Indigenous Peoples and Human Rights

April 13, 2012

Haskell: Disappearance and renewal in the wetlands

At the Rights of Mother Earth gathering, Native American students share the stories of resistance, survival and reconnection to the earth in the Haskell wetland

By Brenda Norrell
Censored News
Watch video below

HASKELL INDIAN NATIONS UNIVERSITY, Kansas – Native American students at Haskell described how Haskell Indian boarding school, once a place of terror and assimilation, is today a place for renewing traditional ways and reconnecting with the earth, during the Rights of Mother Earth gathering, April 4 – 6.

Native American students, members of the Wetlands Preservation Organization described their fight to halt a major highway from being built through the marshland. The remains of the children who ran away, and others who died and were disappeared, are believed to remain here in the Haskell wetlands.

Jessica Lackey, member of the Cherokee Nation and the Wetlands Preservation Association described the reign of terror targeting Indian children beginning in the 1880s, including those who were brought here to Haskell Indian boarding school.

Haskell Indian Industrial School began in 1884, as Indian children were forcibly removed from their families. Young Indian children were torn from their families and brought here. They were taught Eurocentric ways and were the targets of forced assimilation into the mainstream culture. The goal was to get rid of their Native American culture.

“When they came to these schools, they weren’t allowed to speak their language. If they had long hair, it had to be cut. Often times they couldn’t associate with other family members that were at the schools with them. It was a very militaristic, harsh, system and a lot of them died,” Lackey said.

The wetlands were a place where boys were taught to become farmers, because that was what the school administrators wanted them to become.

“But the wetlands were also a sanctuary, a site of resistance.”

Lackey said the children often ran away to the wetlands to flee forced assimilation. Since the children’s parents were not allowed to come to the school or to stay in Lawrence because of racial prejudice, the families camped out here in the wetlands.
 “The kids would run away to their families.”

“A lot of us believe that the wetlands are a final resting place of the children who ran away.”

Lackey said the cemetery has about 100 grave stones. However, hundreds of children are still missing and unaccounted for from Haskell Indian boarding school.

In the 1950s, the wetlands were taken away from Haskell and given to the city of Lawrence during the termination area, when it was deemed surplus land. Later, acres were given to Baker University as a gift. Since the 1970s and 1980s, there has been a plan to construct a highway corridor, of 6 to 10 lanes, by the State of Kansas and the US.

The Wetlands Preservation Organization has been fighting this highway for decades, both because of the environmental impact and the need to preserve this as a sacred place of life and resistance.

“We do believe that there are children still buried out there,” Lackey said.

In the video below, Brett Ramey, a former Haskell student describes the connection that the wetlands offer today, including the knowledge of the nettle and other healing plants in the wetlands. He said today, an institution that was set up to eradicate the way of life is now a place to connect with traditional ways and the earth itself.

Ramey describes how one professor taught them how to gather wild plants, nettles, and other plants, and make rope. “They have their right to be there as well,” he said of the plants.

Stinging nettle, good for purifying one’s blood in spring, is a reminder to pay attention. “It is a good reminder to me to pay attention to how I walk upon this earth.”

Millicent Pepion says, on the video below, that the bodies of the students are not just in marked graves.

"They are scattered beneath the wetlands."

Elders said children's bodies were thrown in the dumpsite at the marshlands.
If children ran away, they were brought back by bounty hunters.

Listen to all of the Haskell students on the video and read the history of the wetlands below. Jessica Lackey, Marisol Cortez, Caitlin Cooper, Joshua Hernandez, Brett Ramey, Cleta LaBrie, Kelda Britton, and Millicent Pepion. Cortez is a teacher at Kansas University, originally from San Antonio, and worked with the Southwest Workers Union with environmental justice and climate justice efforts.

Sunday, May 13: Trail of Broken Promises, walk from the Wetlands to DC

Video recorded by Earthcycles
Haskell students and former students are Jessica Lackey, Marisol Cortez, Caitlin Cooper, Joshua Hernandez, Brett Ramey, Cleta LaBrie, Kelda Britton, and Millicent Pepion.
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Wetlands Preservation Organization
About the Haskell Baker Wetlands
The wetlands around Lawrence, in eastern Kansas, hold over a hundred years of memories of Native children forced to grow up in isolation from their families and cultures. These memories bear their traces in unmarked child graves and a medicine wheel erected by contemporary Haskell students. Now, a proposed highway would run through the wetlands, destroying the sacred place and the ecosystem. “It is disturbing that…the [Army] corps would permit construction that will irreparably damage the environmental, scientific, historical, cultural and religious resources of the wetlands, especially when better and less expensive alternatives have been swept under the carpet,” says Jackie Mitchell, of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation. “This cannot be allowed to happen.”


At the end of U.S. Indian Treaty Negotiations in 1871, the U.S. government began formal assimilation policies Geared toward the civilization of American Indian Peoples. One result of this “civilizing” mission was the Growth of Indian boarding schools from the end of the 19th century through the early 20th century. To reformers, assimilation and off-reservation boarding schools were a better alternative to policies of literal extermination and so Bureau of Indian Affairs agents were given license to forcibly remove children from their homelands, families, and culture, all in the name of saving them. Native children stolen from their families were forced to adopt European ways and were punished severely for speaking their native language, practicing their religion, or celebrating their traditions.

