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State plans ground survey at Shawnee Indian Mission to look for graves

Shawnee Tribe wants to be part of every step of the process
Shawnee Indian Mission
Posted at 5:02 PM, Oct 18, 2022

FAIRWAY, Kan. — The Shawnee Tribe hopes to get answers to questions that have reverberated through generations — what happened to the kids who were sent to the Shawnee Indian Mission manual labor school all those year ago?

"We know kids died here," said Chief Ben Barnes, of the Shawnee Tribe. "We have to ask those questions. Where are those children now? Where do they lay?"

A search using ground penetrating radar and electromagnetic waves could uncover some answers.

The Kansas Historical Society, which owns the land the Mission sits on, wants to work with KU's Kansas Geological Survey to see if there are any graves on the 12 acre site. To view its proposal, people can visit this link.

They want to use a $13,172 grant from the State Historic Preservation Office's to fund it.

Last year, KSHB 41 I-Team reporter Sarah Plake did a deep dive, looking through hundreds of pages of records from the Shawnee Indian Mission.

She discovered that at least four kids died from sickness while attending the institution. It's unclear if they're buried at the site or elsewhere.

Keep in mind that the landscape looks a lot different now than it did back when the Mission was operating in the 1800s.

The 2,000 acres the Mission occupied is now mostly houses and streets. What's left of the Mission is preserved on 12 acres, which is now on the state register of historic places.

A cemetery for the Shawnee Tribe still sits near Johnson Drive and Neiman Road in Shawnee, Kansas. However, few tombstones remain.

Those stones that do remain mark the resting places for kids who died after the Mission was already closed.

The initial start date for the project was supposed to be Aug. 1. The project hasn't started yet and it won't until the KU and the state historical society do a formal consultation with the Shawnee Tribe.

The Tribe wants to be involved in every step of the way. The state says they welcome that level of collaboration.

"These sites are of utmost importance to Shawnee people," Barnes said.

The Tribe has concerns about the process. They want to make sure it's accurate. And, if the search does uncover anything, what will happen next?

"These things are symbols — symbols of survival, symbols of state history, symbols of the Shawnee in Kansas, where our histories meet," Barnes said.

As of Oct. 18, the contract between the state entities remains unsigned for now.

When work begins, the team will establish a grid and collect data for six weeks. That data will then be analyzed and interpreted. It's expected to take six months total.

The Shawnee Tribe told the state in a letter they want to be present for data collection.

None of the methods are supposed to disturb the ground in any way.

According to the state archaeologist for the historical society, the techniques used will send radio wave signals into the ground and record the reflections of those signals from anything beneath the surface. They say these methods have been used to identify potential burials on mission sites across the country.

The Shawnee Tribe is also in the process of developing a Cultural Landscape Survey, which they say would be "a significant resource for informing the survey and locations which may be important."

Patrick Zollner, with the state historical society, told KSHB 41 that in addition to the Shawnee Tribe, they sent letters to nine other tribes who expressed interest:

  • Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes
  • Kaw Nation
  • Wichita and Affiliate Tribes
  • Absentee-Shawnee Tribe of Indians of Oklahoma
  • Delaware Nation, Oklahoma
  • Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation, Kansas
  • Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma
  • Delaware Tribe of Indians
  • Osage Nation

Zollner said they've received responses from "the Shawnee, the Eastern Shawnee, and email correspondence from the Delaware (and recently emails from the Absentee Shawnee)."

The National Historic Preservation Act requires federal agencies to consider and assess any potential risk their projects have on historic lands, including tribal land.