Save the Wakarusa Wetlands: An NMAI intern shares an environmental concern:
An environmental battle is being waged in America’s heartland. For more than a decade, this issue has split the city of Lawrence, Kansas, with the outcome affecting the future of the Wakarusa Wetlands ecosystem. On one side are the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation, The Haskell University Wetlands Preservation Organization, the Sierra Club, the Jayhawk Audubon Society, Save the Wakarusa Wetlands, and the Kansas University Environs and Ecojustice organizations. On the other side is the Kansas Department of Transportation (KDOT) and Kansas Governor Samuel D. Brownback. The disagreement stems from a proposed 6-to-10-lane highway called the South Lawrence Trafficway (SLT). If approved, it would run directly through the wetlands in order to connect Interstate 70 to Kansas Highway 10.
The Haskell–Baker Wetlands is located south of the city of Lawrence in the Wakarusa River Valley. Historically, the floodplain consisted of approximately 18,000 acres of wetlands which provided critical habitat to support a rich diversity of plants and animals, in addition to hydrological functions. For over a century, the Wakarusa–Baker Wetlands ecosystem has undergone drastic changes. Prior to 1884, the federal government purchased land that
included the wetlands for a United States Indian Industrial Training School whose purpose was to introduce European-American vocational training to Native young people, with the girls focusing on sewing and cooking while the boys did blacksmithing, wagon-making, and farming. The wetlands south of the campus were drained for these boys to farm. The farmlands continuously flooded until their disuse in the 1930s. In the 1950s, the federal government deemed the wetlands surplus land and sold it back to the city of Lawrence. In 1968, over 500 acres of the wetlands were given to Baker University. Construction of the Clinton Dam in the early 1970s altered the Wakarusa River to prevent seasonal spring flooding. This dam also considerably altered the natural water source of the wetlands. Today, only 600 acres of wetlands remain in the Wakarusa River Valley.
The Kansas Department of Transportation, which is in charge of this highway project, asserts that drivers currently must travel through the streets of Lawrence in order to access Interstate 70 from Highway 10. This slows down traffic, increases the possibility of accidents, and increases air pollution in the city. KDOT’s plan to build the SLT through the wetlands, instead of using an alternate route south of the Wakarusa River that borders the wetlands, is detrimental to the health of the wetlands and the history that they hold. Pending resolution, KDOT cannot begin any construction on the road, but Governor Brownback has pledged $192 million in support of the project.
Haskell Indian Nations University, a historic all Native American university, resides beside the Wakarusa Wetlands and has a history tied to them. A Medicine Wheel earthwork designed by students, staff, and tribal elders was dedicated in 1992 in the heart of Haskell’s property within the wetlands. The Medicine Wheel is a place for prayer for many of Haskell’s students and other visitors to the wetlands. Thirty-First Street, a two-lane road, runs between the Haskell–Baker Wetlands. The traffic is heard easily on the Haskell side and constant litter clutters both sides of the road.
My club, the Wetlands Preservation Organization, has been the caretaker of the Haskell Wetlands. We understand their history and importance. The wetlands hold a diverse ecosystem of animals and plants, many of which can be used medicinally. As caretakers, we clean up the trash that habitually shows up on 31st Street and throughout the wetlands. We have also been busy this last year building an eco-friendly boardwalk to welcome visitors into the wetlands. Trails run through the trees for hikers to use, and dog-walkers often walk the cross-country trail that curves throughout them. We plan on creating an informational kiosk so that people may learn what lives in the wetlands and why they are important. We speak out for the wetlands that can’t speak for themselves. At the moment, our case is in the 10th District Court of Appeals, with KDOT attempting to continue the construction of the SLT.
