Munsee tribe in Kansas works to regain federal recognition

01/05/2020 02:00 PM
LAWRENCE, Kan. (AP) — Connie Hildebrandt has long known she was Chippewa, but it wasn’t until 2005, when her hometown newspaper published a small announcement about a meeting of Munsee descendants, that her mother mentioned to her that she was also part Munsee.

The Munsee tribe in Kansas once had a reservation outside Leavenworth but has not been federally recognized as a tribe in the U.S. since 1900. Hildebrandt, who lives in Ottawa, ended up going to some of those meetings and is now helping to lead an effort to organize descendants of the Munsee tribe in Kansas to regain the tribe’s federal recognition. That recognition would come with significant benefits, including access to federal resources granted to tribes and tribal sovereignty, the Lawrence Journal-World reports.

But Hildebrandt said it’s about a lot more than that.

“We need to get our culture back,” Hildebrandt said.

A lost history

The Munsee, part of the Delaware or Lenape group of tribes, originally lived near the Delaware and Hudson rivers but became scattered after various forced migrations following European colonization. Sophie Fix, whose children are part Munsee from their father’s side, said she thinks all those involved in the effort have different perspectives on the significance of federal recognition.

Fix, who spoke to the Journal-World by phone from her home in California, said reorganizing the tribe and regaining recognition would help to restore some of the collective history that has been lost.

“For me, the most important thing about our effort right now is education, for not only (descendants) of the tribe, including my own children, but for the public at large,” Fix said. “Because it’s really a lost history, and it’s a very beautiful but also tragic history.”

After the Munsee were forced off their land on the East Coast, the tribe settled in what is now Ohio, but they were forced to flee that area following the Gnadenhutten massacre in 1782, in which dozens of Native Americans were killed by militia members, according to a tribal history Hildebrandt provided the Journal-World. Different groups of Munsee joined with other tribes or moved to new locations, including Kansas.

For a time in the 1800s, a group of Munsee in Kansas had a reservation on a 2,571-acre site 2 miles away from Leavenworth, according to a Kansas Historical Society document. But even then, the Kansas Munsee were not able to live in peace. Squatters invaded the land, settlers cut down trees without permission or payment, and land speculators and Kansas territory leaders continually sought to take over the reservation. Eventually, the reservation was sold in 1858 for $43,000 in a deal that did not go through Congress and was therefore regarded by some people at the time as illegal, according to the document.

Once the Munsee tribe lost its reservation, some tribe members then went to live on a Chippewa reservation, according to the tribal history from Hildebrandt. Congress ultimately dissolved the Kansas Munsee tribe’s government in 1900.

Munsee descendant Gerye Caleb, who grew up in Topeka but now lives in Colorado, said he thinks the tribe has lost a lot of its heritage over the years.

“We’ve been assimilated so quickly away from being Indian in our history that we really need to be proud of where we come from and of our families that were part of the whole Indian group,” Caleb said. “Of course, I would be very proud to be a part of a tribe that is established and recognized by the federal government.”

A renewed effort

Tribes that have lost their federal recognition can regain it through a provision of the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934. Though there have been previous efforts, including one by Kansas Munsee tribal leader Clio Caleb Church before her death in 2014, as reported by the Associated Press, the Kansas Munsee have not been successful in the effort.

Regaining recognition calls for a lot of genealogical research and documentation. Hildebrandt has been leading that research and said she has located between 300 and 400 Munsee descendants. She is asking them all to map their family trees and provide birth or death certificates linking back to the tribe’s last official roll in 1900. She said that documentation is needed if the tribe is to approach a member of Congress to sponsor a bill to have the Indian Reorganization Act extended to the Munsee tribe in Kansas.

Ottawa resident Mike Ford, a Choctaw, is a tribal historian who has done research about the history of the Munsee. Ford, who is helping lead the effort with Hildebrandt, estimates there are between 500 and 600 Kansas Munsee descendants overall, with at least 200 in northeast Kansas. Ford said that includes Franklin County, Anderson County and Douglas County.

In addition to the cultural benefits, Ford said there are many practical implications of regaining federal recognition. He said those include the ability to have a reservation, education and health care services and access to grants.

In addition to the genealogical research, Hildebrandt and others have been holding quarterly tribal meetings and have formed a committee that will work on another requirement of federal recognition: the creation of a tribal constitution. Efforts also include a Facebook page where tribal history and photographs are shared and fundraising through the sale of T-shirts and other merchandise.

The U.S. government officially recognizes nearly 600 Indian tribes in the contiguous 48 states and Alaska, according to the federal government’s website. Federally recognized tribes are eligible for funding and services from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, either directly or through contracts, grants or compacts.

If the Kansas Munsee tribe succeeds in regaining its federal recognition, it would join a few other recognized groups in North America with Munsee heritage. The Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohican Indians is a federally recognized tribe in Wisconsin, and the Munsee-Delaware Nation of Ontario, Canada, is recognized by the Canadian government.


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