This article is the first part of a two-part series.
The Blue Earth Plaza, a park located just south of the Flint Hills Discovery Center, is intended to spark awareness among the local community. Manhattan City Commissioners hope the name of this one-acre park will educate residents about Native American history in Kansas and honor the Kansa Indian tribe.
Lauren Ritterbush, associate professor of archaeology, said the Blue Earth Plaza is derived from the Kansa, or Kaw, Blue Earth Lodges that were once located along the Blue River from the late 1700s until 1825. The Sunflower State was named after the Kansa tribe, who was the group of Native Americans nearest to present-day Manhattan.
“I think naming the park Blue Earth Plaza will start to intrigue people and make them wonder,” Ritterbush said. “Hopefully, it will raise questions about the meaning behind Blue Earth. I think it’s appropriate that it’s right there next to the Flint Hills Discovery Center because, although many people think the Discovery Center is mostly about the prairie and the ecology, it’s also tied into the way people inhabited and survived in the Flint Hills.”
Jim Sherow, mayor of Manhattan and professor in history at K-State, said he knew the Kansa Indians were working to establish a presence in the state of Kansas. The tribe began by purchasing land near the Kaw Mission in Council Grove, Kan. He said they were seeking to further that progress by recognizing their roots in the Manhattan area, which resulted in the naming of the Blue Earth Plaza.
“I opened up a dialogue with the Kaw Nation and its representatives and we worked out arrangements for the name,” Sherow said. “They’re very excited about it. Consider how they might feel. There is an entire state north of them named after their tribe, yet hardly anyone knows about them. The whole goal is to bring awareness to the Manhattan community.”
The Kansa tribe migrated to the Manhattan area from their initial settlement along the Missouri River near today’s St. Joseph, Mo. Unlike the Wyandot, the Delaware, the Shawnee, the Potawatomi, and the Kickapoo, the Kansa Indians were not forced into Kansas territory by Euro-American settlement.
Ritterbush said it was the tribe’s own decision to establish themselves along the Blue River, perhaps due to other tribes moving into their territory or the migration of the bison herds they hunted.
“When the Kansa were living here around Manhattan, they were living in a village, very tight-knit, not too different than us,” Ritterbush said. “The density of people in one area is what I think we can relate to. I use the word ‘village’ because while it did have hundreds of people in it, all of the buildings were residential.”
She said the type of housing was called an earth village due because of the dome-like top that resembled an earthen mound. The lodges were built of wooden framework filled with grasses and sod and included an opening in the center of the roof for smoke to escape.
Ritterbush said she believes the Kansa naturally progressed to the well-insulated earth lodge in order to withstand the freezing winters and sweltering summers. The Blue Earth village consisted of more than 100 lodges, each with the capacity to house between five and 10 people.
According to author William Unrau in his 1991 book, “Indians of Kansas: The Euro-American Invasion and Conquest of Indian Kansas,” three to five families resided in an earth lodge.
Each included a central fireplace, no individual rooms and wood shelving to store food and personal possessions. Fall and spring bison hunting in the High Plains was a vital part of the Kansa economy.
Ritterbush said they also relied heavily on their village gardens and raised crops like squash, corn, beans and sunflowers.
Few regions in the nation, according to Unrau, had a more diverse Indian population than Kansas. They provided the names for the state’s three largest cities: Wichita, Topeka and Kansas City. Seventeen of the current 105 counties have Indian names.
As stated by Unrau, today the largest number of Native Americans reside in the Wichita metropolitan area, followed by the Lawrence, Topeka and Kansas City areas.
Ritterbush said in terms of Native American population, Kansas has three reservations where the Sac and Fox, the Kickapoo and the Potawatomi nations live.
According to Unrau, an increasing number of Native Americans are attempting to retain or learn their traditional language. Traditional cooking, weaving, beadwork and painting are also becoming popular again in recent years.
Georgia Perez, staff adviser for the Native American Student Association, is a firm believer in the continuation of Native American traditions. NASA is a student organization that strives to promote diversity at K-State and unity among the Native American population on campus.
Perez said the organization helps students research their Native American ancestry and promotes traditional Native American cuisine and crafts, such as dream catchers, pine needle baskets, loom beading and beading on leather and baskets at past meetings.
“It’s a way to get together and celebrate and continue our heritage,” Perez said. “My grandmother taught me to bead when I was 3 years old. By age 5 I was crocheting, and now I’m making moccasins and clothes. I like to share that with the students, but also learn from them and increase my own knowledge. I think it’s always good to know your history and what’s out there.”