The United States Indian Industrial Training School, as the Haskell School was first known, was one of the first boarding schools and opened in 1884 with the goal of giving American Indian students the vocations skills necessary to assimilate in order to “kill the Indian and save the man.” Haskell began its boarding school with twenty-two Indian students from various tribes across the U.S., first focusing on agricultural trades.

The school was located on wetlands to use land that white settlers did not want, yet the wetlands became a place of comfort and ceremony for many of the students forced into this harsh new way of life. The wetlands served as a place of farewells, where elders left children with words of advice and prayer, and a meeting place for students to reunite with their families and friends when they were homesick. Students often went to the wetlands to perform ceremonies, pray, commune with nature and the environment, and even to bury their dead. The children’s deaths were caused by disease, suicide, sometimes the environment itself, as runaway students died of exposure in the wetlands. Students were secretly buried in the wetlands by their fellow students. Thus this area has always been a site of resistance, a fact recognized by the school officials, who tried to “kill” the wetlands—cutting down vegetation and draining the water—in order to prevent the cultural activates which took place there.

We see it as our duty to speak as caretakers for the natural world-the principle being that all life is equal, including the four-legged and the winged things. The principle has been lost; the two-legged walk about thinking he is supreme with his man-made laws. But there are universal laws of all living things. We came here and we say they too have rights.

Onondaga Chief Oren Lyons (1979)

Why Save the Wetlands?

The wetland of the Wakarusa River Valley once covered 17,800 acres. Now only 670 acres are left and 573 of those are under the control of Baker University. We must keep in mind that wetlands are extremely valuable in nature; they act as a buffer zone between land and water. Water picks up dirt and sediment as it travels down the watershed to the rivers and often carries high levels of pollutants from agricultural or urban runoff. In the natural world, there are no sewage treatment plants to clean water; nature had her own method for water purification and it called a wetland. Wetlands purify water, provide flood storage, cycle nutrients, provide habitat for fish and wildlife, and provide opportunities for education, recreation, and they are beautiful. The wetlands of the Wakarusa River Valley (Haskell-Baker Wetlands) are home to 243 species of birds, 21 species of fish, 22 species of reptiles, 26 species of plants. This area serves as a feeding and breeding ground for the migratory birds that breed in Canada and set up camp in the wetlands while on their way to Mexico and South America. The Northern Crawfish Frog is an endangered species and its critical habitat is the wetlands.

The proposed construction of the South Lawrence Trafficway (SLT) would jeopardize the integrity of the wetlands, the sacred sites, and the preservation of potential national historic sites in the area. The SLT proponents claim that the bypass would ease congestion and consider the SLT to be an important link between Lawrence, Topeka and the Kansas City area. However, all of these major cities are already linked by I-70 which transects Topeka and is readily accessible by Lawrence. After considering various routes for a bypass that would connect Kansas Highway 10 on the city's east side with Interstate 70 northwest of Lawrence, the Army Corps of Engineers approved a 32nd Street route that runs south of the university through the wetlands, instead of an alternate 42nd Street route farther south that would avoid the main wetlands area and location of the graves. They claim the 32nd Street route is shorter, safer, and cheaper, while the opposition accuses them of artificially inflating the price tag of the 42nd Street alternative.

The Corps’s plans were based on an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) which suggested that new, improved wetlands could be constructed elsewhere and that the cultural concerns were not relevant. This second conclusion was based in part on the report of a state archaeologist and an outside team, neither of whom found any physical trace of the graves. Representatives of the Haskell community maintain that they will not reveal the exact location of the graves for fear they will be disturbed. While the several tribes associated with HINU have had some involvement in the process, true government-to-government consultation using Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act has not been initiated by the Department of Transportation and other agencies. In 2002, the National Register of Historic Places announced it would not designate the wetlands as a Traditional Cultural Property due to a lack of sufficient information; however this was based in part on the report of a consultant who was hired by the Army Corps for its draft EIS. Reacting to the decision, the Corps’ project manager, Bob Smith, dismissed cultural and religious concerns as “a nonissue.”

The cultural and religious significance of the Haskell-Baker wetlands to tribes all across this nation would be jeopardized if the proposed route is built through the wetlands. Many Indian people in the area continue to use this sacred site as a place of prayer, meditation, and various ceremonial uses. The Medicine Wheel would also be adversely impacted through air and noise pollution if the southern by-pass of the SLT were constructed. Graveyards of native children stolen from their families and sent to the Haskell Institute would also be disturbed and moved.


Haskell is a unique educational institution. It is here where more than 160 diverse Indian Nations from across the United States are represented, that American Indian and Alaska Native traditional knowledge and teaching methods are integrated into the higher education curriculum; it is here that these teachings techniques are based on learning from nature. The wetlands serve as Haskell’s most important natural environmental laboratory resource to accomplish this goal.

One common denominator among various American Indian beliefs is the philosophy that spiritual and cultural matters are interconnected with the physical and geographical settings. For this reason, the Board of Regents, the Haskell Student Senate and the Administration at Haskell Indian Nations University opposes the 31st Street alignment to the South Lawrence Trafficway.

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