The Haskell-Baker Wetlands
For approximately a hundred years Haskell-Baker Wetlands in eastern Kansas has been home to over 220 species of animals and it has been used as a spiritual and sacred ground for some Native American Tribes. There has been much controversy over this particular wetland because of a proposal to construct the South Lawrence Trafficway (SLT) across the 40-acre plot of land destroying the sacred ground as well as the ecosystem. According to the opinion of the proponents of the SLT bypass, the logic behind constructing this road would be to decrease congestion and to create a key link between Lawrence, Topeka and Kansas City. Several routes were discussed for the bypass, such as the 32nd Street route which would be constructed south of the Haskell University through the wetlands, and the 42nd Street route would run further south not disturbing the sacred grounds at all and having minimal damage on the ecosystem.
The importance of the Haskell-Baker Wetlands dates back to 1871 toward the end of the U.S Indian Treaty Negotiations, when the U.S. government began to impart the American way of life onto the Native Indians through using assimilation policies. The Bureau of Indian Affairs agents were granted the power and ability to take children away from their reservations, from their families, from their homeland and from their culture and were able to force them into boarding schools located off the reservations with the intention of westernizing and modernizing these young people.
The Haskell Boarding School was opened in 1884 with 22 students from different tribes across the nation. The school was established on land that the white settlers did not want due to their inability to make good use out the wetlands. The initial aim was to teach the students the necessary knowledge and skills to use for specific jobs as well as to brain wash them to “kill the Indian and save the man.” The boarding school forced the children to adopt European mannerisms, they were not allowed to practice their religion in any way, nor were they allowed to celebrate their ancient traditions and they would be punished brutally for speaking in their native tongue. Punishments were often cruel in order to teach the natives how to behave; many punishments
would result in the death of children for not complying with the rules of the school.
By the Europeans imparting their ways on to the Indians in such a harsh and cruel way, they forced the students to find a sacred place away from the school where they could seek refuge from the brainwashing and brutality. So the surrounding area soon became a place where the students would go to get away from their strict life at school and would practice Native American ceremony. It was an oasis for the students; they would meet their families there when they were homesick, elders would give the children advice and they would all pray to help families and friends in need. It was a place where they could connect with nature and be themselves instead of the sort of people the school was trying to mold them into. The wetlands was also used as a place to bury the dead students, some of whom died from disease, others were beaten to death, some killed themselves and those who ran away trying to escape this imposed lifestyle were most likely die from the elements. When a student died the others would secretly take him or her to the wetlands for a burial ceremony, and the students would perform “spirit release ceremonies” using a lock of the dead child’s hair to set their spirit free.
As the wetlands became more sacred to its students, many attempts were made by the school to cause damage to the area. They attempted to drain the water and destroy the vegetation in order to stop people from performing their “cultural activities”. It took 50 years for the wetlands to rejuvenate after the school officials had demolished the natural habitat. By the time the wetlands were revived, the boarding school had evolved into a proper university. Many Indians believe that the regrowth of the wetlands was a gift from the “creator” “to honor the incredible transformation of Haskell from one of the nation’s most notoriously brutal boarding schools to a true university” (Michael Caron – save the wetlands). Many dead students lay buried under the wetlands; their graves still stand as reminders of the Indians of families who had suffered and the American people whose ancestors wreaked carnage on the Natives.
For many tribes, this has made the area sacrosanct; “the creator” put an end to the wrong doings and helped save their people. In 1992, a group of Haskell students created a medicine wheel on the site, so they could perform ceremonies on the land they believe to be blessed. If the road were to be built, the medicine wheel would be affected by noise and air pollution making it a less pleasant and revered place for Indians to pray. The road would make the location less suitable for meditation due to the pollution and distractions it would cause. As such, opponents feel that the construction of the SLT through the wetlands would destroy the sacredness of the location to many Native Indian tribes.
Two possible routes were proposed: the 32nd street route was proposed to go through the wetlands and the 42nd street route was proposed to be further south which would cause less damage to the site and most importantly avoid the graves of dead students altogether. After weighing the options, the Army Corps of Engineers deemed it uneconomical to build a road on 42nd street and stated it would be more efficient to build along 32nd street. A large factor in this decision was that they claimed to be able to create a new improved wetland out of the way of the road. Also the Corps said, “The cultural concerns were
not relevant”. Archeologists were employed to search the sacred grounds for bodies but they were unable to find any remains. The native people would not tell them where the dead were laid to rest because they did not want their graves to be disturbed. (It should also be noted that as well as the negative externalities the road would cause on the native people and their culture,it would also cause serious damage to the environment and the Old Meairs farmstead (second largest homestead in Kansas) would be also destroyed.)
In 2002, the National Register of Historical Places said, it “would not designate the wetlands a Traditional Cultural Property” because they didn’t feel the site had enough information to prove the tribal cultural and religious significance, and so the cultural aspects of the opposition were dismissed as “a nonissue”. Several NGO’s have acquired lawyers to attempt to have the current route, approved by the Army Corps, reviewed once again and changed to cause less damage to the sacred area and follow the path of proposed 42nd street. This case is being disputed through the US District Court and the debate will most likely continue for at least another two years before the road construction is commenced.
– Thomas Downing
3- Haskel Barker Wetlands – Winter 2009 -jessica Sain-Baird
4- http://www.achp.gov/casearchive/caseswin03KS.html – Gov Website