KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Just as the Shawnee Tribe planned to release a proposal to obtain ownership and renovate the Shawnee Indian Mission in Fairway, the Kaw Nation released a letter Wednesday expressing their opposition to it.
The Shawnee Tribe is hoping legislation passes that would convey the historic site to them.
However, the Kaw Nation believes it should have first refusal rights.
"These Kaw lands, as memorialized in the Treaty with the Kansa of June 3, 1825, were recognized as Kaw territory well before the Shawnee people were temporarily relocated to the present-day State of Kansas in the mid- Nineteenth Century, prior to their removal to present-day Oklahoma," Kaw Nation Vice Chair James Pepper Henry said. "The lands which the Shawnee people temporarily occupied were lands stolen from the Kaw people."
In 1825, the Kaw (Kansa) people agreed to a treaty ceding much of their land to the U.S. government.
This was at a time when other tribes, such as the Shawnee and the Delaware, were forcibly moved into the area.
Missouri had just become a state a few years prior and the Kaw's original land extended into Missouri, so the government needed them to agree to give up their lands within the state.
The state of Kansas got its name from the Kaw (Kansa) people.
"The Kaw Nation, as the representative of the original inhabitants of those lands, takes the position that if land originally inhabited by the Kaw Nation is to be conveyed to any tribal government, the Kaw Nation should have the right of first refusal to receive those lands," the letter said.
Pepper Henry, who is also the Kaw's historical preservation officer, said this is not about one tribe against the other — it's about communication.
He said they want to be clear when saying they support restoration efforts at the Mission and "shares the belief that improvements are needed to tell a complete and accurate history."
They say the accurate history, which includes how Native Americans were impacted by the Mission, extends beyond the Shawnee people.
Children from about 21 tribes and nations were sent to the Shawnee Indian Mission in its heyday in the 1800s. Some died while enrolled there, amid the poor conditions.
The Mission, as well as hundreds of other similar boarding schools in the U.S. and Canada, negatively impacted Native families for generations due to cultural whitewashing, abuse, and a disconnected sense of self.
Over the last couple years, the Shawnee Tribe has increasingly called for improvements at the site.
Relationships with the Kansas State Historical society, which owns the land, and the City of Fairway, which manages operations, have deteriorated over the last year due to disagreements on how to get it done.
The state and the city continue to maintain they are the best group to run the site.
The Shawnee Indian Mission Foundation had a conceptual plan that would repurpose the site, including restoring the land back to its original prairie landscape and renovating the West and North buildings so they would be functional again.
The Foundation president, Kathy Gates, said they wanted to build a new interpretive center and pavilion on the land, which would require approval from the state and the National Park Service, who were both on board with the ideas.
This was back in 2017 and Gates said they weren't able to raise the money to see the plan into fruition.
However, the Shawnee said they were not included in these talks, which lead to the rift.
In its letter on Wednesday, the Kaw Nation said they, too, were not included in any of these talks, including the back-and-forth between the Shawnee and the other entities.
"The lack of understanding by the State of Kansas about the history of its lands is demonstrated by the lack of communication throughout this legislative effort to notify the Kaw Nation about these efforts," the letter said.
The Shawnee Tribe released a statement in response to the Kaw Nation's letter:
"The Shawnee Tribe's aboriginal lands cover more than 20 states so we understand the significance of homelands, particularly when it comes to protecting items that may be in the ground.
The lack of consultation from the state of Kansas is a long running frustration. That is why we plan robust and ongoing consultation with every tribe that has a connection to the Shawnee Mission site, including the Kaw Nation.
However, there is no basis in cultural protection or federal law that allows any tribe to have an absolute right of “first refusal” over every real estate transaction occurring on lands previously ceded by treaty. Accepting such a standard would have widespread implications for property owners everywhere, particularly those in Fairway area.
We have begun conversations with the Kaw and are optimistic that our shared goal of preserving this sacred site and our common commitment to cultural protection will make those discussions productive."
Pepper Henry said they're not talking about federal law but rather to have the state consider the aboriginal people of the land first.
"If the true goal is to preserve and restore the Shawnee Mission and reinterpret it, there are other ways to do that then convey land to one tribe or another, such as set up some kind of a trust," Pepper Henry said in a phone call. "Or, maybe the bill should be about increasing the budget of the state historical society and then designate some dollars to go to the preservation of those missions and work with the tribes."
The Kaw Mission, like the Shawnee Indian Mission, is one of the last standing missions in the state of Kansas. The Kaw Mission is located in Council Grove, KS.
KSHB 41 has reached out to the City of Fairway and the state historical society for comment on the letter. This story will be updated if we get a comment from them.