Author recounts Burns family hiding its Indian roots
Just six years after the Pilgrims landed in the New World, the Delaware Indians on Manhattan Island formed a trading alliance with the settlers and became scattered as the country developed and expanded westward.
In her latest book, “The Turtle’s Beating Heart,” former Kansas poet laureate Denise Low traces her history back to Burns, where her great-great-grandparents, Jake and Mary Bruner, homesteaded in 1878. They farmed 10 miles south of Burns.
Low first learned about her Indian ancestry 20 years ago. She was a teacher at Haskell Indian Nation University at Lawrence when the stories she heard from her students inspired her to research her own roots.
Her story reflects the struggles and isolation many natives felt as they tried to assimilate into white culture and suppress their Indian blood.
She learned that natives were involved in the Civil War as the Indian Home Guard and fought against slavery. That did not stop the government from displacing them when they got in the way of development.
However, Low’s forbears were among natives in northeast Kansas who chose not to move to Indian Territory in 1867, when the government forced tribes to sell their land and relocate. The Bruners wanted to be independent and not under government control.
Low’s great-grandfather, Frank Bruner Sr., grew up at Burns and married Charlotte Root, a member of a native family that had a farm at the edge of Burns. Frank Sr. was sickly and couldn’t work on his parents’ farm. He became a clerk and postmaster in Burns.
Frank Sr. and Charlotte had two sons, Charles and Frank Jr., Low’s grandfather. Charles became a prominent banker in Burns, first serving as a clerk under Samuel Cobb and later as owner of the bank when Cobb moved to Topeka in 1909. Cobb was Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum’s grandfather.
Low said her grandfather Bruner appeared to be native, but her parents never talked about it, and his tribe was uncertain. The Bruners and Roots presented themselves as European American, not Indian.
“As Americans, they could vote and maintain households independently, unlike native people on reservations,” she said. “They could be citizens.”
Indians on reservations could have their children removed to boarding schools, and Indian agents controlled their finances.
“My family chose to suppress their native heritage so they could keep their children,” Low wrote. “They kept their families intact, so they could keep their children.”
Before Frank Jr. was born in 1889, settlers lived together in peace and shared the prosperity of a new land. However, as the government began taking censuses that divided people into strict groups, various anti-black and anti-Indian vigilante groups such as the Ku Klux Klan arose. The Bruners heard about lynchings and tar-and-feathering incidents.
In 1905, presumably to escape the encroaching threat from the south, most of the Bruners moved to Kansas City, where they joined a native community that lived on former Delaware land. Frank Jr. was 16 years old.In 1925, Kansas became the first state to outlaw the KKK.
Frank Sr. and Charlotte returned to Burns in 1940 to live with Charles until their deaths. Frank Sr. died in 1941.
Low describes her grandfather, Frank Jr., as someone who lived in limbo. He was not on a reservation but could not assimilate into another social order. He became a worker and fought for establishment of unions.
The first break in the bloodline came in 1914, when Frank Jr. married a German-Irish woman, Eva Miller, in Kansas City. He held jobs in various places, the last one as a railroad worker at Newton for 20 years.
The family prospered in Newton and often visited the Bruner relatives in Burns for Sunday dinner until Charlotte died in 1954. Frank Sr. and Charlotte are buried in the Burns cemetery.
Low’s mother, Dorothy, grew up in Newton and married the son of a prosperous businessman. Low was the youngest of three children who grew up at Emporia.
When Low visited her older sister, Mary, in California years later, she was shocked to find that Mary had accepted and internalized the negative stereotypes placed on natives, such as being slow, being alcoholic, and having “bad blood.”
Mary told her that Indians had a hard time getting good jobs and were poor, so marrying into a wealthy family was a way out of poverty.
In her family’s defense, Low wrote in her book, “All members of our family have good intelligence, including all my Bruner cousins.”
While doing her research, Low visited Burns several times. She met an elderly widow who had known Charles Bruner and his wife, Hazel. Hazel was a poet with the Kansas Authors Club. She compiled a history of the Burns community.
The widow also had known Charlotte Bruner. She said Charlotte was a dramatic figure who always wore a coat and carried a derringer.
“She might have been Indian,” the woman said. “She looked it, but no one talked about those things.”
Low visited the Burns museum at the old high school, where she found pictures and a collection of Burns history. The last stop was the Burns Café and Bakery.
Her most recent visit was during a Classic Car Show. She said the town had changed little since her grandfather’s boyhood. She saw the downtown office, now empty, where her great-grandfather worked as clerk and postmaster, and she visited antique stores.
She has located the graves of her forbears and has noticed the prominence of Indian symbols on their tombstones. She said Indian communities still carry on various traditions, largely unnoticed.
Low is the only Bruner descendant to live in Kansas.
“As far as I travel, I only feel at home near them in the Flint Hills, where sky reaches closer to the stars than anywhere else,” she wrote.