November 13, 2023

The Legacy and Future of Shawnee Indian Manual Labor Boarding School

Between 1819 and 1969, the United States operated more than 400 boarding schools in 37 states designed to culturally assimilate Indigenous children in the United States—a practice of forced labor and mistreatment of children as young as four years old, that often included physical and emotional abuse. Complete erasure of their cultural identity was the goal.

Today, thanks to the work of numerous tribal nations, advocacy groups, and more recently the U.S. Department of Interior (DOI)’s Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative, efforts are being made to draw attention to this dark period in American history. The Shawnee Tribe is leading one such effort at the Shawnee Indian Manual Labor Boarding School in Fairway, Kansas. This school operated between 1839-1862 (though the manual labor curriculum ended in 1854) and is both a National Historic Landmark and a Shawnee Tribe Sacred Site.

photo by: Shawnee Tribe

Exterior view of the Shawnee Indian Manual Labor Boarding School North Building, constructed in 1845.

“The Shawnee Indian Manual Labor Boarding School is a memorial to the struggles and perseverance of the Native youth who attended over 150 years ago,” said Shawnee Chief Ben Barnes. “We can still see carvings on the wall, left in the windowless attics where children were forced to sleep in hot summers and cold winters. These children matter. Their stories matter.”

One critical goal for the Shawnee Tribe is to have the site conveyed—transfer the property—to them. While the Kansas Historical Society owns the land, caretaking for the existing museum and site is currently handled by the City of Fairway. The state of Kansas must agree to convey the land and buildings to the Shawnee Tribe.

The Shawnee Tribe has taken several steps to move the process forward, and in 2021 the National Trust for Historic Preservation awarded the Tribe a grant through the Telling the Full History Preservation Fund—funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities—to help facilitate the process. The Shawnee Tribe used the grant to commission, in part, historic preservation consultant Architectural Resources Group (ARG) to evaluate the physical characteristics and historical context of the site in the form of a Historic Structure Report (HSR), a critical step in the work of preserving the site.

photo by: Shawnee Tribe

Shawnee Tribe Chief Ben Barnes speaks to a crowd gathered outside the East Building at the Shawnee Indian Manual Labor School, to commemorate Orange Shirt Day—a day to honor boarding school survivors, and those that never returned home— on September 30, 2021.

photo by: Shawnee Tribe

Exterior of the Shawnee Indian Manual Labor Boarding School West Building, constructed in 1839.

A New Vision for the Shawnee Indian Manual Labor Boarding School

While the Shawnee Tribe’s present-day headquarters are in Oklahoma, this is only after several forced relocations from their Ohio River valley homelands. Referred to as the “Greatest Travelers in the United States,” this constant movement has made preserving and interpreting ancestral lands and historic places related to the Tribe’s history both a priority and a challenge for the Shawnee. Due to various treaties, they established historic settlements in more than 20 modern states, from Ohio to Oklahoma.

In Kansas, the Shawnee Indian Manual Labor Boarding School site includes one building (East) open to the public and another two (North and West) that are closed and needing significant restoration. The two-story museum, located in the East building, covers some of the history of the site but does so in a rudimentary way that does not reflect the experiences of the youth who were sometimes forced to attend the school. The Shawnee note that the 1975 National Register form (it was designated an NHL in 1968) for the school does not mention the Shawnee Tribe by name, despite stating the building’s significance as an Indian boarding and manual labor school. Today, according to the Tribe, the historic site functions more as a local community center and greenspace than a place teaching Native American or local history.

“The West Building…reportedly the oldest residential building in the state of Kansas…is uninhabitable and in need of extensive repair.”

Conditions Assessment Report of Architectural Resources Group (December 6, 2021).

To date, the Tribe has committed to spending more than $14 million to restore, preserve and re-interpret the site, beginning with the Historic Structure Report (HSR). The Tribe is also committed to including representation of the other tribal nations whose children passed through the school. The Tribe’s vision for the site is one that fosters dialogue about the true history of the school and reconnects present-day locals to the historical Indigenous presence in the area, creating a reawakening of Native language and nurturing an Indigenous renaissance.

