The First Kansans: The American Indian Experience

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Waconda Springs in Mitchell County, Kansas. Once a sacred gathering place for Native Americans in the area, the springs were developed into a resort and later flooded when Glen Elder Reservoir was constructed.

Thousands of years of American Indian presence in Kansas witnessed the development of a rich and varied group of religious traditions. Generalizations of American Indian religiosity are hazardous; while trade, cultural exchange, and communication between nations was prevalent, numerous nations evolved independent cultures over millennia, shaped by unique relationships with land and lived experience. This resulted in various distinctive Indigenous spiritualties and cultures across the vast North American continent. It may be asserted, however, that most nations had a pervasive sense of the sacred and had well developed beliefs that included origin stories, myths, codes of ethics, and rituals connected to the natural world, calendar, and life cycle.

Pawnee, Osage, the eponymous Kanza, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Kiowa, and Comanche all were present in Kansas before Euroamerican settlement. The Osage and Kanza, native to eastern Kansas, were closely related tribes. According to Osage oral tradition, "the ancestors of the Omaha, Ponka, Kwapa, Kansa, and Osage were at first one family dwelling on the Ohio and Wabash rivers, but gradually wandered westward" (1). This migration saw the division of the nation into individual tribes. The Pawnee, who lived in north-central Kansas and along the Platte River in Nebraska, were long-standing enemies of the Osage and Kanza. The Cheyenne and Arapahoe had their permanent camps in the valleys of the Rocky Mountains, but they spent a great portion of the year migrating to Kansas for annual bison hunts. The Kiowa and Comanche were comparatively late arrivals to southwestern Kansas, and were among some of the first nations to acquire horses after the introduction of the animal to America by the Spanish in the sixteenth century. They quickly became the earliest skilled riders of the Plains.

Native Americans in Kansas suffered wrenching dislocation in the first half of the nineteenth century as a result of United States federal Indian-removal policy. Eastern tribes, especially, were moved to the Trans-Mississippi west; tribes already in the West were often relocated far from their ancestral homes and close to enemy nations. Of the Native Americans indigenous to Kansas, some were moved from the state, while others saw their cultures attacked and their bodies and spirits suffer as a result of encounters with Euroamerican culture and severe governmental policies. During this time, American Indians in Kansas also contended with missionaries sent to evangelize. Indian missions were important to the Catholic Church and to several Protestant denominations; as further pages in this exhibit will demonstrate, Baptists, Methodists, and other denominations had a strong early missionary presence in what is now Kansas. Many of these missions were an important factor in westward expansion:

Missionaries were driven by the notion that Indigenous religions were little more than superstitions preventing Native people from assimilating into civilized society. By contrast, Christianity and the wonders of modernity would liberate them into the modern age. Conveniently, this would also work to open up their homelands for Euroamerican settlement (2).

This map shows the locations of the new or reduced lands of Indian tribes according to the treaties of 1854. With the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, the former Indian Territory was opened to non-Native settlement, and the government looked for ways to relocate the Native tribes who had made their homes in Kansas. To create more land for settlement, George Manypenny, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, negotiated treaties with Indian tribes that ceded much of the Indians' lands to the government. This land could then be sold to settlers. Naturally, these events helped to exacerbate existing tensions between settlers and Native Americans, contributing to the Indian Wars that occupied the U.S. Army during and after the American Civil War.

Jimmy Beason Oral History

Oral history with Jimmy Beason, II conducted by Nicki Joy Karstens in Lawrence, Kansas in November 2018. This interview is conducted with Jimmy Beason, a member of the Osage Nation. Beason discusses the impacts of colonialism, including removal and the boarding school system, on Osage spiritual practices. This interview was conducted for the Religion in Kansas Project as part of semester-long internship with the University of Kansas Department of Religious Studies.

