Opponents of proposed Overland Park Arboretum project want experts to check site for Shawnee tribe artifacts

A creek running through the Overland Park Arboretum. Opponents of a proposed improvement plan for the arboretum say the city should allow experts to check for the presence of Shawnee tribe artifacts before allowing work to commence. Photo credit Nick Varvel. Used under a Creative Commons License.

Overland Park should slow down its plans to expand the arboretum to allow experts to check for artifacts from a band of the Shawnee tribe that formerly lived there, say some of the arboretum’s neighbors.

But city officials say the archeological study they had done in 1999 showed no significant cultural artifacts on the grounds. That study said future additions and improvements were unlikely to turn up anything else and that another study shouldn’t be needed. It is unclear whether a separate survey would be needed to say the same about the parts of the arboretum land acquired after that 1999.

Opponents of an expansion plan for the Overland Park Arboretum and Botanical Gardens sprung a surprise last week when they called for a delay to survey the property for Native American artifacts. The existence of stone tools, arrowheads and a “language tree” found on surrounding private property should give council members pause about being too quick to start construction, their lawyer told a recent city council meeting.

It was the latest twist in an argument between the city and arboretum neighbors that has been simmering for more than a month, as the city council pushed forward plans that have been in the works since 2017.

Improvement plans call for new gardens, event spaces

A rendering of the proposed arboretum amphitheatre and visitors center.

Arboretum officials are touting a long-range plan for new gardens, sculptures, event space and more parking at the site at 179th Street and U.S. Highway 69. First on the construction list would be a bigger visitor center, to take some space pressure off an educational center and gift shop that now serves that purpose. But the plans also call for an outdoor amphitheater with grass seating for 850 that would be created in a natural bowl in the topography. Eventually, a chapel and tropical conservatory also may be added, as donations become available.

The plans have drawn opposition of some of the neighbors in subdivisions to the north, who say they support the arboretum and the visitor center but are in full opposition to an amphitheater that they say would make big, loud, traffic-jamming events more frequent.

Several of them, from Glad Acres, Wolf Valley and Arbor View subdivisions, have argued against the plans with about 30 signing a protest petition filed with the city, according to neighbor Chengny Thao.

Generally, their objections centered on the traffic, noise and lights annoyances that happen during the arboretum’s four large public events. But at the most recent city council meeting, they brought in a new topic – cultural antiquities that may be found in the area.

They presented slides of some artifacts that have been found on nearby private land, including stone tools and arrowheads. The presentation also noted a meeting cave and “language tree” that was possibly shaped by Native Americans to point toward water or other natural resources.

The neighbors also submitted letters from the Absentee Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma and the Kansas State Archaeologist recommending a survey of the site to document any cultural significance before the land is disturbed.

“It’s in the city’s hands to do the right thing,” Thao said. “If I were the city I would seriously consider it because of the potential for violation of state law.”

Kansas law has provisions related to antiquity protections

Kansas’s law basically protects antiquities that are on government-owned land, said Robert Hoard, the state archaeologist. If the arboretum plan looks like it’s going forward, he said he’d likely get in touch with the city to see about doing the assessment.

An assessment involves a look around the property and perhaps some light digging with a shovel, Hoard said. The finding of artifacts wouldn’t necessarily stop the project, but it would allow findings to be documented. Any artifacts found during construction would require work to stop while the state and Shawnee Tribe representatives are brought in for consultation.

“We try to be very reasonable about enforcement of the law,” while still protecting antiquities, Hoard said.

The area is of interest to the Shawnee Tribe because it is on land formerly occupied by the Black Bob Shawnee, according to the tribe’s letter. The Shawnee had reservation land in Kansas in the 1800s before eventually being displaced to Oklahoma.

The Overland Park study, done by Don Dycus and Victoria Vargas for the city via George Butler Associates, examined land records and historical archives and included inspection of the property. No artifacts were found by the investigators and they concluded the arboretum development could continue without risk. “It is unlikely that further investigation would identify significant cultural resources,” the study concluded.

Dycus and Vargas both had master’s degrees in anthropology and were accredited by the Register of Professional Archeologists to do investigations.

The area around the arboretum was less populated when that study was done 20 years ago. In the years since, development has moved farther south, with some under-construction properties near the arboretum now listing for over $700,000. Neighbors in those areas have been particularly troubled by the effect of arboretum events on 179th Street, a two-lane that backs up during big events. City officials insist that they have no plans to introduce any other big public shows that would disturb the quiet of the area.

But Thao said she and neighbors will continue to push for more representation and input into the arboretum’s future. “Future litigation is to be determined as we’d like to give the city an opportunity to honor their commitment to being a good neighbor,” she said.

“The City Council voted 11 to 1 to approve this measure. If they do not follow Kansas State Preservation laws then those who voted yes should be held accountable for any possible violations as they were fully informed on this matter.”