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Community volunteers restore 'forgotten' Haskell Cemetery

LAWRENCE, Kan. - On the edge of Haskell Indian Nations University campus, a small cemetery stands alone.

Surrounded by cedar trees and a chain link fence, plain marble headstones and the memories of parents and ancestors are all that remain of the children sent to Haskell during its first years as a government institution for assimilating Native American children. Many children died during the first two years after the institute was opened. Harsh winters and influenza, as well as poor sanitation have been blamed for the deaths in 1888 and 1889.

As Haskell continued its mission, more marble headstones were added to the cemetery as students died over the years. The lack of transportation and the isolation of many reservations made returning the children's bodies to their homelands impossible.

The little graveyard is neat and clean. The grass is mowed and the weeds have been kept at bay by the fence that surrounds the cemetery, but there has little other upkeep over the years. There are no cherubs or fountains or even plants. Gravestones stand pitifully alone and, for the most part, forgotten by the living.

They may have remained forgotten had it not been for the efforts of Elder LaMar Penrod of the Church of Jesus Christ-Latter day Saints. He spearheaded a movement to clean up the moss-covered gravestones and to make the cemetery a tribute to the children who died at Haskell so many years ago. He works with Haskell students and with the Interfaith Council at the college and has become a university fixture. His open door policy has brought many students friendship and understanding over the years.

Penrod will conduct a dedication and memorial service Sunday, May 14, during the Haskell Pow Wow to remember the children. Assistant Dean of Students Benny Smith will provide a Cherokee blessing.

Penrod believes it is important that Native American traditions and customs be a part of any ceremony at the cemetery to honor the great nations from which students came. Why?

"Well, a couple of years ago I was involved in a ceremony here. When I looked around all we saw were six or seven people at the ceremony. Then we looked around and saw all the work that needed to be done.

"The children are very special and sacred to me. I don't like to think about what happened and brought them here. Anyway, they are the beginning of this school. The least we could do is clean up their stones and put flowers around. They were forgotten."

He said he feels people want to keep up the cemetery, but are just too busy with jobs and families. When a volunteer group from the J.C. Penney catalog department offered to help restore the cemetery, Penrod quickly organized a work crew armed with scrub brushes, wheelbarrows and gravel.

Workers scrubbed the years of oxidation and moss off headstones. Names covered for years became readable. Some headstones had settled or actually sunk. Workers lifted the stones, put gravel beneath them and leveled them out.

As the work progressed, Sioux, Hopi, Potawatomi, Oneida, Caddo names emerged among nations who have children in the graveyard.

"For me, all cemeteries are sacred. Once we become a spirit, we can do anything we want, we can go anywhere. There is no reason that they can't be here at their service. Just because we can't see them doesn't mean they aren't here," Elder Penrod said.

"You can almost tell what kind of a town or city it is if you go out and look at the cemetery. If ... the cemetery is pretty and well kept, then they are proud of their past and looking toward their future. I think we have to make this a very special sacred place; that will make this a better school."

Penrod and Smith say a martyr is someone who gives his or her life to provide something good. To them the children buried at Haskell are martyrs and deserve a place of honor and respect.

The diversity committee at Penney's was there to not only help restore the cemetery, but to learn about their neighbors at Haskell.

"We won't quit now, we will continue. It takes a lot of work to maintain something pretty, not a lot of money. We have a lot of volunteers now," Penrod said.

He envisions plants and shrubs and benches in the cemetery to make it a special resting place, one that will draw people to it. This should be a special and sacred place, he said, one which will never again be forgotten.