Arkansas River Corridor Improvement Project – Keeper of the Plains, Wichita, KS
Located at the confluence of the Big and Little Arkansas Rivers, many Native American tribes considered it sacred ground. As such, the design team recognized the opportunity to enhance the existing site to give better access to the public and to create an opportunity to inform visitors of the site’s importance to the Native American people.
One of the single-most important parts of this project was the raising of the Keeper of the Plains statue. This sculpture has become both an icon and identification marker for the City of Wichita since its original installation in 1974 at the confluence of the Big and Little Arkansas Rivers. To adequately celebrate this community treasure, it was decided early in the process to include pedestrian bridges to access both the Keeper of the Plains and the Mid-America All-Indian Center (MAAIC). The design team focused on celebrating Native American culture at the Keeper Plaza through the use of traditional colors and earthly elements: earth, air, fire and water. This treasured icon of the community is a place of spirituality and celebration. It also connects the community to their cultural heritage.
The design needed to be respectful and inclusive of the many, often times differing, ideologies of the Native American tribes in the region while invoking a sense of sacredness at the confluence of the rivers. Sensitivity was given to the sacred nature of the Keeper of the Plains statue. Issues regarding the removal of the statue, refurbishment and reinstallation were coordinated with sacred rituals by Native American participants. The project team was able to overcome tribal differences regarding what should be depicted in the interpretive plaza and surrounding area. The Keeper of the Plains sculpture pays homage to the cultural and spiritual significance of the confluence and is a source of pride to the American Indian citizenry in Wichita and the region.
The connectivity between the community and the Arkansas River was of major importance. There is no downplaying the importance the river plays in the minds of residents. It is the thread and blood that ties the community together and is a place for celebration during the annual Wichita River Festival. It is a daily reminder of how Wichita began and how the river ties us to the plains landscape and is a major component of our identity.
Wichita has realized the value of its river which winds through the downtown urban area. For many years, the river corridor has been protected along the downtown stretch to preserve the view and make banks accessible to the public. Development along the banks has been limited to ensure that the corridor retains its openness and accessibility. However, where development has occurred along this corridor, every attempt has been made to address the river environment and encourage a symbiotic relationship.
The entire river corridor project is part of a citywide bicycle and pedestrian path system and was designed to accommodate both types of uses. The improved circulation along the banks, as well as the inclusion of bridges to access the Keeper of the Plains, has increased both types of use. Connections were made to public sidewalks, existing bicycle/pedestrian paths and parking areas to ensure that the river was easily accessible from multiple points.
The treatment and final design of this project is unique to Wichita. The design is rooted in this city’s history and hearts. The sensitivity paid to the river, Native American culture and the history of Wichita makes this a project for the people. Every detail was scrutinized to ensure that the final product represented the community’s past, present and future.
To the many tribes of plains Native Americans, the confluence of the Little Arkansas and the Big Arkansas Rivers is sacred ground. The Big Arkansas is known by many as Se-Se-Pa (pronounced Say-Say-Paw). It was a trading ground as well, where tribes, and later trappers, would meet to swap goods. The design team saw this as not only an opportunity to enhance the Keeper of the Plains sculpture, but also as an educational and interpretive resource for the community.
The key feature of this project is the Keeper of the Plains Sculpture by Blackbear Bosin. The design team met with the Board of the MAAIC and the Council of Elders and all agreed the Keeper of the Plains sculpture needed to be raised. The caveat was that he must remain in contact with the ground. The consultant proposed raising the Keeper upon a rock outcrop modeled after a Kansas formation known as Castle Rock, and the adjacent bluffs called Table Rock. This formation was selected because of its dramatic character that sores above the plains near Quinter, Kansas. The formation, of chalk and limestone, provided a difficult to climb character. This non- destructive process enabled the rockwork contractor to achieve a very high degree of realism. This approach was approved by the Council of Elders and the Board of MAAIC.
Central to the experience is the Interpretive Plaza, which has numerous stone panels with artwork to tell the story of life and culture of the central plains tribes. To further enhance the experience and provide opportunities for interpretation by museum docents, the Native American belief in the four earthly elements, along with the concept of the Sacred Hoop, are integrated and use an organizing and interpretive element for the space around the base of the Keeper.
Visitors arrive at the Interpretive Plaza from the museum grounds or by coming across two new cable-stay bridges and then circulate down through the four quadrants of the sacred hoop – designated as earth, air, water and fire.
The quadrants are defined on the ground plane by sandstone bands that mark the cardinal directions, each punctuated by a 5 foot diameter cast stone medallion – east is red, west is black, north is white, and south is yellow (although colors vary by tribe, these were selected for color-fastness over blues and greens of some tribes).
Along with frequent flooding, the Arkansas River is designated as a critical habitat for the Ark River Shiner and the Speckled Chub, two species listed as endangered by the State of Kansas. Prior to bidding the project, City staff met with the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks to discuss the proposed construction operations. Specifications provided for lowering the downstream dam in coordination with spawning season. Causeways were constructed by exposing sandbars to minimize disturbance to sediments in the river that could potentially contain residual pesticides. Extensive attention was also given to erosion control of disturbed bank areas and of the river bed during construction to minimize sedimentation in the river channel.
Workshops and charettes were held to gather public and stakeholder input as concepts developed for a new waterfront master plan. During the charettes, teams were formed to tackle specific portions of the overall project which were then presented to the group for discussion and debate. The final design concept was then presented to the City of Wichita Design Council for approvals. These intensive sessions expedited the design and approval process by bringing every one together in the same room.
The complexity of this project required coordination of numerous sub-consultants. These included bridge engineers, civil and structural engineers, electrical and mechanical engineers, fire-effects engineer, environmental and interpretive graphic designers and artists.
- Raising the Keeper of the Plains on a 35’ artificial rock outcrop
- Water cascades (water quadrant)
- Fog system (air quadrant)
- Fire system (fire quadrant)
- Cable-stay pedestrian bridges
- Multi-purpose pedestrian pathways
- Site lighting & specialty lighting
- Integrated public art
- Wayfinding and interpretive graphics
- Custom site amenities
City of Wichita
Project of the Year - Award of Excellence
Outstanding Engineering Achievement Award
Honor Award - Excellence in Renovation/Preservation
Public Works Project of the Year - Structures Over $10 Million