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Caron: Saving Haskell's soul, the story of a threatened wetland refuge

For well over a century Kansas has hosted the largest and most tribally diverse of all the off-reservation boarding schools, Haskell Institute, reinvented today as Haskell Indian Nations University. This institution modeled itself on Richard Henry Pratt's school in Carlisle, Pa. The primary architect of that infamous cultural extermination camp, Rev. Joshua Lippincott, relocated to Lawrence, Kan. just prior to Haskell's opening in 1884 and frequently advised its early administrators.

Kansas was not where Pratt wanted to expand his system of forced assimilation. He believed distance was crucial. Lawrence was simply too accessible to Indian territory and Great Plains reservations. Parents would try to visit. Children would be tempted to run away.

There were other concerns. Lippincott had taken care to farm Carlisle boys and girls out only to carefully selected Christian families. However, many influential Kansans had made their fortunes stealing Indian resources and driving tribes off treaty lands. Lippincott feared how his "outing" project would fare in Lawrence. He correctly foresaw abuse and exploitation if helpless children fell into the hands of folks with the strong prejudices toward Indians that prevailed in Kansas at the time.

The problem was Congressman Dudley C. Haskell, chairman of the Indian Affairs Committee. Haskell controlled the funds for additional boarding schools. He demanded one for his hometown. Pratt, anxious to see his system spread, went along. Lippincott needed "persuasion:" he became Chancellor of the University of Kansas. Lawrence provided land for the Indian school. They purchased one of the most poorly drained remnants of the once vast Wakarusa River bottoms. This place flooded so often that no one seriously considered farming it. The classrooms and farm buildings were located on the highest ground along the northern edge of the wetland. The county poor farm was already located on the south side of this "unhealthy swampland."

Parents and elders who escorted their kids to Haskell camped down along the Wakarusa, sometimes for weeks and months. Here, in the wetlands, grandmothers and uncles imparted final advice about the night sky and medicinal plants and crucial ceremonies. This place became a refuge from the relentless machinery of forced acculturation. It was one place where Indians could speak familiar words without fear of severe punishment. In the wetlands it was safe to burn sage, tobacco, or cedar and pray as the people had always done. One could find willows and sufficient seclusion to erect a sweat lodge. Such things were illegal until the 1930s. Even dancing and singing songs with ceremonial significance could mean jail time. Haskell developed an enormous runaway problem. Many never made it past the wetlands, dying of exposure while hiding there or drowning as they tried to cross the unpredictable Wakarusa.

When Lippincott said, "Kill the Indian, save the man," he envisioned saving souls. Captain Pratt borrowed the phrase as a mantra for his cheaper alternative to Indian fighting: boarding schools as weapons of mass cultural destruction. But to Haskell students, who heard this same chilling phrase from Lippincott's own lips often in the years that he resided in Lawrence and Topeka, there must have been considerable irony as they watched so many of their classmates dying of disease and despair. "Let the Indian in you die," he told mourners when he officiated at the many burials in the Haskell Cemetery. For him accepting Christianity and adopting "civilized" ways were synonymous.

What Christians saw as saving souls, Indians with traditional beliefs viewed as cultural extermination. Soul release required proper ceremonies. One dying wish students could grant comrades was to take a lock of hair or even a school cap the deceased had worn to use in a spirit release ceremony. This was performed beyond the watchful eyes of school officials, almost always in the wetland. When student search parties found the bodies of runaways, some of whom had left their deathbeds to avoid a burial that would prevent them from following their ancestors into the next world, there was considerable incentive to keep the news from the authorities. Let the dead rest beyond the grasp of those who had turned their lives to misery.

Precisely because this wetland had become an obvious refuge for those who resisted acculturation, it had to be eliminated. Chopping away the natural vegetation, much like cutting hair of new arrivals, was a start. Those who broke school rules dug drainage ditches. Others helped local contractors lay a bed of tiles, like a roof beneath the earth's skin, to hasten run-off. By 1920 Haskell authorities declared the wetland dead. The "useless" swamp had become an outdoor classroom where Indian youths could see that God intended the land to be "productive." The farm was quietly abandoned, the equipment sent to Oklahoma in the 1930s. The land was leased for cattle grazing until it was "surplussed" like so many other "unneeded" Indian lands. It came into the hands of Baker University. The wetlands sprang back to life, 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 mid-1980s Kansas Department of Transportation (KDOT) began serious efforts to route the South Lawrence Trafficway (SLT) through the southern end of the Haskell campus on 31st Street. That effort failed a decade later when KDOT lost their appeal in federal court. By then the western leg of the SLT was open. KDOT offered Baker University $8.5 million for permission to build through the wetland. The proposed two lane SLT of a few years ago now includes six lanes of right of way, plus four lanes to replace 31st Street, which would be removed from the current Haskell campus.

In the fall of 2002 the Army Corps of Engineers announced intentions to permit the "32nd Street" route through the wetlands rather than an alternative south of the Wakarusa, which would by-pass the Haskell Wetland entirely. The Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation hired a highway engineer who documented how KDOT had inflated the costs of building south of the river. Several weeks ago, instead of issuing their Record of Decision, the Corps signaled that it intends to reopen route investigations. The stage for the final battle has been set.

Michael Caron leads Save the Wetlands, a coalition that includes Haskell alumni, historic preservationists, and environmentalists from the Lawrence community who have fought efforts to pave the Haskell Wetland since 1985. He lives beside the Haskell campus where he began researching Indian boarding schools as a cultural geographer in the early 1970s. Caron is coordinating the effort to have Haskell's historic wetland named to the National Trust's "Most Endangered" list.