Rebury, Repatriate, Reclaim: Rhetoric of the “Salina Burial Pit”

Postcard of a roadside sign for the Indian Burial Pit near Salina, Kansas, c. 1950-1960. Courtesy of the Kansas Historical Society’s Kansas Memory online archive.

As the academic year comes to a close, today we share the final piece of public writing selected for publication from an assignment in ENGL 801 “Graduate Studies in English” — and the third selection from Section A of ENGL 801, taught in Fall 2022 by Cameron Leader-Picone: a piece of public scholarship (700-1,000 words) which tailors an academic paper and its scholarly intervention of 10-12 pages for a general-interest audience.

Read more about the assignment and the first publication, “Signs, Signs, Everywhere…The Hidden Depth of Japanese Signs in Spirited Away” by Ian Lutz (MA ’24), in the post from December 8, and enjoy the subsequent posts: “Can YA Fiction Predict the Future? Political Mimicry in Kiera Cass’s The Selection Series” by Delaney Sullivan (MA ’24), “Secular Nightmares: Mental Health and the Absence of God in Parker Finn’s Smile” by Milena Beliso (MA ’24), “How to Build a Hopeful Future: Reject Citizenship” by Jordan Dombrowski (MA ’24), and “Watching and Believing: The #MeToo Movement and Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window in Chloe Okuno’s Watcher” by Sarah Morgan (MA ’24). Now, on to “Rebury, Repatriate, Reclaim: Rhetoric of the ‘Salina Burial Pit'” by Kinsley Searles (MA ’24) — the longer version of which received the department’s 2023 Composition/Rhetoric Research Award.

Karin Westman, Associate Professor and Department Head / Instructor for ENGL 801 ZA (Fall 2022)

The Salina Burial Pit (SBP) is cemented in state and national history as integral to Indigenous rights and activism. Despite its importance, the site is rarely referenced.

Indeed, few know what the site actually was.

The SBP was a burial-site-turned-tourist trap off of rural roads east of Salina, KS that became a site for controversy and activism. This site would ultimately lead to state and national legal action. This activism, particularly activism in writing, was a key example of Indigenous survivance: survival + resistance.

What became known as the “SBP” was actually an Indigenous resting place for the ancestral relatives of the Pawnee, the Arikara (now part of the Three Affiliated Tribes Fort Berthold Reservation), and the Wichita (Echo-Hawk 1). This site was used as a burial site by these tribes from about 1000-1350 C.E. (National Park Service 3). Even though the people buried here were meant to rest in peace, this peace would be disturbed as the site was unearthed by local amateur archaeologists.

Guy and Mabel Whiteford were a married couple from Salina, KS who, without archaeological training, excavated Indigenous sites in central and western Kansas (Roper 250). In 1936, while excavating a nearby site, the Whitefords stumbled upon what would become the SBP (Roper 251). After negotiations with the property owners, the Whitefords reached an agreement to continue excavations of the site and open it as a roadside attraction to local schoolchildren and tourists passing through the state (Roper 252).

After the individuals had rested peacefully for hundreds of years, the Whitefords and property owners put the human remains on display. The site itself was rather small, consisting of a covered building over the bodies and an attached building. Both Guy and Mabel Whiteford would give tours of the site, which ended in a trip to the gift shop (Roper 253). The Whitefords and the property owners printed various “souvenirs” with pictures of the human remains, including postcards and posters. Besides the gift shop, the Whitefords and property owners also garnered profit from the admission fee. This fee ran between a quarter to $3.50 throughout operation (Callaway 4). The site remained open until 1989, when Indigenous activists finally succeeded in closing the site (Zier 1).

Obviously, the SBP was horrific. At the end of the day, the site was a chance for white property owners to make a profit off of Indigenous people, culture, and bodies.

Indeed, the existence of the SBP, as a commodity, is an example of settler colonialism.

