TOPEKA, Kan. - Former Kansas governor Joan Finney died July 28 in a Topeka hospital after battling liver cancer for the past year. Finney was a strong advocate for American Indians in Kansas and tribal leaders mourn her passing.
Finney, governor from 1991 to 1995, continued her political activism with tribes in Kansas after leaving office and had been a member of the Haskell Foundation. Her friendship to tribes in Kansas included "being there" whenever she was asked.
"This has been one of the most supportive people to Native Americans and Indian country that we have ever had," Kickapoo Chairwoman Nancy Bear said. "She is going to be sadly missed by all Native Americans."
The Kickapoo Tribe of Kansas honored her in a naming ceremony in 1991 after she became the first governor to recognize the sovereignty of American Indian tribes by official proclamation. Tribal elders named her Wah na ko qua, White Morning Star Woman.
She was never too busy to join in some project that would help her friends in their fight for human rights or tribal sovereignty, often showing up at various events sponsored by the Kansas tribes.
"She was more of a personable person, if you will," Bear added. "You could pick up the phone and you could talk to her. You didn't have to talk to her about issues, you could just talk to her. She always remembered who you were and what you represented. She always just listened. I think she was a great listener, plus, when Joan Finney said she was going to help or she would do everything she could to assist you in whatever effort or endeavor you were involved in, that was a true statement. She really put action behind the words."
Former Kickapoo Chairman Steve Cadue had been called out of town on a family emergency and was unable to attend the services of a woman he considered to be a great friend not only to the Kickapoo, but to him as well.
He recalled the last time the two had gotten together to visit. "She loved the outdoors. We just sat and talked about things that were going on and we even did some storytelling. That was the way it was with her."
Cadue wanted people to know that the bestowing of an Indian name on Finney was because she had a long history of working with Native people, but not many really understood that.
"People should know that she had a long history of working for Indian people. It just got more publicity after she became governor. It is a great honor for a tribe to name someone who isn't in the tribe, she earned that honor."
Cadue said Finney will always be remembered by American Indian people. To carry out the work she started, Cadue and others are forming a Joan Finney Memorial Scholarship for Native American Students at Haskell Indian Nations University in conjunction with the University of Kansas.
Finney had long been involved with Haskell, attending functions and serving on the foundation board at one time. "She will be greatly missed here at Haskell," a source close to the university said. "She did a lot for us."
Her willingness to work with tribes made Finney known to American Indians throughout the country.
"The policies she developed with Native people in Kansas could be followed by other states," Dennis Banks said. "I think she will be remembered for moving in a direction that other governors were afraid to go."
Finney championed efforts in the 1990s to set up state-tribal gaming compacts that allowed Kansas tribes to begin casino ventures on their reservations. But more than that, she gave the tribes of Kansas a voice and respect, something tribal leaders say they will miss with her passing.
A day before her death, as a new cultural center was being dedicated on the Haskell campus, Finney asked that memorials be directed to the center building fund.
Mass of Christian Burial was offered Aug. 1 at Most Pure Heart of Mary Catholic Church in Topeka. Burial was at Mount Calvary Cemetery, Topeka.
During a Tuesday evening service, first with a rosary led by the Sisters of Charity from Leavenworth, followed by an ecumenical service attended by some politicians, but mostly ordinary Kansans, a red, white and black chief's robe from the Prairie Band Potawatomi tribe draped the casket.
Representatives of all four Kansas tribes planned to attend Finney's services. The Kansas Highway Patrol and tribes planned a memorial service at the gravesite to thank her for her lifetime of efforts in their behalf.
"It will be a special tribute to a special friend," Bear said sadly while preparing for the service.
"She has gone to the spirit world but her spirit will be with us as we accomplish the things she wanted for the Indian people," Cadue said. "She will always be with us, she has always been with us."