Were missing children buried in unmarked graves in Johnson County? It’s time we knew

·4 min read

The only way to know if Indigenous children are buried in unmarked graves on the remaining 12 acres of what used to be the Indian Manual Labor School grounds in Fairway, Kansas, is to go there and look.

That’s exactly what leaders of the Shawnee Tribe are asking the U.S. federal government to do. “Our kids are missing,” said Shawnee Chief Benjamin Barnes. “The U.S. Congress knows this. They have known because we have been telling them for a long time. They have done nothing. The U.S. has an obligation.” Barnes says these are children who may have become sick and died and whose bodies were never returned to their families over the span of 150 years.

The Biden administration last month announced an initiative to search for the remains of hundreds of thousands of Native American children who were for more than a century forcibly taken from their families and communities and sent to government boarding schools, where they were stripped of their culture.

But what may not be included in that initiative are schools run by religious groups like the Shawnee Mission school founded before 1879 when the first government-run schools were opened.

Speaking to a conference of the National Congress of American Indians last month, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland said the search would include a deep dive into the records of the federal schools as well as a land search using ground penetrating radar in an attempt to locate the remains of these children.

“I know that this process will be long and difficult,” Haaland said. “I know that this process will be painful. It won’t undo the heartbreak and loss that so many of us feel. But only by acknowledging the past can we work toward a future that we’re all proud to embrace.”

The Department of the Interior told The Star Editorial Board it will survey historical records in federal repositories such as the National Archives and the American Indian Records Repository, as well as records maintained by nongovernmental organizations operating Indian residential boarding schools.

The federal initiative follows a discovery earlier this year of more than 700 unmarked Indigenous children’s graves at government-founded and church-run boarding schools in Canada.

The mass warehousing of Native American children was born out of a mission to destroy Native culture, language and family that was started by Richard H. Pratt, who found the Carlisle Indian School Project in Pennsylvania in 1879.

These government boarding schools operated into the 1960s. Federal schools and those run by Christian missionaries existed all across the country. By 1926, more than 80% of Indigenous school-age children were attending boarding school.

Barnes said these boarding schools weren’t just about teaching children to read, write and learn a skill. “The Shawnee Mission school wasn’t the reading and writing and gospel school. It was the manual labor school.” Most of the children, ages 5 to 22, were Shawnee or Delaware, but other tribes also were represented.

The Christian schools weren’t owned by the U.S. government, but Congress assigned authority to Indian agents with whom they contracted to work with the missionaries, who then convinced Native American families to send their children to the schools. Tribes paid as much as $100 per child. “Essentially it was coercion,” Barnes said. The implication was, “if you don’t want your kids to be marched to death like you were, you need to become like white folks and fit in. … We were paying for our own extinction. But they failed. We are still here.”

Johnson County gets its name from The Rev. Thomas Johnson, the Methodist minister who started the school in 1839. Today the site — the Shawnee Indian Mission — and its collections are owned by the Kansas State Historical Society. Fairway is responsible for the upkeep of the property. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1968.

Johnson and his family are buried in the Shawnee Mission Methodist Cemetery about a block away, at Shawnee Mission Parkway and Canterbury Road.

Since a large section of the cemetery has no visible gravestones, last month researchers launched a project using ground-penetrating radar to see if there were others buried on that property.

Patrick Zollner, director of cultural resources at the Kansas Historical Society, said it’s not likely that any Native American children would have been buried in a cemetery for white people. That’s not what researchers were looking for, he said.

Now they should use that same technology to look for the remains of Indigenous children on the grounds of the school itself.

“Children lived there. Children died,” Barnes said. “It’s possible that children could have been buried anywhere on those 2,000 acres. I don’t know what the truth is, but we have to look.”

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