JUNE 13, 2001

by Ron Parks

Wah-Shun-Gah in 1851

This year the Kaw Mission State Historic Site and area residents celebrate the 150th birthday of the historic Kaw Mission. This is the ninth in a series of articles describing themes, events, and personalities associated with the Kaw Mission 150 years ago.

In June of 1851 approximately thirty Kaw boys had been attending school since May in the Kaw Mission. The students, ages 6 to 17, would have been exposed to radically different ways of living as the teacher, young Thomas Huffaker, was beginning the process of indoctrinating them into Euro-American modes of clothing, hygiene, hair length, language, religion, education, and vocation.

Undoubtedly, it was a stressful time for both the Kaw students and their Methodist teacher.

One Kaw youth who would have not attended the school was fourteen-year-old Wah-Shun-Gah.

Destined to be the principal chief of the Kanzas from 1875 until his death in 1908, young Wah-Shun-Gah would have stayed put in his family's lodge in Chief Peg-A-Ho-Shee's village about four miles southeast of Council Grove.

Wah-Shun-Gah's absence from the school was not because he was playing tardy. When the Methodists, who operated the school, requested that the Kaw people send some of their children to the Kaw Mission, the Kaws responded by bringing in, according to one of the reports, "only orphans and dependents of the tribe."

There would have been many orphans in the tribe because contagious diseases had periodically swept through the three Kaw villages, leaving in their wake considerable death and debilitation in the Kaw families. Cholera, measles, diphtheria, and especially smallpox struck repeatedly with devastating results.

The fact that most parented Kaw boys were spared the Kaw Mission experience is a reflection of how the Kaw people felt in general about their young people being educated by white people. Because the government insisted that the tribe send students to the Kaw Mission, the Kaws grudgingly provided the least-valued boys for the school.

This lack of parental support no doubt helped to seal the premature doom of the Kaw Mission, which functioned for only three years as a school for the Kaws.

Free of the shackles of white man's education, the young Wah-Shun-Gah would have pursued his aspirations to become a great hunter and warrior just as his father, grand-father, and uncles had been. By 1851 it is likely he was already a skilled equestrian and hunter of small game.

Horses would have been very important to him. Horses were essential in both making war and hunting buffalo. Also acquiring a substantial herd of horses was the primary means for a young Kaw male to gain status in his tribe. Even during the Council Grove Reservation period of 1848 to 1873, the Kaws and their enemies, the Pawnees, conducted many horse-stealing raids against each other.

At fourteen Wah-Shun-Gah may have traveled furtively on foot for several days with a party of older Kaws into Pawnee Territory, now central Nebraska. He might have been a look-out as the older men slipped under the cover of darkness into the Pawnee pony herd. He would have had an anxious wait until the other members of the party returned on their new mounts, driving a herd of captured ponies, hoping to escape early detection as they started their long journey home to the Neosho Valley.

Like all Kaw boys, Wah-Shun-Gah was pretty much free to do whatever he wanted around his village. Boys were seldom disciplined so that they might grow up to be proud and headstrong, necessary dispositions for brave warriors.

We might believe that the Kaw males had an easy life, with the women performing almost all of the tasks aside from the hunt and warfare. Actually, having brave warriors was essential to the survival of tribes in the central plains. Wah-Shun-Gah's people were surrounded by enemies just as aggressive as the Kaws in raiding and counter-raiding.

In addition to the hazards of warfare, the Kaw warrior was required to perform extraordinary feats of cunning, skill, and bravery in the pursuit of game, especially in the buffalo hunts. Soon the young Wah-Shun-Gah would be expected to ride his pony full speed into a thundering herd of buffalos. He would select one of the animals, some of which could weigh close to a ton, and run him down, then drive an arrow deep into the massive body striking a vital organ.

To meet the difficult challenges of adulthood, Wah-Shun-Gah would seek spiritual power, sometimes called "medicine," that would guide him for the rest of his life. To this end the young Wah-Shun-Gah would engage in a "vision quest." He journeyed far back into the hills where he positioned himself on a high point. Here he would fast and make offerings to the "Great Mystery" known by the Kaws as Wa-Con-Da..

Wishing to appear before Wa-Con-Da in all humility, Wah-Shun-Gah wore no clothing save his moccasins and breech-clout. He would remain in solitude for three or four days and nights, motionless, silent, exposed to the elements and forces of the Great Mystery.

During this vigil a vision or dream might appear to Wah-Shun-Gah conveying a message of great importance about his purpose in life. When he returned to everyday life, Wah-Shun-Gah would reflect on the images and words of this vision to guide him in making his life decisions.

Apparently Wah-Shun-Gah's medicine was strong, as later he was entrusted by his people to lead the Kaw tribe for almost three decades.

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