Settler colonialism is different from typical colonialism. For example, the United States government’s genocide and land seizure from Indigenous people was an act of settler colonialism: the intention was not to take resources from the land alone, but also to use that land for settling. Importantly, settler colonialism actively works to erase its very existence (Veracini 3). This erasure can be seen at the SBP. By putting these bodies on display for visitors to view, the owners and organizers were actively erasing the Indigenous people who continue to exist and thrive today. The SBP made Indigenous people and culture seem like “ancient artifacts”—when this is very much not the case. Because of this narrative of settler colonialism that the site was selling (literally), it is necessary to read the SBP as its own rhetorical text.

The SBP, as a text, is an example of rhetorical imperialism. Scott Lyons defines rhetorical imperialism in “Rhetorical Sovereignty: What Do American Indians Want From Writing?” as presenting stereotypes and appropriation of Indigenous culture, while also ignoring sovereignty (Lyons 458). The SBP was not writing; however, the story that it told about Indigenous people and culture means that it can be read as a rhetorical text.

Rhetorical imperialism at the site can be seen through its commodification. In addition, the name itself—the SBP or the Indian Burial Pit—amalgamates Indigenous people and culture into a single stereotype. The Whitefords and the property owners did not attempt cultural specificity with the presentation of the site. It was not until the activism of Indigenous people from the Pawnee, Wichita, and Arikara that people knew that tribal ties of the human remains (Echo-Hawk 1). In addition, the word “pit” is not a word that would ever be used to describe a cemetery or a white burial ground. The use of the vague term “Indian” and “pit” shows dehumanization: a clear indication of rhetorical imperialism.

Indigenous activists—from tribes formerly associated with the state of Kansas to tribes currently present—fought against this rhetorical imperialism in an act of rhetorical survivance. Malea Powell coined the term rhetorical survivance in her essay “Rhetorics of Survivance: How American Indians Use Writing.” Here, she explains that Indigenous people actively engage with the stereotypical beliefs about Indigenous culture in writing in order to move from passive objects to active subjects (Powell 400). This strategy promotes survivance, which Powell uses as “survival + resistance” (Powell 400). Survivance was key  in the activism to close the SBP. An example of the activism is the Treaty of Smoky Hill, which was a memorandum of understanding between the Native American Rights Fund, the tribal next of kin, the property owners, and the state government. Here, the writers engage with Indigenous treaty history—which never benefited Indigenous people (Harjo 1). By using the word “treaty,” the authors are successfully using a historical connection of the audience to Indigenous people to practice both survival and resistance.

Importantly, the activism from Indigenous leaders succeeded: not only was the SBP closed, but leaders also advocated for passage of the “Kansas Unmarked Human Burial and Skeletal Remains Protection Act.” This act protects all human remains in the state of Kansas and served as a cornerstone of the Native American Grave Repatriation and Protection Act (NAGPRA), which would federally protect Indigenous remains throughout the United States.

For the site itself, it now lies under the prairie grasses: finally resting in peace.

Works Cited

Callaway, Lisa. “The Burial Pit: Based on a Special Exhibit at the Smoky Hill Museum.” 1991, 1-14. Courtesy of Kansas State Historical Society Archives, Salina Indian Burial Pit Collection.

Echo-Hawk, Walter et al. “Treaty of Smoky Hill.” 1989. Courtesy of Kansas State Historical Society Archives, Salina Indian Burial Pit Collection.

Harjo, Suzan Shown. “If You Don’t Know Treaties and Sovereignty, You Don’t Know History.” Indian Country Today, 2021.

Lyons, Scott Richard. “Rhetorical sovereignty: What do American Indians want from writing?” College Composition and Communication (2000): 447-468.

Powell, Malea. “Rhetorics of Survivance: How American Indians Use Writing.” College Composition and Communication (2002): 396-434.

Roper, Donna. “The Whiteford Family of Salina.” Kansas History (2002): 224-257.

Veracini, Lorenzo. “Introducing Settler Colonial Studies.” Settler Colonial Studies (2013): 1-12.

Zeir, Lillian. “Three Indian Tribes Agree to Closure of Indian Burial Pit.” Salina Journal, February 19th, 1989. Courtesy of Kansas State Historical Society Archives, Salina Indian Burial Pit Collection

Kinsley Searles (MA ’24)

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