Marilyn Bushyhead Kindsvatter has been a longtime volunteer at the Mid-America All-Indian Center. The museum has been a central part of her life since its doors opened at its current location in 1976. She’s helped fundraise, organize receptions, give tours, sell crafts, and run the gift shop. Now she’s inspired a new exhibit that is telling an important, and often forgotten, story about the contributions American Indians made to aviation manufacturing.
The show and a corresponding film open Saturday. They illustrate how the community helped shape a burgeoning industry during a time of war.
“This all began last winter on a cold day when Marilyn started telling me the story about how her father had come to Wichita to work in the aircraft industry during the war,” said museum director Deborah Roseke. “The picture that ended up becoming ‘the picture’ of the exhibit features her father and another community member shaking hands with President Eisenhower. Marilyn was really the catalyst for this story being told. She had a lot of the photographs and tons of stories to tell. When we started talking more, we realized that a majority of the families that are still here in Wichita are here because their parents or their grandparents came to this city from elsewhere to work in air manufacturing in the war industries.”
Kindsvatter was 4 years old when that seminal photograph was taken. Along with the 34th president, it features Boeing leader J. Earl Schaefer with her father, Gordon Bushyhead (Cherokee) and Francis Stumblingbear (Kiowa) in front of a Boeing Scout plane they helped build. Kindsvatter said she remembers seeing the photo in her family’s living room growing up. Decades later, she realized that perhaps not everyone understands the significance behind its story.
“The Indian people came here to find work,” Kindsvatter said. “My dad came here in 1939, and he was working in Ark City. He heard they were hiring people for aircraft work, and so he came to Wichita and worked until he retired in 1970. A lot of our other family followed, and they worked at Boeing. It brought the Indian community up here and really started us. We had a baseball team made up of employees at Boeing. We had this close-knit community that resulted from the work done there. We had our own history; it was aircraft. This is my family’s heritage, as well as our community’s history.”
Roseke noted that aside from code talkers, American Indians’ home-front contributions to World War II have been largely overlooked by history. She said that while exact figures are hard to find, some historians estimate that between 44,000 and 88,000 American Indians flocked to urban areas to take war-related manufacturing jobs. This exhibit aims to fill in historical gaps.
The Indian Center commissioned a full-length, 90-minute documentary that spotlights over two dozen veterans, family members and historians who recount their roles during the war working behind the scenes making airplanes at places such as Cessna Aircraft Co., Boeing Wichita, and Beech Aircraft.
Kindsvatter is among those featured. The film, directed by local filmmaker Doug Robertson, also uses archival footage and photos brought in by community members to explore the roots laid down by Indian families during that era and how they helped shape Wichita’s future. It will play on loop at the museum during normal hours in a shortened 15-minute version and be surrounded by a timeline with images matching up to historical events that were happening around the country.
“The aspect of this story that makes it so significant is that there was a huge need at that time for skilled labor and skilled workers,” Roseke said. “The Indian community, because they had been educated at places like the Chilocco Indian Agricultural School, came with the skills already. They didn’t have to be trained or taught. We got participation that was needed at a time of crisis, and we got highly skilled people that benefited our community.
“They didn’t pick up and leave after the war was over, either. They saw Wichita as a place where they could unite and preserve the histories of their many different tribes. This is a story that’s never been told, and now the families are able to tell it themselves.”