Previous tenants

I live in a fairly quiet neighborhood in a medium-sized college town in the northeast corner of Kansas, with a population just under 100,000. This corner of our state is unlike much of the rest of the state–we are in a lush, green, hilly corner of a state that is often characterized as flat, boring farmland–the heart of “fly-over” country.* My property consists of just over half an acre of land on the west side of town, a location that was once the west edge of the city, but is now more like the middle. My house is a modest, split-level, mid-century modern dwelling, built sometime around 1959. I believe that we are only the second owners of this house, which we bought from a friend.

I’m going to be doing some light construction soon–some modifications to my home. In the process of planning for this work, I need to make a drawing of the property and planned improvements to send to the appropriate agency within our city government, since I will need building permits. There is an online, interactive geographic map available here that provides me with much of the information I need.

That map also allows me to view satellite (or aerial) images of my neighborhood from 2019 all the way back to before this neighborhood existed. In 1949, there were no houses in this area; by 1959, the whole area had been developed.

As I looked at the 1949 aerial image I began to wonder who owned this parcel of land before it was purchased by a developer and turned into a housing development; but that spawned another, weightier question–I wonder who lived here before white men came and claimed the land as their own?

Was the land where my house stands today once dotted with teepees or lodges and campfires? Or was this hunting ground that was once roamed and grazed by herds of buffalo, or antelope? (I don’t even have to wonder about deer–they are still here, in abundance.) Surely First Nations people lived here, walked here, hunted here–what were their names and tribes? If I were to dig around a bit in the soil, would I find flint arrowheads or other artifacts of their existence? What was it like when they lost this land to white settlers? Were they simply driven off, or were they intentionally relocated to a reservation somewhere far away? Did they leave under the threat of violence? Did they receive anything in return for being moved off of the land?

The answers to some of those questions are not hard to find. The indigenous people of what is now the northeast quadrant of the state of Kansas were the Kaw People, or the tribe known as the Kanza (or Kansa) Indians. Their tribal lands, shared with other First Nations people groups, such as the Oto, the Pawnee, the Omaha and the Ponca Indians, extended across most of northern present-day Kansas, into much of Nebraska, and further north, into central South Dakota. The Kaw are descended from members of several Dhegiha tribes, all part of the Siouan language group, who lived in the Ohio River valley east of the Mississippi, in what is now the southern tip of Illinois, until the mid-17th century. About that time, some of these tribes migrated westward (probably having been displaced by white European settlers), with each group splitting off along the way and occupying a different region west of the Mississippi River. The Kaw people first established a large village on a bluff along the Missouri River in the area of present-day Doniphan, Kansas, which is just west of St. Joseph, Missouri. A French explorer named Bourgmont was apparently the first European to visit the village of the Kaw people, in 1724. By 1804, when the Lewis and Clark expedition passed by on the Missouri, only the remains of the Kaw village were there, as the Kaw had relocated farther to the southwest, near the junction of two rivers, known today as the Big Blue River and the Kansas River, near present-day Manhattan, Kansas. This may have been so they could be a little closer to the large herds of buffalo that are known to have roamed the Flint Hills.

The Kaw people established trading relationships with surrounding tribes, including the Pawnee, the Oto, the Ponca and others, but they must have had contentious relationships with most of them, because they were attacked from time to time by tribes more numerous and powerful than they were. By the early 1800s, their numbers were considerably reduced, to about 1500 people, and only 300 of them were men.

In 1811 an explorer, merchant and Indian agent named George Sibley visited the Kaw settlement and reported that there were 128 large lodges there, each one about 60 feet long and 25 feet wide. The Kaw men lived in the village only about half of the year, and traveled to western Kansas to hunt buffalo and to engage in trade with other tribes (and sometimes white people) during the other half. Sibley noted that the Kaw were seldom at peace with other tribes, except for the Osage, with whom they seemed to get along well.

