Sunday, April 17, 2016

People of the South Wind in the Land of Extremes

My brain collects trivia the way a magnet attracts iron filings, so just hearing the word Kansas means I immediately associate it with the tribe that gave the state its name. Anthropologists and historians would call them the Kansa, Quapaw, or Kaw people—otherwise known as the South Wind People. When this Siouan language-speaking group migrated from the Ohio Valley, they first settled in Arkansas and later crossed into what is now Kansas.

In 1724, a French explorer first documented a Kaw village near what is now the site of Doniphan in the eastern part of the state. In 1804, Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery traveled up the Missouri and recorded the presence of this now abandoned village, whose occupants relocated on the Kansas River. While few citizens of the Kaw Nation remain in Kansas today, the state’s name serves to honor generations of native people whose families once farmed and hunted the place we call home. These People of the South Wind had to be a sturdy bunch to make their lives in this place.

You don’t have to be here long before you realize that the term South Wind People is apt. A single drive across a landscape punctuated by bent and twisted vegetation tells anyone paying attention that the prevailing wind and master sculptor of these cottonwood, elm, locust, and hackberry trees comes from the south. 

If you stay long enough to watch local news channels or read papers, you find headlines detailing massive fires roaring out of Oklahoma onto central Kansas prairies. Prevailing southerly gusts whip grass fires into monstrous tidal waves of flame devouring everything in their path. We know these infernos existed long before scholars documented these events. Such  blazes explain why this landscape was essentially treeless. Wind-driven conflagrations contained tree growth except along waterways until humans controlled most of these burns. The recent Medicine Lodge fire reminds us that south wind extremes aren’t always manageable.

Just a few weeks after reporting about out-of-region firefighters who loaded their gear and headed away from home to help control the fires in Southern Kansas, newsfeeds were busy again. This time, the Weather Channel lit up like a Christmas tree as analysts predicted massive rains driven by what else--gulf moisture pushed north by southerly winds. Forecasters stayed busy updating audiences with reports of up to 9 inches of rain in just over 24 hours. Overnight, dusty waterways turned to raging torrents while homeowners hurried to seal leaking roofs and basements.

Kansas demographics change over decades and centuries, but one truth remains. This is a land of extremes that often blow in on a south wind. That same breeze that twists and bends our trees shapes those of us who grow to love this place. It makes us tough souls who slap our hats on a bit more tightly and roll up our sleeves to clean up whatever messes those gales deliver. We too are people of the South Wind.

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