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Tonganoxie Community Historical Society: ‘Living Sovereignty’ exhibit on display this month (Announcement)

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Note: The Lawrence Times is offering some space for area organizations and organizers to express their views, provide updates and attempt to reach other folks who might share their mission. This post is contributed content (i.e., not produced by the Times staff). See more in our Community Voices section, or see how to submit your own piece.

Members of the Tonganoxie Community Historical Society hosted an opening reception April 5 to celebrate a new exhibit, “Living Sovereignty: Sustaining Indigenous Autonomy in ‘Indian Territory’ Kansas.”

A standing-room-only crowd came to view the exhibit and listen to Judith Manthe, Principal Chief of the Wyandot Nation of Kansas, talk about what sovereignty means to the Wyandot Nation and to her personally. She was joined by fellow Wyandot members, Holly Zane, acting director of Freedom’s Frontier, and Kristen Zane, Freedom’s Frontier board member. 

Manthe spoke about the history of the Wyandot, a matriarchal nation, and a peaceful nation. The Wyandot have been involved in legal struggles for more than 100 years, working to keep the Huron Cemetery, also known as the Wyandotte National Burial Grounds, in current day downtown Kansas City, Kansas intact.

Manthe was most eloquent when she described the benefits of working alongside other brothers and sisters of the Wandat Nations, including the peoples of Wendake of Quebec, Wyandots of Anderton, Detroit, and the Wyandotte Nation in Oklahoma. Creating a safe place for ancestors filled an empty place in her heart that she had not known was there. 

Contributed photo Judith Manthe, Principal Chief of the Wyandot Nation of Kansas, speaks during a reception April 5, 2022 hosted by the Tonganoxie Community Historical Society.

Steve Nowak, director of the Watkins Museum of History in Lawrence, also spoke about the development of the traveling exhibit. Living Sovereignty began as an assignment for a group of students in a Museum Exhibit class in 2018.  

The students were charged with developing a proposal for a traveling exhibit for Freedom’s Frontier, a National Heritage Area based in Lawrence. Freedom’s Frontier liked the proposal and wanted to pursue its completion. The student project managers formed an advisory group of students and faculty from Haskell Indian Nations University to work with them on the exhibit text. 

The Watkins Museum of History in Lawrence provided experienced staff to assist the students, edited the text, and found a KU student with graphic design experience to design the exhibit panels. Freedom’s Frontier provided the funding for the manufacture of the exhibit panels.

Contributed photo Steve Nowak, director of the Watkins Museum of History in Lawrence, speaks during a reception April 5, 2022 hosted by the Tonganoxie Community Historical Society.

The exhibit is titled “Living Sovereignty: Sustaining Indigenous Autonomy in ‘Indian Territory’ Kansas.” It consists of eight panels, each of which presents a piece of the long and complicated history of Indigenous peoples in Missouri and Kansas. The information is presented succinctly — the subject matter has filled volumes and will continue to fill volumes, as it is a current topic.

The exhibit presents the names used by the various tribes juxtaposed with the names written in English. The exhibit seamlessly presents historic encounters and creation stories, legal conflicts and artistic expression.  

Put simply, sovereignty is a group’s right to self-rule. As independent nations existing for generations before European and American settlement, Indigenous peoples embodied sovereignty. Throughout the history of interactions between the United States government and Indigenous nations and tribes, maintaining sovereignty and self-government has been a challenge that continues today. 

Living Sovereignty explores the histories of the tribal peoples who populated Kansas and the ways they found to express their sovereignty and maintain cultural identity.

The exhibit is premiering at the Tonganoxie Community Historical Society & Museum until the end of April. It is fitting that the exhibit premieres in Tonganoxie, a town that was named in 1866 in honor of a Delaware man who lived here from the early 1830s into the early 1860s. Tonganoxie is also located in the heart of the land that made up the last Delaware Reservation, before the Delaware were relocated to Oklahoma in 1866. 

Volunteer Joy Lominska took on the task of creating a companion exhibit to the traveling exhibit that focuses on the Delaware. A letter written to the Department of the Interior on Feb. 3, 1864, during treaty negotiations to determine the future of the Delaware ends with this sentence – “Before the government of the United States was formed, we were a nation and for time to come, as far as human mind can conceive, we wish to be a nation.” John Moses, Delaware Reservation, Feb. 3, 1864 

The exhibit will be on display at the Tonganoxie Museum through April 30. After that, the exhibit is booked at the venues listed below:

  • Old Depot Museum, Ottawa — opens in May
  • Miami County Museum, Paola — opens in July
  • Bushwhacker Museum, Nevada, Missouri — opens in October
  • Watkins Museum, Lawrence — opens in November

— Tonganoxie Community Historical Society is a private nonprofit organization founded in 1981 with the purpose of preserving history, especially the history of Tonganoxie and the surrounding area. The Society has a specific mission to collect, identify, record, preserve, and display materials which will help to establish and illustrate the history of the greater Tonganoxie community. Learn more at this link.

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