The Louisiana Territory purchase of 1803 had moved more native tribes westward into the Kansas territory, and the Kaw found themselves increasingly boxed in by other Indian nations. In 1825, the Kaw sold a huge parcel of land, stretching across northeastern Kansas and northwestern Missouri to the U.S. government in return for an annuity of $3,500 per year for 20 years, to be paid in goods and services, but the payment was quite often late or never made it to the Kaw tribe, often intercepted by shady local government officials and merchants.

Two smallpox epidemics, in 1827 and 1831, decimated the tribe, killing about 500, and a disastrous flood in 1844 destroyed most of the tribe’s crops, leaving them with few options for survival–so they sold over 2 million acres of their land for $200,000 plus a reservation of about 250,000 acres near Council Grove, which proved to be a terrible location for them, where they were ravaged by attacks from other tribes, and by traders, merchants and settlers traveling the Santa Fe Trail. By 1860, the Kaw reservation was overrun by white settlers, and reduced to 80,000 acres.

The Civil War came in 1861, and about 70 young Kaw men were either convinced or forced to join the Union army–about a third of them were killed in the war, which further reduced the already-decimated tribe. In 1873, white settlers finally forced the Kaw out of their lands and they were moved south to a tiny corner of a large reservation in Oklahoma.

In the early 20th century, the U.S. government abolished the tribal government of the Kaw people, and divided the reservation among the 247 remaining members, in the form of small homesteads of roughly 400 acres. Most either lost their land or sold it, and most of the remaining tribal lands were immersed by the creation of Oklahoma’s Kaw Lake in the 1960s, east of Ponca City. In 2000, the remaining members of the tribe bought a small bit of land near Council Grove, Kansas to commemorate the tribe with a park called Allegawaho Memorial Heritage Park. The last native speaker of the Kansa language died in 1983, and the last full-blooded Kaw Indian died in 2000.

I cannot help but mourn the fact that this people group was treated so badly by the U.S. government. I cannot help but mourn the fact that white European settlers managed to eradicate entire cultures and nations of people, taking advantage of them in the most crass, cruel and heartless ways. (My little half-acre is apparently worth more in 2020 dollars than what the U.S. government paid the Kaw people for millions of acres.)

Legally, I own this land and the house that sits on it. I pay my property taxes, the deed is in my name, and yet I cannot help but recognize that there is something fundamentally wrong behind all of this.

Maybe this just “is what it is” (a phrase which I am coming to dislike more and more), and all I can do is simply acknowledge the wrong that was done and do my best to not let this be forgotten, and to make every effort to work for justice to be done. Without a doubt, I need to do my part to try to learn and understand this season in the history of the country I call home–these are chapters of our history that I was not really taught in school, but the history has been recorded, and I can read. And I’m sure there is more I can do.

In any case, I’m sitting with this for a while, because this needs to sink in.

*In fact, the state of Kansas is not merely flat farmland. It is, in fact, a state that has a broad range of ecosystems. Drive from northeast to southwest through the state and you will find everything from green, forested hills, to gently rolling hills with few trees and lush pastures, to the high plains with hundreds of thousands of acres of wheat, corn, soybeans, milo and more, to almost desert-like areas in the extreme southwest, where the winds never cease and tumbleweeds four and five feet across are a common sight. Travel from southeast to northwest and you’ll find a similar broad range of geography, while the elevation increases from less than 700 hundred feet above sea level in the southeast to over 4,000 feet (Mount Sunflower) in the northwest. Kansas is quite beautiful, and I heartily recommend you come see for yourself.

Alabama, 1954

Pierce Pettis’ song, “Alabama, 1959” (from his outstanding 2004 album, Great Big World), is a wistful, melancholy, achingly beautiful song about growing up in Alabama in the 1950s. The lyrics thoughtfully mix nostalgia for a childhood lived in a bygone era with references to the segregation that was simply part of the culture, and a mournful violin part throughout the song evokes both a sense of loss and longing for that time, and also an acknowledgment of the injustice of those days. (It is among my favorite Pierce Pettis songs, and I advise you to go find it and give it a listen or two.

