribe-commissioned report, foreshadowing a potential battle over one of Johnson County’s most recognizable landmarks as tribal leaders press state lawmakers to transfer ownership of the site.

Shawnee Chief Ben Barnes said a tribe-commissioned report conducted by California-based Architectural Resources Group, a firm specializing in historic preservation, shows that the Mission “is in deep distress and is an endangered site.”

ARG’s report, which the tribe says was completed over a year ago, outlines the need for foundation repointing at all three existing Mission buildings and roof replacements at the East and North buildings.

The report also says the site’s West Building has been vacant since 2000 and is “uninhabitable and in need of extensive repair.”

Overall, the report concludes that the needed repairs and restorations could cost up to $13 million.

In a statement Tuesday, the Shawnee Tribe said it “has begun conversations with legislators about the possibility of conveying the [Shawnee Indian Mission] property” to the tribe in order to conduct the repairs.

The site is currently owned by the Kansas Historical Society, which receives its funding from the Legislature, and is managed on a day-to-day basis by the city of Fairway.

“When it became clear there was no plan in place [to save the mission], we began conversations about the possibility of the Shawnee Tribe assuming responsibility for restoring and repairing this site,” Barnes told the Post via email.

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.
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.

Barnes said the tribe hopes to know more once the legislature reconvenes this month.

In a statement Tuesday, the city of Fairway pushed back against the idea of transferring ownership of the site, saying there would be “no guarantee that the Shawnee Tribe would continue to maintain or preserve the buildings from their headquarters in Oklahoma.”

“The Kansas Historical Society is on record as opposing conveyance of the site to the Shawnee Tribe due to the sites’ historical significance to the state,” the city’s message added.

The Shawnee Indian Mission was founded as a boarding school in the 1830s on land that the Shawnee Tribe had been forced to relocate to from their ancestral lands further east.

The tribe in recent years has pushed for a fuller accounting of the treatment and potential deaths of Native children at the mission.

Fairway said ARG requested “minimal historical information” from KHS when preparing its report, though the state holds previous site preservation records.

The city also said it wasn’t clear if the tribe would be able to put the same amount of resources towards preserving the site as the state has, pointing out that the tribe has so far relied on grant funding to do some of its preliminary studies of the site.

“Sadly, this attempt by Chief Barnes to disparage KHS and the city of the conditions of the buildings is not his first,” the message reads. “In the spring of last year, Chief Barnes lobbied a national organization to label the site as ‘endangered,’ using the same ARG report.”

In addition, the city suggested tribal leaders wanted to acquire the Mission site with the ultimate aim to “use the site for economic development.”

Barnes flatly rejected that notion, telling the Post in an email, “Any claim that the Tribe has motives other than restoring this sacred site for the public benefit is baseless. This site is in distress and the Shawnee Tribe has already invested significant resources to ensure it remains a historic treasure for generations to come.”

This story was originally published by the Shawnee Mission Post.

Juliana Garcia is a reporter with the Shawnee Mission Post.
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