Haskell Students Speak Out About Protecting the Wakarusa Wetlands

Native American students protest a proposed trafficway through the Wakarusa Wetlands.

Jessica Lackey, Cherokee, and Millicent Pepion, Navajo and Blackfeet, are members of the Wetlands Preservation Organization (WPO), a plaintiff in the South Lawrence Trafficway (SLT) case. They were present on January 19 when the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments for and against the thoroughfare. (See Carol Berry’s story on the hearing here.)

Lackey and Pepion, both students at Haskell Indian Nations University, lead the WPO; Lackey is the group’s president, Pepion is the vice president. To raise awareness of the cultural importance of the wetlands to the American Indian community, WPO has been giving tours of Haskell’s medicine-wheel earthwork. Built in the wetlands in 1992, 500 years after Columbus’s landing in the New World, the wheel exists to honor Indian students who walked on while attending Haskell. The university itself began as a boarding school to assimilate Indians into white culture in 1884.

ICTMN talked with Lackey and Pepion about what the wetlands mean to them.

What is a Medicine Wheel?

Pepion: Traditionally, a medicine wheel is a threshold for spiritual energy. Haskell's Medicine Wheel [Earthwork] is no different. It is a medicine wheel in every sense. What makes it unique is the fact that our medicine wheel is made of the earth. It is about a quarter of a mile in length and width. In the spring and summer when the grass is long, the medicine wheel can be waist high. It is located in the wetlands behind our school.

Lackey: The medicine wheel symbol is found among many tribes across the U.S. The circle represents the cycle of life. Within the circle are the seven directions: north, south, east, west, above, below, and right here. Each tribe has their own interpretation and colors that coordinate with each direction. The four cardinal directions at the Haskell Medicine Wheel also have stone monoliths which are pieces of the original Haskell buildings; these stones are used for visitors to leave offerings and are there to also allow visitors to touch a piece of history. The medicine wheel at the Haskell campus also includes a bear claw symbol to the west, deer prints to the north and south, and a water bird in the east.

What purpose does the medicine wheel at Haskell serve?

Lackey: The medicine wheel is a symbol of 500 years of Native American perseverance. In 1992 Haskell professors, students, tribal elders, and crop artist Stan Herd created the medicine wheel, an earthwork located south of the Haskell campus inside the Haskell wetlands. 1992 marked 500 years since Columbus “founded” this continent and spurred the oppression of tribal people across the Americas.

Pepion: When the medicine wheel was created in 1992, it originally stood as a symbol of Native Americans’ resiliency in this country. We are still here 500 years after Christopher Columbus! Throughout the years it has served as somewhat of a chapel to students, faculty, and community members. We do different types of ceremonies there.

Why is the medicine wheel important?

Pepion: Haskell's wetlands have always served as a refuge for Haskell students. In the early boarding school years, students would turn to the wetlands for prayer and guidance. They could speak their language in the wetlands. It is common fact that when students died in these boarding schools they were given “proper Christian burials.” To honor the dead in their traditional practices, early students would turn to places, such as our wetlands, to perform different ceremonies. Several elders who have visited our campus have contended there are in fact Native American children buried in the wetlands behind our school. For these reasons they have become sacred and that’s important. It is equally as important to maintain this relationship with the earth that our ancestors started when Haskell was first built.

Lackey: Many different people use the Haskell Medicine Wheel today. Often times it is used as a place for prayer or solitude. It is also a gathering place for groups such as the Wetlands Preservation Organization. The original creators made the medicine wheel as a Native gift to all people of this planet and it is there for anyone to use in any way that they wish.

How do people feel about the tours?

Lackey: I believe that every time we bring someone to the medicine wheel who hasn’t been there before they learn something that they never knew before, whether it is about the history of Haskell, the wetlands, or the medicine wheel itself. Those of us who lead the tours use the medicine wheel as a place of education for all three of those topics.

People are usually really interested in the stories that we share which can include what the medicine wheel is, why it was created, the history of Haskell and the wetlands, or even our own traditional stories. I think that those who join us at the medicine wheel take away a better understanding of who we are as Native people and why are beliefs are the way they are.

Pepion: Everybody who I have given a tour to leaves with a sense of understanding. They have a better understanding of Haskell students, and Native Americans in general. I try to stress the importance of understanding our relationship to Mother Earth. Last week we had some Purdue University under-grads take a tour. Some shook my hand and thanked me for sharing with them a glimpse of indigenous lore.

The China Tribute Pole was crafted by First Nations artists to honor those whose lives were devastated by the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake.

A tour group in the Wakarusa Wetlands.

How do people react to the tours?

Lackey: I think one of the best reactions I got was from one of the elementary school kids that came last semester for a tour. After explaining to the group about the wetlands, Haskell and the SLT issue the girl stated, “Well if so many people are against the road, why are they building it?” All of the reactions I have received have always been positive. I have never had someone react badly to anything that we present to them. I think a lot of the time people are pretty shocked about the history of Haskell, especially those who live here. They couldn’t imagine that that type of system was occurring right here in town.

Pepion: We have only received positive feedback. A professor at the University of Kansas gave me a hug with a tear in his eye after I told him a story about Mother Earth and Father Sky. He teaches literature at KU and wanted his students to know, not all stories are written down.

How does the memory of the boarding school and those who passed affect you?

Pepion: The remnants of what happened still linger in the hallways and dormitories. When I sit in any empty building on campus, I can feel spirits around me. In the past I have worked at Haskell's Cultural Museum. It was interesting to see the names of past students and then see their descendants in class learning with me. I am a third generation student. My grandmother came here in the late 1940s. Several students have similar backgrounds. When I learn about how they treated our ancestors here on campus, it affects my mood, and it empowers me to seek justice.

