Pieces of their past have been sitting in a window in Towanda for four years. This week, members of the Wichita tribe will pick them up and take them home.
The artifacts include a five-foot replica of a grass lodge, the sort of structure that the Wichita lived in along the banks of the Little Arkansas and Arkansas rivers in the mid-1800s.
They also include 15 painted figurines, some of them representing humans, with ancient tribal markings.
The artifacts were created by Wichita tribe member Frank Miller and his wife in the 1930s. The tribe, which has never seen them, is eager to claim them.
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"Our tribe is small, and it's important to preserve all of that for our children and grandchildren to know who we are and how we lived," said Loretta Partridge, a member of the Wichita who has researched the tribe's history and culture.
"It's a way to maintain who we are."
Legislation passed by Congress in 1990 requires museums and universities that receive federal funding to identify certain types of Native American artifacts in their collections and consider returning them if requested by a tribe.
The law covers human remains, funereal and sacred objects, and artifacts that have historical, traditional or cultural importance.
The Towanda Area Historical Museum doesn't receive federal funding and isn't required to return artifacts.
What makes its actions unusual is that it sought out the Wichita tribe and offered to return the items.
Native American artifacts are becoming highly collectible.
"We didn't have to give these things back," said Hank Burchard, the Towanda museum treasurer. "But it is the only thing that crossed our mind. We could have sold it on eBay, but we wouldn't want to do that. We wouldn't sell it for a profit or anything like that."
History of artifacts
Several representatives of the tribe that gave our city its name will travel from their headquarters in Anadarko, Okla., to Towanda's historical museum on Thursday to take possession of these items.
The museum received them in 2006 from the Butler County History Center, which had had them for nearly half a century after they were donated by Charles Heilmann, an El Dorado judge. The Butler County center gave them to Towanda after its focus shifted over the years to the farming and ranching industries.
Eventually, Towanda's museum board decided the exhibit was taking up badly needed space in its century-old building. Rather than selling the artifacts or donating them to another museum, they contacted the tribe.
"We had no room for it," said Burchard of the museum. "We thought about moving it upstairs, but we can't get it upstairs. It's too wide. We just don't have no room for it."
The tribe will try to incorporate the artifacts into display cases in Anadarko that already are filled with artifacts. The cases line a meeting room in its administrative building. The Wichita hope someday to build a separate museum from casino profits.
The figurines will be added to displays of ancient Wichita tools, clothing, musical instruments, and items used in ceremonial rituals.
It isn't known yet where the grass lodge will be placed.
Members of the Miller family also built a grass lodge on Mead Island in 1927, which burned down in the 1950s, and a lodge for the Mid-America All-Indian Center in 2000.
The Wichita, descendants of the Quivira Indians, settled at the confluence of the Arkansas and Little Arkansas rivers in an area between what is now Murdock and 13th Street in 1864 after Confederate troops forced them to leave their reservations in Oklahoma.
According to tribal history, they had no land to farm here and few friends. Starvation and illness reduced their population from 1,500 to 822 when they returned to Oklahoma after the Civil War. Today, the tribe has 2,540 members.
J.R. Mead, an early Wichita developer, suggested naming the city after the tribe.
Ancestor remains handled differently
The Wichita and other Indian tribes that lived throughout the area left behind many arrowheads, but the Towanda museum is keeping its arrowheads, which were collected near the Whitewater River.
The Wichita tribe said it rarely accepts arrowheads anyway, because it has no room for them.
"There could be thousands," said Stratford Williams, Wichita vice president.
Nor does the tribe often accept skeletal remains of its ancestors.
Kansas has many of those from the Wichita and other tribes. Rows of wooden boxes containing some 100 human remains — bones or full skeletons — taken from original graves and burial sites through the years by scientists and archaeologists, sit in a darkened, locked room on the first floor of the Kansas State Historical Society.
In the 20 years since the federal government banned the display of Indian remains and associated sacred objects and ordered them returned to tribes for re-burial, there have been efforts to return the remains, but still the bodies lie waiting.
The law, known as the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, provides a process for museums and federal agencies to return certain Native American cultural items — human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony — to lineal descendants, culturally affiliated Indian tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations.
The Wichita tribe doesn't take artifacts that might have been used in burial ceremonies, and it doesn't like to move skeletal remains that have been buried.
Williams works in an office in Anadarko that is filled with file cabinets crammed with information about ancestral remains.
He said the tribe has no room for the many ancestral bones it has been notified about, and it is notified about them almost daily.
The tribe has a small cemetery and needs the space to bury current members. Some families may not want to be buried with ancient remains.
"This family may, this family may not — so we've kind of backed off," Williams said.
The tribe avoids artifacts associated with burials, he said, "because we don't know exactly what kind of people they were. They could've been medicine people, or chiefs we weren't supposed to be doing anything with."
Also, the government doesn't fund tribal programs for dealing with remains, and the Wichita, like most tribes, have a difficult time funding them on their own, Williams said.
But artifacts like those in Towanda are more than welcome.
"We're anxious to get them," Partridge said.