Haskell-Baker Wetlands

United States
Report By
Alicia Seyler and Amy Corbin
August 1, 2004
August 1, 2004

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 vocational 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. Student life was rigid and inflexible: if a child was caught speaking their tribal language, practicing traditional customs, or not adhering to the militaristic standards of school behavior, cruel and unusual punishments were utilized to deter their “deviant” behavior-which sometimes resulted in the death of the child.

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, who performed spirit release ceremonies using a lock of hair. Thus the area has always been a site of resistance, a fact recognized by school officials, who tried to “kill” the wetlands-cutting down vegetation and draining the water-in order to prevent the cultural activities which took place there.

However, decades later, the wetlands returned to life after being abandoned, “some believe as a gift from the creator, to honor the incredible transformation of Haskell from one of the nation’s most notorious boarding schools to a true university,” in the words of Michael Caron of Save the Wetlands. Various unknown and unmarked graves in the wetlands are a constant reminder of the brutal realities which boarding school forced on the children. Because of these graves, the history of the wetlands, and the experiences that these native children experienced as chattel of the United States government, many tribes consider this land sacred. Indian people continue to use the area for prayer and in 1992, Haskell students constructed a Medicine Wheel which is a site of ceremony. Its historical and cultural significance also makes this land worthy of protecting as a National Historic Site.

The school continues to draw students, though now on a voluntary basis with a curriculum based on Native American cultures. It has gradually evolved from a trade school into a four year university, designated Haskell Indian Nations University in 1993. It enrolls Native American students from around the country and provides B.A. degrees under the auspices of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, training students in elementary teacher education, American Indian studies, business administration, and environmental science. In 2002, the university opened its Cultural Center and Museum which documents the institution’s long and varied history, storing its archives and hosting contemporary exhibitions.


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, 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 Historical 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 environmental impact statement. 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 for 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.

Along with the direct assault on the sacred memories of native children, one of the SLT routes would destroy the historic old Meairs farmstead, the second oldest homestead in Kansas. The Meairs family has lived and worked this farm since William Meairs settled these 160 acres in 1854.

The project also has environmentalists concerned about the state of the wetlands, which include about 40 acres of virgin prairie and are home to over 220 species of birds and other wildlife. In 1969, the National Park Service recognized this area as a National Natural Landmark and designated it as a Natural and Scientific area in 1987, due, in part, to its diverse and functioning wetland ecosystem which acts as a shepherd for wildlife and insects. The Monarch butterfly is among those species which use the area as a resting place along its migration path.

In April 2004, lawyers for a coalition of groups including the Sierra Club, the Wetlands Preservation Organization, Jayhawk Audubon Society and the Prairie Band Potawatomi, Kickapoo, Sac and Fox, and Iowa tribes announced their intention to file suit in U.S. District Court. This suit disputes the route currently approved by the Army Corps of Engineers, a legal process that is estimated to take another two years to resolve. While the Army Corps’ plan offered to construct new wetlands and build an educational center, this is based on dubious environmental arguments and completely ignores the sacredness of the graves and Medicine Wheel. The SLT would permanently destroy this area, a sacred place that cannot be reconstructed. This is not a compromise, but a full-fledged denial of the history of the wetlands and its spiritual persistence.


The tribes and environmental groups fighting the SLT argue that the 42nd Street alignment south of the Wakarusa River is an acceptable alternative which would avoid the sacred wetlands, allowing the Haskell children to remain at rest. The lawsuit against the Army Corps is the best option now that the National Register has denied protection to the area. In the long run, however, the wetlands will need protection as a Traditional Cultural Property, which means a more thorough investigation performed with cultural sensitivity.

What You Can Do

Write to your Congressional representatives and to:

Mary E. Peters
Federal Highway Administrator
400 7th Street, S.W.
Washington, D.C. 20590

Insist that the extension be subject to Section 4(F) of the Department of Transportation Act, which requires KDOT to demonstrate that there are no feasible, prudent alternatives to the proposed route.


Haskell Indian Nations University. “Cultural Center.” HINU.

Labriola Center. “Bibliography of Indian Boarding Schools: Approximately 1875 to 1940.” ASU Libraries.

Save the Wetlands. Save the Wetlands.

Sierra Club-Kansas Chapter. “South Lawrence Trafficway (SLT) Threat to Haskell Baker Wetlands.” Sierra Club-Kansas Chapter.