Lackey: The history of Haskell and those who have passed here is important to me because if it weren’t for them I would not be here. I work at the Haskell Cultural Center and Museum and frequently give tours of our Haskell history exhibit: Honoring Our Children Through Seasons of Sacrifice, Survival, Change, and Celebration. The exhibit is based on medicine wheel and a mirror image of it was placed in the center of our museum.

The exhibit explains about the early years of Haskell—the harsh, militaristic system that was used to “kill the Indian and save the man”—how the children banded together and created new communities in order to survive the early, darker years, how the curriculum changed once Dr. Henry Roe Cloud became superintendent of the school (he was the first Native superintendent and was actually the first Native American to graduate Yale Law School), and how we now celebrate Haskell today as a four-year university that embraces all of our tribal cultures.

If it weren’t for those first students who had to endure the boarding school system Haskell would not have evolved into the great school that it is today. Although the history is a horrible one, often times beyond comprehension, if it wasn’t for the history and those first kids we wouldn’t have a university that represents over 150 federally recognized tribes that embraces our culture and beliefs. Those first students gave the ultimate sacrifice so that we could receive a great education here.

What is the group’s goal in giving tours?

Lackey: The purpose of these tours was to get Haskell students, KU students, and the general public to come out to Haskell’s wetlands. We wanted people to be able to experience them first hand. You can talk all day to someone about how beautiful and important the wetlands are but they won’t really grasp it until they are there themselves.

We also wanted to be able to educate people about the wetlands from a Native perspective. As Native people we understand that we were given the job as caretakers of the land and it is important for us to teach others about the importance of sacred sites and making sure we have a balanced, sustainable environment.

Lastly, we wanted to be able to present the history of Haskell and the wetlands to those who do not know about it. Since the issue of the SLT is often times presented biasedly in the local media we wanted to create a format in which we could tell our story straight to the public, unedited.

How will if affect you personally if the trafficway is constructed through the wetlands?

Pepion: It will change me. When you care about something wholeheartedly, and it is destroyed, it hurts. Even now the potential of impending doom is sickening.

Lackey: As a student at Haskell, and as a person who understands the history of Haskell, I will hurt for those spirits and children who remain out in the wetlands. To me, and many others, the Wakarusa Wetlands are a sacred space and if the SLT is built it will just be another example of a government ignoring Native Americans and doing what they think is in the best interest of everyone. It will also take away a place that I have found much solitude in, a place that has shown me why we need to stop developing on every single piece of land that is “open.” The wetlands have a lot to say if a person takes the time to listen.

What was the hearing on January 19 like? What did it teach you?

Lackey: I had sat in on a couple of court cases in high school for my government class but I had never sat in a federal court case before. It was very interesting to me. The court times both sides so they only have 15 minutes to present their oral arguments. The plaintiffs, our side, went first. Then the defendant, the Federal Highway Administration and the Kansas Department of Transportation, gave their presentation. At the end we were given a few minutes of rebuttal.

It was hard sitting there listening to the other side’s arguments without wanting to shout out but all of us were able to keep our composure. The defendants seemed to think that our side was nitpicking their Environmental Impact Statement and that this issue that we were arguing about was “much ado about nothing.” The judges asked our side a lot of questions but our lawyer Bob Eye said that it is typical of them to ask the plaintiffs more questions than the other side.

In general, I was glad that we were there to support our lawyers and to see first hand what kind of mentality we are fighting against.

What are your plans after Haskell?

Pepion: I anticipate graduating with my bachelor’s in Indigenous and American Indian Studies in May of 2013. Ironically, that is when construction for the trafficway is supposed to take place. If I'm not strapping myself to a tree in the wetlands, I'll be attending law school. This wetlands issue has influenced my decision to stand up for what I believe in, both in and out of the courtroom. I want to be a Native American environmental lawyer.

Lackey: I will be graduating this May (2012) with my bachelor’s in American Indian Studies. Currently I am working on getting a job with one of my professors at school so that I can continue to help build new programs and partnerships at Haskell. I plan to attend graduate school in the future to study either Cherokee Studies or Museum Studies, or both if I can. Eventually I would like to work with my tribe, the Cherokee Nation. Overall my future is wide open to all opportunities that are presented to me.

Tours of the medicine wheel are offered Saturdays at 9 a.m. or can be scheduled ahead of time through the WPO. Check out the group’s Facebook page for more information.

Below are some pictures of the wetlands and the students involved in the protection effort submitted by Lackey:

This December, 1, 2008 photo provided by the Arizona Attorney General's office shows seized marijuana. With gadgetry such as custom-built ramps as well as ultralight planes, false doors and good old-fashioned duct tape, smugglers have demonstrated unbounded creativity when it comes to sneaking drugs across the Mexican border. And the U.S. government acknowledges there is only so much it can do to stop the flow.

This December, 1, 2008 photo provided by the Arizona Attorney General's office shows seized marijuana. With gadgetry such as custom-built ramps as well as ultralight planes, false doors and good old-fashioned duct tape, smugglers have demonstrated unbounded creativity when it comes to sneaking drugs across the Mexican border. And the U.S. government acknowledges there is only so much it can do to stop the flow.

Cynthia Lindquist, Dakota, president of Cankdeska Cikana Community College (center) brought together Dr. Donald Lindberg, director of the National Medical Library (left) with Albert Red Bear, Jr., and eight other respected medicine men. (By Mary Annette Pember)

Cynthia Lindquist, Dakota, president of Cankdeska Cikana Community College (center) brought together Dr. Donald Lindberg, director of the National Medical Library (left) with Albert Red Bear, Jr., and eight other respected medicine men. (By Mary Annette Pember)