Kansas Land Treaties
U.S. TREATIES WITH THE KANZA
Oral traditions indicate that the Kanza, Kaáⁿze níkashiⁿga in their own language, made their home in the Tallgrass region of the Great Plains since before European colonization. The Kanza were successful farmers, hunters, and traders. They planted crops in their hometowns and conducted lengthy hunting expeditions following bison migrations. The territory supporting Kanza lifeways, including their spiritual practices, spans what today constitutes most of the state of Kansas as well as parts of present-day Nebraska and Missouri. In the eighteenth century, Kanza towns were located on the Missouri River north and west of modern-day Kansas City. By the early nineteenth century, the Kanza were living in towns along the Kansas River between what would become Lawrence and Fort Riley and hunting on the central and western plains.1 One of the best-known early villages, Blue Earth, which the Kanza called Níto, was located “along the lower reach of the Big Blue River,” west of present-day Manhattan.2
The U.S. government, which had only been in existence some forty-nine years at the time of the Treaty of 1825, held a very different perspective on land and land-use that arose from nineteenth-century beliefs known as “Manifest Destiny.” These beliefs, as the treaty annotations explain, existed well before Europeans began to colonize the western hemisphere. Even before they arrived on the shores of North America, non-Indigenous peoples imagined the land as a blank slate (a tabula rasa) and either as empty of inhabitants or as inhabited by people who they believed were inherently lesser than Europeans. When encountered, Indigenous people were most often depicted in early letters, journals, and military accounts as naive, savage, and/or primitive. Difference was labeled deficit. For example, different cultural beliefs, such as Indigenous cultures of exchange in which gifts are shared between groups to forge relationship and mark political alliance, were depicted as childlike (see, for example, Columbus’s letters). At the same time, the sophistication of Indigenous knowledges went unseen and unacknowledged (on the Tallgrass prairies, Indigenous practices of controlled burns offer one instance or, to return to Columbus letters, the remarkable technology needed for the massive canoes and outriggers he described are another). These radical misconceptions held by the vast majority of non-Native people were used to rationalize the violent treatment of Indigenous peoples and the exploration, colonization, and eventual conquest of Indigenous lands.3
Legally, European empires – and later, the United States - used the Doctrine of Discovery to justify their acquisition of Indigenous land. This doctrine, first defined in the 1493 Papal Bull “Inter Caetera” issued by Pope Alexander VI, was a way of using Christian ideologies to rationalize Spanish and later other European imperialism. “Inter Caetera” was specifically issued to authorize Columbus’s incursion into Indigenous nations’ territories and to give Spain rights over the already occupied lands that Europeans called the “New World.” In the early nineteenth century, the U.S. Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice John Marshall, extended this tradition and invoked the Doctrine of Discovery as a way to legally authorize U.S. authority over the Indigenous nations that the U.S. Constitution recognized as sovereign (politically independent). The Doctrine of Discovery was among a number of power imbalances codified into law through three U.S. Supreme Court cases -- Johnson v M’Intosh (1823), Cherokee Nation v Georgia (1831), and Worcester v Georgia (1831) -- subsequently referred to as the “Marshall Trilogy.” The first of these cases, Johnson v M’Intosh, held that Indigenous nations could not sell their land to anyone but the U.S. government (instead of to individuals, companies, or state governments). The two other cases defined Indigenous peoples, not as U.S. citizens, but as “domestic dependent nations” inside the U.S. polity. Notably, the Marshall Trilogy remains the basis of federal Indian case law today.4
A firm belief in cultural and moral superiority informed European, and later U.S., colonization. Spanish, French, and British invaders, claimed their seizure of Indigenous lands and resources was divinely ordained. Once the United States was founded, Americans adapted this rationalization to view their colonization as a duty to spread their system of government – republican democracy – across the continent. This belief, which was given the term “manifest destiny” in the nineteenth-century, contended that North America was destined, by a Protestant Christian god, to be a settler possession. Because this worldview cast conquest and land seizure as a divinely ordained right rather than as invasion, colonial settlers viewed Kanza sovereignty--their inherent political rights and long-standing land claims--simply as a temporary roadblock to westward expansion. Thus, even while settlers were invading Kanza homelands and were themselves strangers with no established relationship to those same lands, the non-Native squatters who settled illegally on Kanza land portrayed the Kanza as intruders whose removal – from the land they had inhabited and stewarded for hundreds of years – was “inevitable”.5
Despite long-held colonial beliefs about manifest destiny, the United States (and before them the British and French) had always acknowledged Indigenous nations as separate polities to be engaged via formal diplomacy, much like foreign nations. As a result, the U.S. government forged treaties, or nation-to-nation compacts, with Indigenous nations, including the Kanza. However, as the young country continued to gain territory, status, and citizens, land treaties reflected a clear imbalance of power. The treaties with the Kanza in 1825, 1846, and 1859, together with a May 8, 1872 act of Congress, were tools by which the U.S. government intentionally disrupted Kanza social structures, foodways, spiritual practices, and livelihoods and eventually forced the Kanza from their Neosho Valley homelands to what is now known as Oklahoma. In the space of less than fifty years, the Kanza, and other tribes like them, were transformed from thriving independent nations to refugees.6
Land cessions did not happen overnight. They were a part of a broader pattern of United States colonialism that included refugee migrations, settler invasions, confinement to smaller territories, and eventual elimination and/or expulsion from homelands. This pattern was repeated across the continent, expanded federal government influence, and opened up resources for some U.S. citizens and companies as Indigenous lands were taken from Native peoples and redistributed to the largely white beneficiaries of empire. One group of these beneficiaries: colleges and universities who received celebrated “gifts” of land authorized by the 1862 Morrill Land Grant Act. The land that Kansas State University stands on, as well as lands that Congress allocated to Kansas State and many other public universities to re-sell (monies that became seed funds for university endowments) was Indigenous land, and in this case, Kanza land. Recognizing that reality is at the heart of the Chapman Center for Rural Studies Treaty Project.7
Visit our Historical Context page for a summarized timeline of Kanza History.
Partial funding for this program is provided by Humanities Kansas, a nonprofit cultural organization connecting communities with history, traditions, and ideas to strengthen civic life, as well as the College of Arts and Sciences at Kansas State University and the Kansas Studies Institute at the Johnson County Community College.
The findings, conclusions, etc., are not necessarily those of HK or the National Endowment for the Humanities.