The lyrics are both nostalgic and a stark picture of the segregation and racism of that era and that region:

Football games beneath the lights
No one ever dared to cross the color line
Black faces watched through the fence outside
Alabama 1959

Don’t use that word, my mother said
It isn’t Christian–call them colored folks instead
So I learned to be polite
Alabama 1959

As I think about hearing that song for the first time not long after the album’s release, I have to confess that I am embarrassed that has taken me so long to thoughtfully consider and confront the reality of the world and culture that I was born into in 1954. I, too, was born in Alabama, at the WAC hospital at Aniston–my father was a corporal in the Army Corps of Engineers, working as a draftsman at the Redstone Arsenal. He was discharged a few months after I was born, and immediately moved us to Kansas–I have not been back to Alabama even once since I was six months old. But in recent years, I’ve decided I really need to go back there.

I have thought very little about Alabama over the years–I remember the George Wallace presidential runs, I watched the civil rights struggle play out on television, and it isn’t like I forgot I was born there, but it has only been recently that I confronted the reality that I was born in a place and at a time when there were whites-only water fountains and restrooms and when segregation was being vigorously debated (the Brown v. Board of Education case was decided in 1954). (I asked my dad recently if the hospital where I was born had whites-only restrooms and water fountains. He told me he didn’t think so, because I was born in a WAC hospital in Aniston at Fort McClellan–my dad was in the Army Corps of Engineers, serving at the Redstone Arsenal near Hunstville–and President Truman had signed an executive order in 1948 requiring equal treatment and opportunity for all in the military. Real integration in the military would not be a reality for many years, of course, but at least the bathrooms and fountains were probably shared, on-base.)

A couple of years ago I heard a talk by Bryan Stevenson, the director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama and the author of the book, Just Mercy, and the subject of a recently-released docu-drama film with the same name. Stevenson is a lawyer who has worked many years for reforms in the criminal justice system, and helped to obtain justice for prisoners who were wrongly accused and incarcerated. Stevenson also headed the effort to develop the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery. The Memorial is an effort to tell the story of the lynchings that took place primarily in the South between 1877 and 1950. Stevenson’s description of the Memorial (which had not yet opened at that time) deeply moved me.

With the Memorial and the museum, EJI not only shines light on the horror and the injustice of the lynchings, but the staff have also done considerable work to identify as many of the victims as possible, to help shed light on this gruesome and shameful period in American history, to make it personal, in effect, so that the names of these men (and women) will not be forgotten.

I feel very much like I am being drawn to Montgomery–the word “pilgrimage” has often come to mind. I feel I am being drawn there, perhaps by a sense of regret or remorse or sadness, but also out of a desire to simply face the truth about our nation’s history, or maybe even to own it, to some degree, as a sin of my country.

I was taught that slavery was merely an aberration, a sad and regrettable error that had been recognized and corrected. I was always taught that my country was founded by pilgrims who sought religious freedom, and then freedom from the tyranny of the King of England. The fact that my country was built on stolen land and stolen labor was essentially swept under the carpet. I did not learn about the laws that systematized racism in my country from the beginning. Now it seems obvious to me that the resistance to the removal of statues and monuments that honor the Confederacy, and the increasingly brazen demonstrations by white nationalists and the so-called “alt-right” since the 2016 elections are indicators of the persistence of a deeply-rooted racism and white supremacy in this country (and almost certainly a backlash against the two-term Obama presidency).

So I will go to Montgomery one day. I need to see the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. I don’t know what I expect to happen, or to feel. There is certainly a part of me that doesn’t really want to confront the ugly truth, for fear that the horror of it will be unbearable–a sure sign of “white fragility” in me, I know. But there is another part of me that simply wants to sit for a time in this reality, to contemplate the injustice that is intertwined with my own past, and to shed at least some portion of my ignorance.

And I imagine there will be weeping.

*Lyrics quoted from “Alabama, 1959,” by Pierce Pettis, ℗ 2004 Compass Records.