FAIRWAY, Kan. -- The grounds of a former Native American boarding school in Kansas will be searched to determine if any Indigenous children were buried there, state officials said.
The Kansas Historical Society, which owns the site in Fairway, is contracting with the University of Kansas Center for Research to conduct a ground-penetrating radar survey of the 12 acres (nearly 5 hectares) to search for unmarked graves, The Kansas City Star reported.
The current Shawnee Indian Mission historical site was one of hundreds of schools run by the government and religious groups in the 1800s and 1900s. Thousands of Native American children were forcibly taken from their homes and placed in such schools, with a goal of assimilating them into white American culture and Christianity.
The U.S. Interior Department announced last year that it was investigating the nation's treatment of Native American children at the boarding schools. A federal report released in May identified more than 500 student deaths at the institutions, but officials said that figure was expected to grow into the thousands as research continues.
Leaders of the Shawnee Tribe and other tribes had requested a search of the Fairway site. But tribal officials said in a statement that they were not consulted about the Historical Society's project proposal before it was announced.
“We have requested formal consultation to address serious concerns about the motives of this project, potential deficiencies in the process that may render incomplete findings, and what plans may be for utilizing any results from the project,” the tribe said.
Patrick Zollner, executive director of the historical society, responded that the Shawnee Tribe was the “first to know” about the project proposal. He said the society also contacted other tribes, including the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, Kaw Nation, Osage Nation and others.
Shawnee Tribe leaders said they are concerned in part because it is unclear whether any children were buried on the mission’s current site, which is much smaller than the original property of nearly 2,000 acres (809 hectares). They also are concerned that the project is moving too quickly before the tribe’s concerns can be addressed, spokeswoman Maggie Boyett said.
Zollner and Erinn Barcomb-Peterson, a spokeswoman with the University of Kansas, emphasized that consultation with the tribes is ongoing and that work will not proceed until that process is completed.
A proposed contract for the ground study states that the historical society and the university will coordinate with tribes and other entities requesting consultation on the project. Under the contract, field work could be completed next April, with a report submitted next summer.
The Shawnee Indian Methodist Manual Labor School was started at its present site in 1939 by Thomas Johnson, a Methodist minister for whom Johnson County was later named. At one point, it had 16 buildings and nearly 200 students a year who ranged in age from 5 to 23.