Here we go around again on the matter of the precise wording on American Indian land. It’s always about the language, isn’t it?

School board president Jurdene Coleman has amended a draft to get rid of the word “stolen,” which is a positive step forward. As I said in this space a week ago, saying that Manhattan’s land was “stolen” from American Indian tribes is not factual, and is unnecessarily divisive.

So the school board is considering Wednesday night a revised draft that says that the Kansa tribe “unwillingly relinquished” the land here to the federal government in a treaty in 1825, and in later revisions of that treaty. Ultimately, the Kansa were relocated to Oklahoma.

Two problems. One, factual. The other, a matter of judgment.

First, the fact. I again confess that I am no expert in this matter, but my reading of history indicates that Manhattan remained in Kansa territory in the 1825 treaty, and that it was a revision in 1846 wherein the tribe moved instead to territory south and west of here. Second, the matter of judgment. The statement is now more careful than the initial draft that used “stolen.” But the newest version still has problems. Those problems have to do with historical perspective. Do you know, or do I know, what the mindset of the Kansa was in 1825 or 1846? Is the mindset of the Kansa an established fact?

So the crucial question is: Did the tribe “unwillingly” make a deal?

Put it this way: Imagine that there’s a historian 200 years from now trying to determine if Manhattanites were “willing” to wear masks during the pandemic. Is there a simple answer to that question? Well, no. Some are, some aren’t.

Kansa tribal leaders signed the treaties. Were they willing? Were they unwilling? That’s not really knowable, since we weren’t there to interview Kansa leaders in 1846 at the precise moment they signed.

The verb “relinquished” is probably reasonable enough, a vast improvement from the adjective “stolen.” But to add the adverb “unwillingly” strikes me as a problem. As an editor, by the way, I might note that adverbs and adjectives are often the root of problems because they introduce judgment.

If we’re going to go to the trouble of reciting a statement at the start of every school board meeting, we need to be awfully careful about it. This is a statement on behalf of the entire school district, not the judgment of an individual.

The parenthetical “without the power to decline this treaty” is also a problem. It’s a judgment. Does it really need to be there anyway?

The point is that the land here was once the territory of the Kansa. Prior to that it was the territory of other American Indian tribes. Simply stating those facts, and reciting them before every school board meeting, is a pretty strong action on the part of our local school district. If we want to make that statement — to salute that particular aspect of our history — that’s great. I think we should. But to overlay a narrative about mindset and motivation is just unnecessary, and, frankly, liable to get the whole concept ditched.

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