Charlotte Richter | Staff Writer
Ben Barnes, chief of the Shawnee Tribe of Miami, Okla., served as guest speaker at the
National American Indian Heritage Month luncheon, sponsored by the 15th Military
Police Brigade, Nov. 23 at the Frontier Conference Center.
During the observance luncheon, Barnes presented the history of the Shawnee Tribe
and spoke of the significance of the Shawnee in Kansas and Native American languages in the nation today.
November is National Native American Heritage Month, and the national theme for the 2021 observance is “Grounded in Tradition, Resilient in Spirit.”
According to the National Native American Heritage Month website, President George H.
W. Bush approved the first presidential recognition of “National American Indian Heritage
Month” in 1990; however, many states and the congress of the American Indian Association recognized the heritage observance as early as 1915.
The observance celebrates the traditions, histories and ancestry of Native Americans
and Alaskan natives. Nationally, there are 574 federally-recognized tribes and more than
100 state-recognized tribes.
In the context of the Army, National Native American Heritage Month recognizes the
contributions of more than 9,000 active-duty soldiers and more than 150,000 veterans
of Native American and Alaskan native heritage. More than 20 Native American soldiers
have received the Medal of Honor. According to the U.S. Mint, 31 tribes have received
Congressional Gold Medals for the “dedication and valor of Native American code talkers to the U.S. Armed Services during World War I and World War II.” The U.S recognized
33 tribes total in 2013 for their role as code talkers, who secretly communicated wartime
messages in Native American languages.
Barnes said the Shawnee people originally spanned across 20 states and first encountered European settlers in the Ohio River Valley around 1540. He said the Shawnee served as interpreters for fur traders along the river and collaborated with French colonists and other Europeans in the northeast through the 18th
Barnes said despite interactions with other communities, as time progressed through
the late 1700s, the Shawnee people were one of the most diverse communities in the nation. The tribe maintained an enduring sense of community through their culture and
“As our people were scattered all over the map, we always had this singular practice, and
that singular religious practice called us all to one place,” Barnes said. “For us, we had to
do this yearly, come back into these places to worship, and it kept our community whole.”
Barnes said around the 1800s, colonies developing along the East Coast pressured the
Shawnee to move to the Midwest toward a 1.6 million-acre reservation in Kansas. The
Shawnee struggled to settle because of policies that developed into the Indian Removal
Act of 1830. The U.S government reduced the reservation to 1,800 acres when absentee
Shawnees moved south rather than to Kansas. Barnes said amidst policy, the area of
Kansas known today as Shawnee Mission housed mission-driven manual labor boarding schools during the 1800s. Native Americans experienced poor conditions in the manual labor schools; children were taught manual labor and were encouraged to forget their native religions and languages.
“Why language preservation is so important is because it is the foundation of my people, the foundation of my culture, foundation of my religion,” Barnes said.
Barnes said the mission buildings are now sacred sites recognized as a sign of tenacity
among the Shawnee, and following the mission school era, many Shawnee served in the
As the chief of the Shawnee Tribe, Barnes advocates for Shawnee language and culture.
Upon his election to the position in 2019, he declared a state of emergency for the Shawnee language. Barnes dedicated 2020 as the Year of the Shawnee Language and 2021 as the beginning of the Decade of the Shawnee Language with The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Barnes also works to preserve ancient Shawnee earthworks through the UNESCO world heritage site designation.