TOPEKA, Kan. — Lawmakers in Topeka are reviewing a bill that could return sacred land in Johnson County back to the Shawnee Tribe.
Tuesday, the Senate Federal and State Affairs Committee held a public hearing to review SB405. The bill would transfer ownership of the Shawnee Indian Cemetery in from the Kansas Historical Society to the Shawnee Tribe.
The cemetery is located in a residential neighborhood roughly two blocks east of 59th Terrace and Nieman Road.
Democratic Rep. Ponka-We Victors is a member of the Ponca Tribe and the Tohono O’odham Nation of Arizona. She said her great grandmothers’ little brother is buried at the Haskell Indian Nations University. Victors said he was removed from his home at the age of 10, sent to a boarding school and passed away at the school a year later.
“It still hurts and we want him home, back to the Ponca Tribe. This is why I am here today to support this bill. Let them take care of their own,” Victors said.
Although she is not a member of the Shawnee Tribe, Victors said transferring the land back to the tribe will allow them to pay proper respect to their ancestors.
“Every tribe has their own cultural traditions that go along to protect these sacred sites and take care of them. It’s only right that the Shawnee Tribe takes that role and takes care of their people, their ancestors,” Victors said.
The half-acre lot is the burial site of many significant tribe members including Moses Silverheels, Chief Joseph Parks and the family of Chief Charles Bluejacket. Shawnee Tribe Chief Ben Barnes estimates roughly 20-30 people are buried at the site.
“This may seem a small matter for this committee, but for us this is truly a historic and sacred event,” Barnes said.
Barnes said if the land were transferred back to the tribe, the site would remain a final resting place for members of the tribe.
“We believe human beings have inherent rights, and there are certain inherent rights that all human beings share. Those even go on once we leave this world and go onto the next world,” Barnes said. “One of the things we can do is be a speaker for the dead and to represent their families and their stories in a way that honors them and to make that space available. To keep it in our hearts and among our nation in a way that we uplift the families of Parks, Silverheels and of course Bluejacket.
If the bill is approved, the land transfer would go into effect on July 1. There is no purchase price for the land transfer, however the Shawnee Tribe would be responsible for paying fees associated with recording the deed.
No one spoke in opposition to the proposed bill Tuesday. The commission will likely vote on the advancement of the bill later this week.