Wyandots Seek Tribal Status

By Mike Belt
Reprinted with permission by the Kansas City Kansan
Sunday April 16, 1995

For more than a hundred years there have been attempts to alter or move the Huron Indian Cemetery in downtown Kansas City, Kansas.

Each time the descendants of some of those buried there- members of the Wyandot Nation of Kansas have risen up to defend the cemetery and thwart those efforts. That usually meant clashing with the Wyandotte Tribe of Oklahoma as well as some local, state and national politicians.

Now the Kansas Wyandots are in the middle of a two-year process to obtain official tribal status from the federal government and the Interior Department’s Bureau of Indian Affairs. Tribal status, they believe, will put them on more of an equal footing with the Oklahoma Wyandotte Tribe and strengthen their stance in the future.

“We have to take the high road,” said Jan English, second chief of the Kansas Wyandots. “We’ve learned to go through the correct channels to get things done.”

There are about 400 members of the Kansas Wyandots. Most live in the Kansas City area. Long-time Chief George Zane, 73 still resides in KCK.

The Kansas Wyandots know that it is usually the Oklahoma tribe that citizens think of when it comes to matters pertaining to Huron Cemetery. Both groups claim ownership of the cemetery. Yet the Kansas Wyandots maintain that since the 1850’s and ‘60’s when the two groups went their ways they have a stronger ancestral lineage to those buried in the cemetery.

The Wyandot Indians moved to KCK from Ohio following an 1842 treaty that had them give up land in Michigan and Ohio in exchange for new land west of the Mississippi River. The first bodies were buried in the cemetery following what may have been a typhoid epidemic in 1843.

It was an 1855 treaty, however that split the tribe. That treaty dissolved the tribal status of the Wyandots and declared them citizens. It also dissolved their land except for the public burying ground “which shall be permanently reserved and appropriated for that purpose”.

Many of the former Wyandot tribe members moved on to Oklahoma and became known as the Wyandottes. Others stayed in the KCK area. Burials of local Wyandots continued in Huron Cemetery.

Exactly how the difference in the spelling evolved is unclear although there are theories.

“We have chosen to use the traditional spelling and to avoid confusion with the Oklahoma Wyandottes,” English said.

Perhaps the first attempt to sell off the cemetery land came at the turn of the century. There were reports of a provision buried in a section of the congressional appropriations bill calling for the sale of cemetery land. That led to the famous stand by the Conley sisters who set up camp in the cemetery and chased off trespassers.

In 1918, the City of KCK contracted with the federal government to “forever maintain, care for and preserve” the cemetery.

Other sale attempts were made in the 1940’s and ‘50’s. Sale opposition efforts were often led by Harry Trowbridge, then president of the Wyandotte County Historical Society, in conjunction with the Kansas Wyandots. It also drew in President Harry Truman and the founder of the Kansas, Sen. Arthur Capper, both whom sided with the Kansas Wyandots.

Those battles led in 1959 to the incorporation of the Wyandots of Kansas into a non-profit organization.

In 1971, the cemetery was placed on the National Register of Historic Sites. At the time many though that status would protect the cemetery from future attempts to sell the land. It wasn’t a sure thing however.

In 1994, talk of turning the Huron Cemetery land into a bingo palace surfaced. Contacts were made between city officials and Oklahoma Wyandottes about moving the 600 to 1,000 bodies buried there to another location. The Kansas Wyandots were joined in their opposition again by the historical society.

It was also 1994 that the procedure for applying for official tribal status was begun. Work began on a tribal constitution. Members must prove a link to the proper ancestors. One purpose for that is to screen out the “wannabes.”

In addition, Richard Zane Smith designed a tribe logo, based on a stone marker of a stylized willow tree. The willow is the Wyandot symbol of eternity. The campfire in the foreground represents the Wyandots historic role as keepers of the council fire.

This year the Wyandots printed its first newsletter, The Council Fire, to keep members informed of the quest for tribal status and related issues.

That quest will require at least another year of work. A team from the Bureau of Indian Affairs will be working with the Wyandots to clear up historical research questions.

“We feel we haven’t been afforded the representation and decision-making we deserve,” English said. “The main thing we try to do is steps the tribe rather than the individuals.”