The Shawnee plan to restore the site with an accurate historical interpretation of the Indigenous experience of the region at that time and the site’s impact on the affected tribal nations within the context of the broader U.S. Boarding School movement. In addition, the reimagined site would contribute to a fuller representation of the forced migration of the Shawnee Tribe and other tribal nations with historic ties to Kansas, as well as an interpretation of the site after its life as an Indian boarding school.

“Our tribal citizens, myself included, have direct ancestral ties to the school,” said Shawnee Tribal Historic Preservation Officer Tonya Tipton. “But the story of the site is also about westward expansion, what was happening in that region during that era, and its deep history as an Indigenous homeland. It’s important to who we are today and important to the future of the tribal nations affected by its legacy.”

photo by: Shawnee Tribe

Exterior view of the Shawnee Indian Manual Labor Boarding School East Building, constructed in 1841.

Making Strides to Tell the Full Story

As the process to request conveyance moves forward in the Kansas state legislature, the HSR is critical to the preservation process of the Shawnee Indian Manual Labor School. The HSR provided the Shawnee with additional resources that not only tell the site’s rich and complex history, but also provide guidance on further preservation and conservation for further stewardship for the school.

As Seri Worden, senior director of preservation programs at the National Trust said, “the Historic Structures Report for the Shawnee Indian Manual Labor School is essential for the preservation, protection, and understanding of the site’s cultural heritage from an Indigenous perspective. Beyond its immediate purpose of guiding restoration and conservation efforts, it also serves as a framework to enhance public interpretation of the Boarding School, shedding light on its profound impact on the lives of Native American children and families today.”

photo by: Shawnee Tribe

View of some of the scans performed by the Architectural Resource Group during the site assessment of the Shawnee Indian Manual Labor Boarding School.

ARG’s researchers and the Shawnee contract historian located early photographs of the school which helped to document and date alterations to the boarding school dormitories over time. Perhaps one of the most important finds in this process was the identification of correspondence from Shawnee leadership describing concerns related to the treatment and neglect of students. There are few documents in Indigenous voices, making this a critical source in understanding the condition and living conditions at the school, and for the methodologies of the Indian Boarding School program nationwide.

photo by: Shawnee Tribe

A single page of correspondence from Shawnee leadership to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs on February 21, 1860.

An excerpt of the letter reads:

"The fault does not lie in the Indians as reported by Mr. Agent Newson in his 1859 report but in the direction in which the money goes, and the manner in which it has been squandered.

This whole sum is paid out to one man the Rev Thomas Johnson Missionary of the Methodist Episcopal Church, by means of contract with the Society and a sub contract between the Society and him for the purpose of keeping up an Indian manual labor school among the Shawnees, but instead of performing his duties in a just humane and honorable manner, the Shawnee children when sent to the Mission school complain of insufficient and unpalatable food, of neglect in sickness, and in many instances the children have (died) before the parents were ever informed of their sickness, and so little regard was paid to their health and cleanliness that when brought home the children were in many instances covered with body lice."

In step with the findings of the HSR, the Shawnee Tribe announced a multi-year plan to fund three phases of restoration, preservation and reinterpretation, at a cost of between $6.5 million and $15 million. Their plans include preserving the school site and keeping it open to the public.

“This site is crucial to Shawnee history, Kansas state history, and U.S. history,” said Chief Barnes. “We know the local citizens feel very strongly about the fate of this site. The Shawnee feel very strongly about what our children lived through at this site and its present state of disrepair. It needs to be properly maintained in a way that upholds its National Historic Landmark status. And that includes prioritizing its proper restoration and reinterpretation so its full history can educate the public.”

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Margaret Littman is a Nashville-based journalist who tells the stories of people and places. Follow her work on socials @littmanwrites.

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