Haskell Indian Nations University opened in 1884 under the name the United States Indian Industrial School. In 1887 the name was changed to Haskell Institute, then Haskell Indian Junior College in 1970, and finally Haskell Indian Nations University in 1993. To American Indians, Haskell is among the most well-known Indian boarding schools in the United States. Boarding schools were originally used to assimilate Indian children into mainstream American culture and often incorporated militaristic protocols. The children were forced to cut their hair and discontinue speaking their languages. They could not practice their culture in any way, oftentimes could not associate with their siblings who attended the same schools, and could not return home for a period of years so that they wouldn’t be in contact with their families. One of Haskell’s early punishments for those who disobeyed rules involved being locked in the school jail, an extreme measure for young children, the youngest at the time being 3 years old. Every morning the children would wake up to bugles, each day they marched in lines to their destinations, and each night ended with bugles. The meals at the school consisted mostly of gravy and lacked proper nutrition.
Many students died during these early, darker years of Haskell. By bringing together children from many different areas, the school exposed students to germs that they never had contacted before. Many fell ill, were not given proper medical attention, and when their bodies could not fight off their sickness, they perished. Since the children were not allowed to visit their families, and since families who came to visit weren’t allowed to stay in town due to prejudices at the time, the wetlands became a meeting place for them. Children would escape to the wetlands to hear news from home and to pass on messages. The wetlands were also where children escaped to get away from the harsh boarding school. Some believe that children who had passed on may also be buried out there. A cemetery on the campus contains only a hundred gravestones, while there are many more children still unaccounted for. The wetlands became a sort of sanctuary for those children who sought to escape forced assimilation.
Following this early history, in 1926 the university administration used the wetlands as a gathering place for Indians. Tents were set up in an “Indian Village” for the thousands of Indians who came to town to participate in the dedication celebration for the new Haskell Stadium. The Indian Village was created in part so that the school could show the difference between the more “savage” Indians and the boys and girls who were going through the Haskell system. Haskell wanted to show that they were producing modern, acculturated citizens and used the visiting families as a backdrop of the past. A buffalo kill, competition dancing, and the clothing of the visitors were highlighted in newspapers.
Haskell is a very special place to me. I have grown so much through the years I have been there and have received many great opportunities, such as this internship at NMAI this summer. Haskell is the pinnacle of Indian Country and is a living picture of our history as part of the United States: Starting off as a boarding school where Indian culture was to be washed away, Haskell has evolved to become a 4-year university that embraces its diverse Native population—a history that is very important to acknowledge.
Native scholar Vine Deloria Jr. said, “The first and most familiar kind of sacred lands are places to which we attribute sanctity because the location is a site where, within our own history, something of great importance has taken place.” Even though most of the wetlands do not belong to Haskell anymore, and the SLT would be built through Baker University’s portion, they are still a part of the school, in history and in spirit. If this road is built through the wetlands, it will be paving over a portion of Haskell history, silencing it in stone. I am here to pass on this story in hopes that others will listen and understand why it is that these wetlands need to be saved. Wado—thank you!
Jessica Lackey is a senior at Haskell Indian Nations University. She is an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation. Jessica is currently an intern in Collections Management at the National Museum of the American Indian's Cultural and Research Center in Maryland.
Photographs (from top to bottom):
Students from Haskell and Purdue universities commemorating the 40th World Wetlands Day, February 2, 2011. Photo courtesy of the Haskell Wetlands Preservation Organization (WPO).
A turtle in the Wakarusa Wetlands. Photo by Mike Caron.
A copperhead in the wetlands. Photo by Jessica Lackey.
The Haskell Medicine Wheel. Photo © Jon Blumb. Used with premission.
"Follow the Leader"—students crossing the wetlands on the Old Farm Road. Photo by Teresa Zaffiro.
Students on campus at Haskell Institute, May 11, 1908 (detail). Lawrence, Kansas. Photo by J. L. Morris. Library of Congress pan 6a25496.
The Wakarusa Wetlands. Photo by Jessica Lackey.
A wetlands protest at Kansas University. Photo courtesy of the WPO.
"Caitlin in the Wetlands." Photo by Jessia Lackey