Program at Shawnee National Forest seeks to reunite youth with ancestral lands

Program at Shawnee National Forest seeks to reunite youth with ancestral lands
(Source: Shawnee National Forest)
(Source: Shawnee National Forest)

HARRISBURG, IL (KFVS) - A group of 12 from two Shawnee Tribes were at Shawnee National Forest in a program hosted by the organization and Southern Illinois University.

The program is called More Kids in the Woods and it was an opportunity for kids to explore and connect with wild areas that were a portion of their ancestral lands.

The goal of the program is to introduce tribal youth from central and northeastern Oklahoma to lands once used by their ancestors.

Program coordinator Mary McCorvie said the week-long visit to Shawnee National Forest allowed the kids to get closer to part of their history.

"We hope that through these experiences the kids will forge a link to their history and heritage," said McCorvie. "It's also helping establish a regional connection, something the three federally-recognized Shawnee Tribes have wanted for some time — a way for their children to link with the past."

The kids in the program dug right in with an archaeological excavation along the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail. They canoed the Cache River and snorkeled in the places that once supported the Shawnee peoples.

At each place, the young participants learned about the area's ecology and history as well as its inhabitants. One camper, Mykal Bribois said it was a chance to learn about the past in order to make a better future.

"Coming to the Shawnee opened my eyes to what we had and how much we lost," said Bribois. "But now we can come back and make a difference."

Brianna Barnes agreed, saying, "It makes me feel like we have a responsibility for the land, that we're still stewards of this land."

More Kids in the Woods was made possible through a grant from the Eastern Region of the U.S. Forest Service. This is the third year the forest has hosted youth from federally-recognized tribes.

The group stays in cabins at Touch of Nature surrounded by the natural beauty of the area. A partnership with Southern Illinois University's Center for Archaeological Investigations and Touch of Nature Environmental Center further enhances the participants' experience in southern Illinois.

The various Shawnee Tribes are about six generations removed from this region, and many tribal members think of Oklahoma as home, not realizing southern Illinois is an area once included in their original homelands. Shawnee Indians once ranged across southern Illinois, from Shawneetown to Fort Massac, with settlements at the mouths of the Saline River and camps on the Cache River near the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers.

The Shawnee and other Eastern Woodland tribes — such as the Miami, the Delaware, the Potawatomie, the Kickapoo and the Illini — were removed from their homelands by the 1830s. They settled first in Kansas before being forced southward into Oklahoma where they remain today.

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