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Kaw re-establish homeland presence

KAW CITY, Okla. - The state of Kansas gets its name from the Kansa or Kaw Nation, yet within its boundaries the Kaw Nation had no place to call home, until recently.

Although the displaced tribe isn't planning a mass migration northward from Oklahoma, its members are re-establishing themselves in Kansas. There are no plans to build casinos, but to preserve the history of a once great nation and to remind those who live in the Kaw's traditional homelands of the society that preceded the westward expansion of the United States.

"We have quite a few Indian people in that area and they aren't covered by clinics or that type of thing," Vice Chairman Clyde McCauley said. "They have been absorbed over the past four years. But as far as moving, we're not moving anywhere. We are building a park in Council Grove, it is the last reservation we were on in Kansas."

McCauley said the city of Council Grove has been very welcoming to the Kaw Nation and there have been many joint ventures over the years between the city and the Kaw Nation.

The 170 acres will have a walk-through park. The historic Kaw Mission in Council Grove will be open to the public. Talking posts will be situated throughout the walking tour to provide information about the Kaw Nation. Other reminders of the Kaw remain near the small Kansas town, like the stone cabin built for Chief Wah-Shum-Gah. It is said the tribe let their horses stand in the cabin rather than live it themselves.

Admitting the nation has "gotten a lot of press lately," McCauley emphasized that the Kansa - the Kaw in Oklahoma - have entered into an agreement with the historical society that precludes putting a casino on the land. "Council Grove is a place with deep spiritual meaning for us."

Other issues have propelled the nation into the news as well - the proposed South Lawrence Traffic way and the proposed Oz Theme Park in Johnson County, Kan.

This past year, in what has been called an 'unauthorized' archeological exploration of land being considered for the South Lawrence Traffic (SLT) alignment, it was erroneously announced that Kaw burial mounds were found south of Lawrence, Kan.

The landowner contacted the Kaw Nation before the sites could be disturbed and, it was reported, also called law enforcement officials to have trespassers removed before the property could be damaged.

McCauley said the nation was grateful to the landowner who was knowledgeable enough to take action, but he added, the sites weren't actually burial mounds.

When the nation was contacted, it learned, "They weren't burial mounds," McCauley said. "The Kaw people were very unusual people in the fact that they had places which they called 'spiritual cities' scattered across the Kansas prairie. That is what one of those was."

McCauley explained that when a warrior or a spiritual man or person died, they went to these places called a Spiritual City. One of those sacred places was under a great red rock that now sits between a double bridge over the Kaw River in Lawrence.

"It used to be at the mouth of a creek," McCauley said. "Basically it is a 20-ton red granite boulder. Around 1907 the city heard about it and moved it." When that happened, McCauley said the Kaw believe they removed the entrance to a spiritual city and that spiritual city disappeared. "That comes off our prayer chart. We have 23 items on our prayer chart and one of those was the great red rock."

A smaller rock also was on the prayer chart. "We knew there was a small rock and that it was an entrance to another spiritual city. KDOT (Kansas Department of Transportation) found it for us. We entered into an agreement that basically says they aren't going to build a road over it, they are going to realign their road and leave it alone."

Once a spiritual city has been disturbed - as with great red rock - it ceases to exist, by Kaw tradition McCauley said. That is why the Kaw Nation is so grateful to the landowner who put a stop to surveying in the area.

The SLT may hit another snag because of a Kaw burial area near Kill Creek. It is believed that many Kaw were buried along the creek, and it is near Kill Creek the SLT was to connect with K-10, a main highway between Kansas City and Lawrence.

Repatriation of the grave sites isn't even an option McCauley said, because when the Kaw bury their dead, they don't move them. The only exception is when remains have been exhumed and are in a museum.

"If it's in the ground, it stays in the ground," McCauley said. "The Kaw are very unusual when it comes to that. We're not one of those groups that move every thing to a certain place. We believe that if they died there, and that is where they were buried, then that is honorable and that is where we want to leave (them)."

Another large burial site is within the boundaries of the former Sunflower Ammunition Plant, site of the proposed Oz Theme Park. McCauley said the Kaw Nation has spoken to officials and been assured the theme park could not build over those burial sites.

The Kaw Nation may be a small tribe when compared with the Cherokee and Navajo, but within the Kansas they are turning into the "Mouse that Roared."

McCauley said so far the state has worked very well with the tribe on the SLT and Oz park. "We were surprised at how well KDOT has worked with us, we weren't expecting that," McCauley said. "Especially considering the problems other tribes have had."

However, the nation isn't depending just on the good will of the state to protect sacred sites nor does it mean it will roll over and let the state trespass over areas considered sacred.

The nation is fully capable of finding grave sites and determining what is and isn't sacred. "We're very advanced in the area. We got very familiar with finding these graves. We are able to determine whether or not we are looking at a gravesite," McCauley said.

Overall, McCauley said he is especially pleased with the limited return to Kansas because of the ties the tribe has to the land. "That ground is spiritual land to us."

Kansa roughly translates to People of the South Wind or People of the Wind who once called most of what is now eastern and northeastern Kansas theirs, long before the Santa Fe Trail brought white settlers westward.

As eastern tribes were removed from their homelands and relocated by the federal government to what is now Kansas, the Kaw found their lands reduced again and again until finally the vast region they once occupied consisted of a 256,000-acre reservation near present-day Council Grove.

By 1872 the Kaw were forever relocated to an area of what is now Oklahoma, just across the Kansas border. Although the nation has adapted and prospered in its new location, the ties to its Kansas homeland remained strong.

And, Native Kansans are very aware of the rich heritage and tradition of the People of the South Wind who originally occupied the area known as Kansas. They are so respectful of the tribe that a statue of a Kansa warrior will top the capital dome in Topeka.