TOPEKA — Shawnee Tribe Chief Ben Barnes marked adoption of Orange Shirt Day by memorializing the estimated 40,000 Indigenous children buried in unmarked graves at residential boarding schools across the United States.
He said there was an opportunity to collaborate with local, state and federal officials to determine whether Native American children were buried at the Shawnee Mission Indian Boarding School in what is now Fairway. A comprehensive national investigation of the American strategy of assimilating First Nations children through the guise of boarding school education is essential and requires significant investment, he said.
“For far too long, the truth about Indian boarding schools has been absent from national conversations,” the chief said. “Others may have forgotten, but America’s tribal nations have not. Survivors’ stories have been handed down from generation to generation, and the stories of those who did not survive are coming to light.”
“We urge every American to honor boarding school survivors and the memory of the children who never made it home,” he said. “It is my moral obligation to search for these children and, if we find them here, to honor them properly.”
During a news conference Thursday at the Shawnee Indian Mission State Historic Site, Barnes said the Shawnee Tribe had started to explore technological issues of scanning the mission property with ground-penetrating radar to uncover what history might lie beneath.
Construction of what was called Shawnee Indian Manual Labor School began in the 1830s with Methodist missionaries receiving 2,000 acres of Shawnee reservation land on which to build it. Children resided at the mission into the 1860s.
Several mission buildings remain on a 12-acre national historic landmark managed by the city of Fairway and owned by the Kansas State Historical Society. Visitors can see dormitories where children slept in a windowless attic after working on mission property.
Barnes said there was much to learn about the Shawnee mission’s operational history. Finding answers for Shawnee people is deeply personal because descendants of the children are friends and family, he said.
“Who were the children that resided here? What were their names, and what were their stories? What were the conditions here? How many of these children never returned to their families? And when they died, where were they buried?” the chief said.
Barnes said the U.S. government should commit to work with tribal nations to examine every residential school run by the federal government and those brokered by federal Indian agents, including the Shawnee Mission School.
“This will be a long journey,” the chief said. “And we may find ourselves confronting very unpleasant truths. But sunlight is the best disinfectant, and only through meaningful collaboration and confronting the true history of the federal Indian boarding school programs, will this country find reconciliation and healing.”
Orange Shirt Day is a Canadian holiday of remembrance for victims of the Canadian residential school system. The observance began in 2013 to promote awareness of how forced assimilation impacted Indigenous communities in Canada. It was inspired by accounts of Phyllis Jack Webstad, who had her orange shirt taken from her during her first day of residential schooling.
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