News » Janovy

Dead End

Lawrence's trafficway becomes a matter of graves concern.


Here's the old story: Back in the 1880s, the United States government began taking American Indian kids from their families and sending them to a boarding school on a thousand acres of crops and swampland in Lawrence. Up until the 1950s, the government forced the Indians to farm like white people, to do manual labor and to be Christians. Many died of tuberculosis or pneumonia after living in the Haskell school's cold, damp buildings. Those who tried to escape earned beatings or trips to the schoolhouse jail. Some looked for comfort by retreating into the wetlands to pray. At least a hundred Indian children are buried in those wetlands; legend has it there could be several hundred.

These days Indians from all over the country come to Haskell Indian Nations University for a college education that respects their cultures. For Haskell students, faculty and alumni -- and for the Lawrence environmentalists who support them -- the wetlands that stretch from Haskell's campus south toward the Wakarusa River are sacred, not just because of the buried bodies but also because Indians still go there for ceremonies -- and wetlands everywhere are a vanishing natural resource. But for the past fifteen years, the city of Lawrence, along with Douglas County, the Kansas Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration have been trying to put a high-speed trafficway in those wetlands.

The developers, real-estate speculators and lawyers who stood to gain from the trafficway began their assault by dismissing Haskell as merely the site of a yearly pow-wow. Throughout the '90s, however, scrappy trafficway opponents fought back. They demanded that Haskell be included in the debate. They argued that the proposed highway violated environmental-justice laws meant to protect minorities from having pollution-spewing projects crammed into their neighborhoods. They raised questions about conflicts of interest and good-old-boy politics. And, through a lawsuit, they forced the would-be road builders to complete an environmental impact study.

The builders already were arrogant enough to finish a separate western leg of the trafficway. With a dead-end highway in place, they assumed they'd have little problem bulldozing through Haskell. But by last June, the results of the environmental impact study forced them to give up on the ill-conceived plan.

That's where the old story should have ended. But people in Lawrence think they have a traffic problem; they also have a half-finished bypass. And despite their reputation for being liberal, they think the Indians have been pouty and obstructionist. Now come reports that Mike Rees, head counsel for KDOT, won't let the dead road lie.

He's hired a public relations firm. He's talking about "mitigating" the trafficway's damage by building new manmade wetlands nearby. He's trying an end-run around Haskell by tempting other area colleges and school districts with a $5 million nature research facility. And he's talking tough: "We could take this as a state project" -- as opposed to one involving federal moneys and regulations -- "and buy the right-of-way," he told the Lawrence Journal-World, "but we really would like to work something out with Haskell."

Rees' plans also include a new indignity: poking around for bodies in the wetlands.

He says that some trafficway opponents "contended that the wetlands had been used as a burial site for Haskell students. In their view, that was a very significant factor given their culture and spiritual beliefs. They never were specific as to where any of these burials were, although certain of them claim to have knowledge of locations that they wouldn't divulge."

Given their history, it's hard to blame the Indians for keeping quiet about where exactly their dead might be resting.

But Rees is going to look for them even though he doubts anyone will find them. "What is now the wetlands was farmed until about 1985," he says. "Anything identifiable as a site would have been plowed many times over. The likelihood that we would actually come up with information or find a burial site seems problematic." And graves won't stop the trafficway. "There's always the possibility of some removal and reinterment if it could be determined what nation or tribe the remains were related to."

Rees has hired a consulting firm, which in turn hired an anthropology professor at the University of Denver named Larry Conyers. He puts "electromagnetic fields into the ground and measures how the ground responds to that field." He also uses ground-penetrating radar. "It's a very sensitive method."

Not sensitive enough, however, to find any bones. "It might reveal a casket, but you probably wouldn't see what was in the casket," Conyers says. "The technology is really good at finding void spaces, but quite often in older graves you don't have void spaces anymore. So you measure just the changes in soil types that might be related to the digging of the grave because the machines are fairly good at showing disturbed soils."

It's eerie listening to Conyers talk. "I don't know what the story is and don't want to know because apparently it's somewhat contentious," he says of the trafficway. Conyers is twice removed from all of the emotions circling around the cold, cold ground south of Haskell.

But the Indians aren't. "The graves and everything about it, it's sacred to all Indians," says Martha Houle, a member of Haskell's Board of Regents and the president of Haskell's national alumni association. "They seem to think that it doesn't mean anything to anybody, but they're disrespecting our burial grounds. We wouldn't go bother their cemeteries. We have respect for our dead."

Rees should have so much respect for his dead trafficway. Instead, he's sending electromagnetic jolts through Haskell's peacefully sleeping ancestors.

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