When Gov. Sam Brownback signed a proclamation last month apologizing to Native Americans for the wrongs committed against them, most Kansans hardly noticed.
The media reported it in a perfunctory manner, registering little of the historical significance of the proclamation, which acknowledged that the state of Kansas has been complicit in atrocities against native peoples. This history includes a litany of massacres, broken treaties and forced relocations.
Although Brownback has labored relentlessly in his mission to square the historical record, his personal investment went unremarked in most news accounts of the state proclamation signing.
As a U.S. senator, Brownback worked to pass a federal resolution in 2009 that contained national recognition of the American government’s mistreatment of Native Americans.
For these efforts, which are demonstrations of conscience with little political payoff, Brownback is to be commended.
Kansas is home to four reservations — those of the Sac and Fox, Kickapoo, Iowa and Prairie Band Potawatomi — and Brownback follows the example of at least two other Kansas politicians who worked to better the circumstances of Native Americans living in Kansas.
Gov. Joan Finney helped the Kickapoo implement a state-tribal gaming compact during the early 1990s. Before her, U.S. Sen. James Pearson secured funding for construction of the Kickapoo’s water-treatment plant.
Nearly 35 years after Pearson visited the reservation to announce that $1.7 million federal grant, the Kickapoo need help again. The water-treatment plant is out of date and the Kickapoo need to build a reservoir. Without an expanded water supply, the tribe cannot attract economic development to the reservation and, in 2005, had to turn down a state grant for new housing.
The water issue has put the Kickapoo at odds with the Nemaha-Brown Watershed board, which has declined to exercise its power of eminent domain so that the tribe might acquire 1,000 acres of privately owned land for the reservoir. The Kickapoo lined up the money and obtained environmental permits but can’t close the deal without eminent domain.
For the past five years, the tribe, which came to Kansas in 1833, has litigated the issue in federal court, asserting that its water rights predate the state’s. Steve Cadue, the Kickapoo’s tribal chairman, would like to see Brownback, whom he regards as a man of honor and integrity, take the lead in resolving this conflict.
“We accepted the apology, but it’s not all about the past; it’s about the future,” Cadue told me. “We’re working hard and we have faith in our Creator that we will prosper in the generations to come.”
Perhaps Brownback and Cadue aren’t that far apart on this issue.
In his proclamation, Brownback opened the door to future cooperation between the tribes and state government: “I resolve we will move forward with the recognized tribes in a positive and constructive relationship that will help us fairly and effectively resolve differences to achieve our mutual goals.…”
For Brownback, whose good faith on Native American matters is well-established, the Kickapoo water dispute offers an opportunity to put that sentiment into action.