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Spencer Painting Symbolizes Dark Chapter of Kansas History Few Have Ever Read

The Spencer Museum of Art on the campus of the University of Kansas in Lawrence  (Photo by Spencer Museum of Art)

There's an image at the University of Kansas that's both disturbing to view... and important to see. As Commentator Rex Buchanan tells us, the story behind the image is one that few Kansans have ever heard.


Commentator Rex Buchanan is director emeritus of the Kansas Geological Survey. He lives in Lawrence.

KPR recommends visiting the Spencer Museum of Art to see the original painting titled "Homecoming," by Native American artist Bunky Echo-Hawk. However, we have included an image of the artwork, below, for those unable to view it in person.

Learn more about the artist, Bunky Echo-Hawk, here.

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(Commentary Transcript)

I’ve been to the Spencer Art Museum here on the KU campus lots of times. But recently, I noticed a painting that depicts a dark, painful story from the early history of Kansas, a story you’ve probably never heard before.  

The painting is called "Homecoming." The artist is Bunky Echo-Hawk.

On the painting’s right side is a Pawnee Indian, his head severed from his body. On the painting’s left side is a regimental flag.  The painting depicts an event from the winter of 1869. Ellsworth County, Kansas. Fourteen Pawnee Indians, including scouts who had been discharged after working for the army, were traveling through central Kansas.

Somewhere west of Salina, along Mulberry Creek, they ran into a group of settlers and cavalry. Though the Pawnees had discharge papers from the army, a fight ensued. The Indians retreated to a sandstone cave, but their attackers set fire to grass at the cave’s entrance, and at least six Pawnees were killed as they ran out.

A few days later, the post surgeon at nearby Fort Harker, in today’s town of Kanopolis, removed the heads from the six bodies, and shipped them to the Army Medical Museum in Washington, D.C., for cranial study. Thus, the Pawnee with the severed head in the painting at the Spencer.

In 1992, the remains of the six Pawnee scouts were shipped from the Smithsonian Institution to the Pawnee nation for burial in traditional Pawnee lands in Nebraska. In 2011, Echo-Hawk completed the painting, when it was purchased by the Spencer.

There are conflicting accounts about the Mulberry Creek fight, but at least one person places it at Palmer’s Cave. Shelters and small caves occur throughout the Dakota sandstone in the Smoky Hills. But Palmer’s Cave - and it goes by various names - is the largest that I know of. I’ve been there several times, mainly because it bears dramatic petroglyphs, ancient carvings in the sandstone.

I grew up about 30 miles south of Palmer’s Cave. I get back to the area regularly. But in all this time, both growing up and since, I had never heard the story depicted in this painting. And it’s not just me. Many locals don’t seem to know this story either.

I have a friend who once said that there’s more history in a square foot of Kansas soil than all the libraries in the state. He was referring to geologic history, but his statement pertains here too. Sometimes I think every draw, ever stream, every foot of Kansas holds a story. Some uplifting, some tragic.

We shouldn’t just know the stories that make us feel good. We should know them all. Especially stories like this, stories that tell us about the land and what happened here, stories that should help us understand the people we live with today, people who do remember events like this.

At least one account of this event dates it to January 29, 1869. January 29, also known as Kansas Day, the anniversary of our state’s admission to the Union. This year, celebrate Kansas Day all you want. But also remember stories like this one.

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