Kanza people returning to sacred land near Council Grove

The dance arbor at Allegawaho Memorial Heritage Park near Council Grove. The Kaw Nation, or Kanza Indians, for whom the state of Kansas was named, are planning to host powwows on the site.
The dance arbor at Allegawaho Memorial Heritage Park near Council Grove. The Kaw Nation, or Kanza Indians, for whom the state of Kansas was named, are planning to host powwows on the site. Courtesy of Kaw Nation

For the first time in 142 years, Kanza people will dance on their own land in Kansas.

On Saturday, members of the Kaw Nation are scheduled to perform native dances under a dance arbor at the Allegawaho Memorial Heritage Park about 3 1/2 miles south of Council Grove.

The Kaw Nation’s mission is to once again establish a presence in Kansas and create a gathering place to educate, promote and preserve the heritage of the American Indians for whom the state of Kansas is named.

“This is significant because that was the site of the last Kanza villages in Kansas before our removal into Indian Territory in 1873,” said Pauline Sharp of Wichita, vice president of the cultural committee for the Kaw Nation. “This was where our ancestors lived, and I think if you talk with any Kaw tribal member who has gone out to the park, it has a special feeling.

“You can feel the ancestors there. It is a very special place.”

Centuries ago, the Kaw claimed a territory that covered roughly two-fifths of modern Kansas and parts of Nebraska and Missouri. But by the mid-19th century, as European settlers claimed more and more land around Council Grove, the Kaw Nation was forced into what is now Oklahoma. It ended up just across the Kansas line, near Newkirk and Ponca City.

In 1873, when the tribe was forced from Kansas, it had fewer than 500 members. By 1902, fewer than 200 were on the tribal rolls. Today, the Kaw Nation has nearly 3,500 members.

Building a relationship

On Feb. 28, 2000, the Kaw Nation was able to purchase 146.8 acres of land along the Little John Creek near Council Grove. Two years later, it dedicated 168 acres as Allegawaho Memorial Heritage Park.

A two-mile trail winds through a timbered valley and follows Little John Creek. In the trees are remains of the 138 limestone huts the government built for the Kanza in 1862. Very few remain today.

A monument on the property stands as a tribute to an Unknown Kanza Warrior.

The park also is the site of the Kaw Agency building where Chief Allegawaho pleaded with government officials to let his people remain in Kansas. He told them:

“Great Father, you whites treat us Kanza like a flock of turkeys. You chase us to one stream, then you chase us to another stream. Soon you will chase us over the mountains and into the ocean.”

The Kaw, or Kansa, people lived in three villages southeast of Council Grove from 1848 until their removal. The Kaw Mission, Council Grove’s oldest stone structure, showcases the heritage of the Kaw, the Santa Fe Trail and early Council Grove.

In recent decades, the Kanza have worked with local residents to re-establish ties in Kansas. For the past 40 years, Council Grove has hosted Washunga Days in June to celebrate the Kaw legacy to the community. Washunga was chief of the Kanza from 1873 until 1908.

“We have only been in Oklahoma for the past 142 years,” Sharp said. “We were in Kansas for 375 years. We were in Kansas a lot longer than we have been in Oklahoma.

“Kansas … is a sacred place.”

Help from Kansas

A few years ago, Sharp said, Kansas tourism and government officials approached the Kaw asking what Kansas could do to help the Kaw Nation meet its goal of establishing a presence in Kansas.

Two years ago, the Kaw Nation was awarded a $350,000 matching grant from the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks & Tourism for a dance arbor and other improvements to the Council Grove park.

With the arbor, it is hoped the Kaw Nation can also help bring in cultural arts and crafts into the Flint Hills region, said Jason Murray, president of the Kansas project and a member of the Kaw National Tribal Council.

“We met with the governor (Sam Brownback) and tourism officials who wanted us to come back,” said Murray of Blackwell, Okla. “There was a lot of conversation about how tourism is a business in Kansas and how the Kaw Nation could help bring tourism and marketing into Kansas.

“We think people will want to come and watch us dance and bring business to Council Grove.”

Ideally, Murray said, the Kaw Nation would like to hold events at the park a few times a year.

“We are anxious to go back to the place where our ancestors were and dance,” Murray said.

Reach Beccy Tanner at 316-268-6336 or Follow her on Twitter: @beccytanner.

Dedication ceremony for Kaw Nation park improvements

The ceremony to dedicate a new dance arbor, campsites and trails at Allegawaho Memorial Heritage Park starts at 3 p.m. Saturday. The park is 3 1/2 miles south of Council Grove on Dunlap Road, then a half-mile east on X Avenue.

American Indian dancers are scheduled to dance at 3:30 p.m. Visitors are encouraged to bring lawn chairs.

Related stories from Wichita Eagle