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Ghosts of past called on to help preserve Haskell Wetlands

LAWRENCE, Kan. ? It is a story for the most part forgotten in the battle for or against a proposed highway bypass through the southern end of the Haskell Indian Nations University campus.

As lawsuits, discussions and arguments are brought forward by the Kansas Department of Transportation and the Wetlands Preservation Organization, perhaps the most telling argument against the road has been lost until now. It is the history of a people and wetlands that stood defiant against change.

It is a determination to preserve the legacy left to the school by the "Haskell Babies." Many current employees said they have seen the small, ghostly specters that live on the Haskell grounds. They said they wonder if these are spirits of the children believed to have been buried on the farm which has reverted to its wetlands origins.

The fight over the small parcel known as the Haskell Wetlands has gone on for more than a decade, with some calling it sacred ground because of a medicine wheel in the wetlands area. Others point to missing children from the dark days when Haskell was a government-run boarding school. They say the children were buried there and therefore the land must remain as it is.

Those who want to see the highway built have said the need for better traffic flow outweighs the medicine wheel they believe was built as a stunt to stop the road. Many said they look at the possibility of graves in the wetlands as myth.

But to many at Haskell, the graves in the wetlands aren't a myth. They are as real as the small spirits reported to walk the campus -- young children dressed in turn of the century clothing, following trails to buildings which no longer exist.

For believers, the Haskell Babies are seen as a part of the heritage of Haskell and worth fighting for.

Although students and staff members at the university are more than willing to talk about the Haskell Babies, none wants to be named.

"I believe in them, too many people have seen them over the years. But if you let people know that you believe, they think you are crazy," a staff member said.

"If you look at old maps and pictures on campus, you can see that some of the buildings were built on the old infirmary site," one student said. "I have lots of friends who have seen them." That student went on to tell of a personal experience with one of the spirits in his dorm room.

Thus the wetlands became a new battleground for holding onto American Indian lands and places of spirituality and healing. Ironically, when the original Industrial School was proposed, it was the city of Lawrence that bought the land and gave it to the government to build the school. It is part of the same land it now wants back for the highway. But in the years that followed the gift of land, Haskell students and their ancestors made the campus and its surrounding land a place of their own, Indian country.

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The Wetlands has had a special meaning to students for more than 100 years, a meaning not understood by many who have not shared in its history.

Part of that history is Haskell Farm, created in the early years by draining wetlands adjacent to the Wakarusa River. The farm, once located south of the main campus, was meant as a place for the Haskell students to learn white methods of farming and to keep the school self-sufficient.

It soon became a place of refuge for American Indian children torn from their families, a place for clandestine meetings between children and their relatives. The Wakarusa River offered peace and serenity for the young children, apart from the military discipline of the main campus.

As far back as 1926, on the 50th anniversary of the Battle of the Little Big Horn when many of the veterans of that battle made their way to Haskell for the stadium dedication and a reunion of sorts, it was the "farm" lands that welcomed them. They gathered in camps on what was then known as the farm-wetlands. Even then, stories circulated about the Haskell Babies.

Haskell Indian Nations University, once a battlefield for the clash of cultures, has changed, but the respect for those children who never left Haskell hasn't. Each school year new students learn of the history of Haskell, the Wetlands and the Haskell Babies. They pick up the challenge to continue the fight to save the school land and the place they believe the missing Haskell Babies are buried -- the Wetlands.

On the eastern side of the Haskell campus there is a small graveyard, a little forlorn but not forgotten. Headstones, worn by the elements are almost unreadable, but the graves, tended lovingly by a local church organization and members of the community, show that Haskell's lost children haven't been forgotten.

The headstones tell little about the children buried beneath, just their tribe and the dates of their birth and death. They are lost American Indian children whose potential was never realized. Yet many believe the small spirits from the graveyard and the wetlands stand as protectors of students who came after them.

The small graves are testimony to only a fraction of the children listed as "missing" in old school records. Some estimates are that more than 700 children are missing. Many of them are believed to have been buried at the farm.

Now as the community holds meetings around Lawrence to discuss the SLT project and its impact on the Haskell Wetlands, this important element of Haskell history is brought to light.

The BIA came forward to demand that the two-lane road that now divides the wetlands from the campus be removed.

But the city of Lawrence and the state of Kansas continue to push for a four-lane road in an area that was once a sanctuary and later possibly a graveyard for the early victims of assimilation.

There appears to be no middle ground in the fight over the Haskell Wetlands and the South Lawrence Trafficway.