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Four-lane bypass threatens wetlands near Haskell

Part one

LAWRENCE, Kan. - Broken treaties and the loss of land is nothing new among American Indian people; many battles to retain these rights have become generational. At Haskell Indian Nations University, a continuing battle is being carried on to save the Haskell wetlands from being destroyed by a four-lane bypass around the city of Lawrence.

"It makes you wonder when enough is enough," said Esther Geary, former dean of students at Haskell. "It has been going on since I moved here in 1988, and the students just keep taking up where earlier students left off in fighting to stop it. I thought it was over with when I retired a few years ago, but it seems almost like the way they used to take our land, always changing the terms of the 'treaty.' As long as this is an issue, the students will continue learn the history of Haskell and join in the efforts to stop the bypass. For many of them over the years, it appears that they just don't want to see any more Indian land taken."

Since Haskell was built in the 1880s to train Indian children to be "good citizens," the original land base of the school has dwindled greatly. Hundreds of acres have been signed over to the city and other colleges, leaving the campus at a fraction of its original size. The city and county have made threats in the past to turn an easement that goes through the southern end of the campus and forms 31st Street - given years ago - into a four-lane road if they can't put the bypass where they want it.

The original plan for the road was decided upon in 1985, and the battle to save the wetlands began. Years of protests by students and community members, along with legal battles, have failed to convince those in favor of the road to build it south of the nearby Wakarusa River. Even after the Haskell Board of Regents voted a resounding ''no'' in 1999 to the South Lawrence Trafficway, the state and, now, the city have continued to put pressure on the university to give in to the road that would divide the southern part of the campus.

The ongoing battle over the small parcel of land known as the Haskell wetlands continues, with some calling it sacred ground because of a medicine wheel in the wetlands. Other opponents to the road are adamant that many of the 700 early students who attended the school are buried there. Community support for the students has grown over the years and organizations have been founded to keep the land as it is. Despite all the offers, the college, students and staff have stood firm against any further building in the area of the wetlands, holding fast against what they consider just more empty promises and more land that will be taken from them.

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For more than 100 years, the area of the wetlands has been a drawing place for Haskell students. In the early years, when Haskell was run like a military institution, students found refuge on the wetlands that had been drained to form Haskell Farm. The employees working at the farm were kind to them and an escape from the military discipline the children had to endure on the main campus. The farm also bordered the Wakarusa River, where students had secret reunions with their families.

The farm was finally abandoned as the wetlands fought their own way back to their present status, but the students have continued to be drawn to them. As Haskell transformed from an institution to a boarding school, junior college and then a university, the wetlands healed and transformed along with the school and are now one of the last true wetlands in the state of Kansas.

Haskell President Linda Warner has stated flatly that Haskell has not changed its stance on the proposed road. "Haskell's position is that we haven't changed our position," she said. "It should be south of the wetlands. We're not going to stop saying what we have always said, which is no."

When asked why the SLT project suddenly seems to have reappeared again, Warner said, "I think as the traffic increases around here [Lawrence], they think they can just wear us down on it." But the new Haskell president doesn't appear to be worn down; she has appointed a point person from the school to attend meetings on the SLT and has been proudly watching as student organizations continue their own fight to hold on to Indian land.

(Continued in part two)