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Another report details need for significant cultural, structural updates at Shawnee Indian Mission

Shawnee Tribe releases reports as they announce wishes to take over Mission management
Shawnee Indian Mission
Posted at 12:43 PM, Jan 04, 2023
and last updated 2023-01-04 19:34:56-05

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The Shawnee Indian Mission in Fairway needs serious repairs but there's some conflict as to who should be in charge of it.

The Shawnee Tribe released two documents this week they say back up their concerns about the state of the Mission and why they should be the entity to see it into the future.

"It's potential to create a spotlight on how we can do the job right and having discussions on boarding schools, as well as finding a vehicle for preservation," Chief Ben Barnes of the Shawnee Tribe said.

A letter sent to the Kansas Historical Society from the National Trust for Historic Preservation details some of the same concerns as the Shawnee Tribe.

The letter was sent in September but the Shawnee Tribe released it on Wednesday, just as they announced their wishes to take over ownership of the Mission.

"This site is very important," Barnes said. "I know the citizens of Fairway feel very strongly about the site. The Shawnee feel very strongly about the site. The site needs to be preserved. It needs to be maintained. I want to see it survive for another 150 years."

Representatives from the National Trust toured the Mission in June 2022 with the state historical society (which owns the site), the city of Fairway, and the Shawnee Indian Mission Foundation.

The Trust said it's apparent the local partners care about the Mission, however "our June 7 visit also confirmed our view that there are several important issues that need to be addressed at the historic site."

Rob Nieweg, vice president for preservation and outreach for the Trust, said the Trust agrees with the assessment report historical architecture firm, ARG, conducted at the site in 2021, which found the Shawnee Indian Mission needs significant repairs, specifically to fix the roofs and water damage.

"The National Trust remains concerned, for example, about the current physical condition of the historic buildings, the need to update the public interpretation now presented at the historic site, the proposed construction plans for future redevelopment, and the current governance structure for long-term cultural heritage stewardship of the Boarding School," Nieweg said.

Chief Barnes criticized the group pictures of Native American kids shown at the Mission's museum, which he says do not depict the actual children who were at the school in the mid-1800s and it presents a false impression.

Because there are no known photos of the Shawnee Indian Mission students, the museum had to use a picture from another Native boarding school to show what the kids may have dressed like at the time.

In a previous I-Team report, KSHB I-Team detailed the poor conditions the kids lived in while at the manual labor school, which eventually lead to the school's closing in 1862. Some kids died while enrolled there.

The Shawnee Indian Mission and hundreds of other similar boarding schools across the country created a negative generational impact on Native families that is still evident today.

"[The museum] doesn't put anything in context like what's going on in the United States at the time it's being built, it doesn't even talk about the run-up to the Civil War and the Bleeding Kansas period," Barnes said, "It significantly misses the mark as to why the Shawnee were called the 'Loyal Shawnee,' how we fought for Kansas, how we died at Quantrill's Raid. This is our history. We're part of that tapestry. And the presentation, as it exists now, actually divorces the Shawnee people from Kansas history."

The Trust letter detailed those concerns, saying the buildings at the site have conveyed historical narratives to the public since it became a historic site nearly 100 years ago, including some with little authentic connection to the place.

"Today, based on information we have received, including comments by the historic site’s curator, we believe the public interpretation of the Boarding School—particularly its impacts on the children and families of Native Americans—is incomplete and out-of-date," Nieweg said.

A more authentic narrative of the site should be included in any improvements, the letter said, and the Shawnee Tribe is in the "best position to play a lead role" in developing new programming.

On top of that, the Trust said it supports a "transition to a new stewardship and governance structure that prioritizes formal roles for the Shawnee Tribe" with any potential projects done in conjunction with them.

Barnes says he's still waiting for these conversations to happen with the state.

As part of a statement to KSHB 41 News, Patrick Zollner, the director of the historical society, said they believe they should continue running the Mission as they have since the 1920s.

He also said they "replaced the entire HVAC system in the East Building this past summer.

Replacement of wood shingle roofs for the three buildings is the top priority for this site and has been submitted as part of our five-year capital improvement plan."

Zollner said other minor repairs were already underway when the ARG assessment report came out.

That report estimates all necessary repairs will cost between $6.6 million and $13 million.

Barnes said they would seek out that funding themselves.

"Ideally, I would love to use anyone's money to preserve the site. If we have to, we use our own," Barnes said "It doesn't change the fact that we can be one of the best partners for Fairway and Kansas in managing this site."

While the Shawnee Tribe and the City of Fairway and the state historical society disagree on the site being "endangered," the Trust said critical action needs to be taken to fix the roofs and windows in the near future. The three buildings on the site are also underused, which the Trust says puts them at further risk.

Barnes said the Tribe had conversations with the Trust about nominating the Shawnee Indian Mission to be on its top 11 most endangered historical sites in the United States.

Barnes said he presented the idea to then-historical society director, Jennie Chinn, who was open to the idea. However, Chinn suddenly passed away in spring 2022.

The Trust said while the historical society and the city are considering building a new visitor center, an addition to the West building, and add new landscaping, it's their understanding that the Shawnee Tribe hasn't been consulted.

In the letter, the Trust recommends the state and the City of Fairway cooperate fully with the Shawnee Tribe and its consultants to complete a Historic Structures Report, which is partly funded by a grant from the Trust, "as well as a Cultural Landscape Report and other needed preservation-based planning for the benefit of the Shawnee Indian Manual Labor Boarding School."

The City of Fairway and Zollner said they are supportive of those efforts.

Until those reports are completed, any further planning or geophysical projects should be placed on hold, Nieweg said.

In the fall, a ground penetrating radar survey at the site to look for any graves was put on an indefinite hold, due to disagreements between Chief Barnes and the state and city.

In August 2020, the Shawnee Tribe declared the Mission a Sacred Site.