The story of American Indian religions in Kansas does not stop with relocation, missionaries, or the advent of the 20th century. On the contrary, American Indian religions adapted and changed over time as they always have. In the twentieth century, the most important new current in American Indian religion was the rapid expansion of the Native American Church, a religion that spread from a small base in the Southwest to virtually every Native nation in the United States. Controversial because of its ritual use of peyote, a psychoactive cactus, the Native American Church is an important rallying point for contemporary American Indians intent on continuing their culture and identity.

Peyote religion was introduced to North America by the Kiowa and Comanche tribes, and Kansas played a major role in the spreading of peyote religion because of the location of Haskell Native Nations University in Lawrence. At the birth of the Native American Church, many young American Indians came from all over the country to study at Haskell, and found community, acceptance, and deeper connections to spirituality via the Native American Church. Upon returning to their homelands, the students introduced their various nations to the new religion. In recent years, this new American Indian religion, which blends traditional customs and Christian teachings, has doubled its membership to approximately 250,000-300,000 (3). According to Leonard Crow Dog, a peyote roadman in the Native American Church, Christian and Native faiths are compatible if one properly understands the teachings:

We have a Bible here and the peace pipe. Some of the people coming here for this meeting are Catholics, others belong to Protestant churches, some are not even Christians and you my friend, we haven't asked you what you believe. Because in the end, it is all the same. Jesus and Wakan Tanka are the same. God and the White Buffalo Calf Woman, yes, Christ and this stone here in my medicine bundle, the light from that kerosene lamp and the holy spirit -- it's all one and the same. You get it? Eat the peyote, then you'll understand. (4)

Of the Plains Indians, the Osage are recognized as the most dedicated practioners and converts of the Native American Church, which they call Big Moon Peyotism. The two oral histories on this page are from members of the Osage nation, Ed Smith and Jimmy Beason, and discuss their community's traditions, effects of colonialism on Osage religion, efforts for language and cultural revitalization, and contemporary religious practices.

Ed Smith Oral History

Oral history with Ed Smith conducted by Nicki Joy Karstens in Lawrence, Kansas in November 2018. This interview is conducted with Ed Smith, a member of the Osage Nation. Smith discusses Osage spiritual practices, current language and cultural revitalization movements in the Osage Nation. This interview was conducted for the Religion in Kansas Project as part of semester-long internship with the University of Kansas Department of Religious Studies.

Recent decades have seen a powerful resurgence of culture in Native American societies. While in general many American Indians believe that a return to traditional religion is not possible, and a majority of them are members of Christian churches, the recapture of Indian identity, languages, and the preservation of oral tradition with sacred stories and tribal histories are paramount in many tribes. This looks different for different groups:

Each of these communities has its own history, tradition, worldview, language and dialect, and each has its own understanding of what it means to be Indigenous, how to honor the sacred, and how to go about doing the work of being an ethical person in the world. For some, this means reclaiming the traditions of their ancestors. For others, it means creating their own individual blend of popular culture, Christianity, intertribal ceremonies, and family traditions (5).

These new and old traditions are ways for Indigenous peoples to reclaim identity and heal wounds of relocation and acculturation wrought by colonialism. The ceremonial fires are being rekindled by new Native cultural caretakers, both figuratively and literally. 

Parts of this exhibit page were adapted from "The First Kansans: The American Indian Experience" by Rebecca Laws in "Religious Kansas: Chapters in a History." Read the entire chapter on American Indian faith in Kansas by clicking on the link. 

1. Phillip Dickerson, History of the Osage Nation. (n.p.:1906), 3.

2.Suzanne Crawford O'Brien with Ines Talamantez, Religion and Culture in Native America. (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2021), 184.

3.Guy Mount Ed., The Peyote Book: A Study of Native Medicine. Third Edition (Cottonwood, CA: Sweetlight Books, 1993), 35.

4. Ibid., 48.

5. Suzanne Crawford O'Brien with Ines Talamantez, Religion and Culture in Native America. (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2021), 2.

The First Kansans: The American Indian Experience