Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - Sept. 21, 2012

"Voices" pageant brings history to life

We arrived at the banks of the Neosho River at about 7 p.m. I positioned lawn chairs for Mom, 88, and Aunt Edith, 92, at the top of the bank near a picnic table.

"Hey, these are great spots," Edith said. "I'd hate to have to maneuver down those steps."

She was pointing to wooden steps cut into the banks next to wooden bleachers. The scene was the old riverbed amphitheater in Council Grove, Kan.

We were there for a performance of "Voices of the Wind People," a pageant that includes actors drawn from the community as well as members of the Kaw Nation who traveled from Oklahoma to take part.

Ron Parks, the former administrator of the Kaw Mission State Historic Site in Council Grove, wrote the script in 1992, and the pageant has been performed several times since.

"I admire the people of Council Grove and the Kaw Nation for having the imagination and energy to sustain this production for 20 years," Parks told me. "All Kansans should know this story. It is at the root of our name, identity, and history."

Parks said the performance of the first pageant in September 1992 was one of the most moving experiences of his life.

" I was very pleased that the Kaw Nation responded affirmatively to the invitation to return to their former reservation in Kansas and help dramatize the story of their ancestors," he said. "This required the Kanza leaders to offer us their trust, a generous and courageous gesture in light of the horrendous way the tribe had been mistreated by Euro-Americans in the past."

Slowly, the wispy clouds changed from pink to a soft gray and then faded away as darkness came. Soon the stars were shining brightly and we had to bundle up in the cool, crisp night air. Native American flute music slowly transported us from the present back to the time when Council Grove was little more than a convenient place for wagons on the Santa Fe Trail to cross the Neosho River.

The sounds of wind and thunder accompanied images of the prairie on the big screen set up at the front of the outdoor stage. Blowing grasses, blue sky, wild flowers, eagles, coyotes, rainstorms and fires danced across the screen.

For the next two hours, we watched and listened to how the history of the Kaw Nation intersected with that of the Santa Fe Trail and Council Grove. Some 38 members of the Kaw Nation, dressed in full regalia, sang and danced.

Sixty actors from Council Grove presented the area's history from the perspective of early traders and townspeople, including first white settler Seth Hays, who opened a trading post in the town, and Eliza Huffaker, wife of Thomas Huffaker, businessman, politician and teacher of Kanza children at the Kaw Mission.

The commercial requirements of the trail and the westward push of European-American settlers changed the lives of the Kanza - also known as Kansa, Konza and Kaw - and the history of the Kaw Nation.

In the early 1800s, the tribe's territory included about 20 million acres. A treaty arranged by the U.S. government in 1825 reduced that to a two-million-acre reservation in northern Kansas. It was the same year the Kanzas agreed to safe passage for traders on the Santa Fe Trail.

Then in 1846, another treaty relocated the tribe onto a 256,000-acre reservation that included the site of Council Grove. Just 13 years later, another treaty reduced the Kanza reservation to about 86,000 acres. The final blow came in 1873 when Congress passed a bill forcing the removal of the Kanzas to Indian Territory, now Oklahoma.

Chief Allegawaho, one of the three principal chiefs of the Kanza, didn't want to be moved.

"You treat my people like a flock of turkeys," he said in his speech to government officials in 1867. "We fly over and alight on another stream, but no sooner do we get settled then again you come along and drive us farther and farther. In time we shall find ourselves across the great mountains and landing in the bottomless ocean."

Allegawaho was played by Luther Pepper, the chief's great-grandson. Other descendants of Allegawaho also participated in the production.

In addition to the actors, about a dozen people served as the stage crew. Others helped with set and site construction. Teams, wagons, horses and donkeys came from Council Grove, Americus, Newton and Wellsville.

Sharon Haun, treasurer of Friends of Kaw Heritage, Inc., said rehearsals started four weeks out, but the last two weeks were really intense.

Sharon is also the costume designer for the pageant.

"I have studied the styles from that period (1850-1865), acquired patterns, and worked to keep them as representative as possible of that time period," she said.

Haun said about 250 people attended Friday night's performance and about 400 attended Saturday night.

I hadn't really been sure what to expect before the show. But it proved to be not just entertaining, but educational as well. That's a combination hard to beat!

Covered wagons, members of the Kaw Nation, a stagecoach and a musician playing a Native American flute were all part of the Council Grove "Voices of the Wind People" pageant.

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