If you’ve ever walked around City Park or taken a drive down Poyntz Avenue in Manhattan, Kansas, you’ve probably seen the statue of Johnny Kaw. The 24-foot-tall statue of a white man with bright yellow hair and holding a scythe is part of Manhattan culture — there’s even a popular bar named after him in Aggieville.
But have you ever wondered why he’s named Johnny Kaw?
I did, and my 8-week research internship with the TRIO McNair Scholars Program led me to investigate not only Johnny Kaw, but also other sites of public memory in Manhattan that use Kaw Nation names and images, including Blue Earth Plaza and the statue “Peace Offering on the Blue.”
Johnny Kaw stands in City Park, on Poyntz Avenue.
Like all forms of memorials, these three sites reflect some of the values and beliefs of the times in which they were created. But values and beliefs often change over time, leading to concerns about public monuments. Think of the last couple of years and the debates about confederate monuments. Why are these monuments contested? Because they memorialize cultural values of their time period, values that aren’t as widely accepted today.
These cultural values are both reflected in and perpetuated by public memory practices. Scholar Barbie Zelizer says public memory is not necessarily the same thing as actual history; instead, it’s what (some) people choose to remember as their history. Public memories can be constructed to fit the needs of the dominant group and can help create a sense of community, a shared body of knowledge, and the specific narrative the dominant group wants to remember (Zelizer 227). Because I’m interested in Kansas Indigenous histories, I wanted to explore how public memory related to Indigenous people is memorialized in Manhattan, starting with Johnny Kaw.
Before there was a statue of Johnny Kaw, there was a legend. Former K-State professor George Filinger created the tale of Johnny Kaw in 1955 for Manhattan’s centennial celebration (Kannarr 1). The original stories were published in the Manhattan Mercury and eventually compiled into a short book, The Story of Johnny Kaw. In 1966, the city erected the statue of Johnny Kaw in City Park
So how did Johnny Kaw get his name? In the legend, Filinger says Johnny’s full last name is Kawmandokansan — Kaw for short (Filinger 3). Filinger’s inspiration for the name seems to be the Kaw Nation, or Kanza people. For centuries, the Kanza people lived in what is now Kansas, Missouri, and Nebraska, before the U.S. government forcibly removed them in 1873 (“A Timeline History” 9). The state of Kansas was named after the Kanza, as was the Kansas River (also known as the Kaw River). In Filinger’s telling of the history of Kansas, however, the state and the river were named after Johnny Kaw (Filinger 3). So, instead of the state, the river, and Johnny getting their name from the Kaw, the legend completely ignores the Indigenous people and their history. This makes the name “Johnny Kaw” seem hostile, as it erases the Indigenous context around the name. The erasure of Indigenous history in this way is also sometimes called settler colonialism, which is a type of colonialism that attempts to erase itself.
Settler colonialism follows the “logic of elimination,” according to scholar Lorenzo Veracini (Veracini 4). Scholar Patrick Wolfe says, “settler colonialism destroys to replace” (Wolfe 388). In the United States, this destruction included the forced removal of Indigenous people from their homelands, forcing them onto reservations, removing their children from their homes and sending them to boarding schools, and even killing them. Then, the Indigenous cultures are replaced with settler culture, forcing Indigenous people to assimilate or die (Veracini 4). After the colonizers control the Indigenous people, the colonizers begin to erase evidence that these events actually happened. The erasure includes taking parts of the Indigenous culture, such as names and traditions, and attributing it to the white settler culture. Using the name Kaw for a fictional white settler, for example, contributes to settler colonialism because it removes the Indigenous history from the name and associates it with a white settler, effectively replacing the Indigenous history with a white one.
Using the name Kaw isn’t the only example of erasure by settler colonialism. Filinger also attributes the creation of a Kanza holy site, Waconda Springs, to Johnny Kaw. First, we must know the actual – and tragic – history of Waconda Springs. The spring was located at the top of a 40-foot-high hill, rising high above the plains. According to Ronald Parks, The Kanza people called the spring Ne Wohkondaga, meaning “medicine water” in the Kaáⁿze íe language. But after the Kanza were forced out of the state, white settlers began selling water from the springs for its “healing properties.” In 1884, settlers created a “health spa,” which remained there until 1965. At that point, everything was bulldozed into the spring, contaminating and destroying the site (Parks 86).
Filinger tells a different story in The Story of Johnny Kaw. He says, “Johnny got thirsty and couldn’t find any water handy so he drove his hoe handle into the ground, wallowed it around, and drew it back out and up came water. This spring has since been named Waconda Springs,” (Filinger 7) Not only was this sacred area first seized, then profited on, and finally destroyed by white settlers, but Filinger subsequently claims a fictional white settler created an area that the Kanza people considered sacred long before white settlers arrived in the area.
Even if the legend of Johnny Kaw wasn’t meant to harm the Kaw Nation and other Indigenous people, it still contributes to erasure and stereotypes. A non-profit group called IllumiNatives found that roughly 87 percent of state history standards across the country fail to teach Indigenous history in a post-1900 context, meaning that students aren’t taught about modern Indigenous people. When people aren’t educated, they tend to rely on harmful stereotypes. Sioux historian Philip Deloria calls these stereotypes “expectations.” Deloria says, “As consumers of global mass-mediated culture, we are all subject to expectations. They sneak into our minds and down to our hearts when we aren’t looking. That does not mean, however, that they need to rule our thoughts.” That means that this is something that you and I can change.
I want to leave you with a call to action: The next time you walk by Johnny Kaw, think about how the story and the statue contribute to the erasure of Indigenous people, specifically the Kanza people, and aid in the creation of white settler public memory. If we work to educate ourselves and pay attention to Indigenous representations in public sites of memory, we can change those harmful expectations
“A Timeline History of the Kaw Nation,” The Kaw Nation, https://www.kawnation.com/wp- content/uploads/2012/03/Timeline.pdf.
Deloria, Philip. “Expectation and Anomaly: Introduction.” Indians in Unexpected Places, University Press of Kansas, 2004.
Filinger, George. The Story of Johnny Kaw. 1st ed., The Manhattan Mercury, 1955. Richard L. and Marjorie J. Morse Department of Special Collections.
Kannarr, Harold. “K-State Professor Starts Johnny Kaw Legend.” Kansas State Collegian, 12 Nov. 1954.
Parks, Ronald. The Darkest Period: The Kanza Indians and Their Last Homeland. University of Oklahoma Press, 2014.
Reclaiming Native Truth: A Project to Dispel America’s Myths and Misconceptions. IllumiNatives, June 2018, https://illuminatives.org.
Veracini, Lorenzo. “Introducing: Settler Colonial Studies.” Settler Colonial Studies, vol. 1, no. 1, Jan. 2011, pp. 1–12. DOI.org (Crossref), https://doi.org/10.1080/2201473X.2011.10648799.
Wolfe, Patrick. “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native.” Journal of Genocide Research, vol. 8, no. 4, Dec. 2006, pp. 387–409. DOI.org (Crossref), https://doi.org/10.1080/14623520601056240.
Zelizer, Barbie. Reading the Past Against the Grain: The Shape of Memory Studies. Critical Studies in Mass Communication, vol. 12, no. 2, Jun 1995, pp.214-39.
— Bailey Britton (BA ’22)