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Kansas highway project again threatens Haskell lands

LAWRENCE, Kan. - Regents at Haskell Indian Nations University thought they had put the dispute about a proposed road project behind them. In 1999, the board voted no on the South Lawrence Traffic (SLT) way, a road that was to be built through the southern end of the campus on university land.

But a new state campaign to revive the project has many board members wondering 'What part of no don't you understand?'.

Mike Rees, chief counsel with Kansas Department of Transportation, said the only offer actually rejected by Haskell was the 31st Street alignment of the road.

"This is different than what was presented before, this is not the same offer," Rees said. "We're not now limiting the alignment to 31st Street. In fact, it has raised the question to whether or not it would be better if we moved it to the south so we could get the alignment or any road off Haskell University.

"I guess in a sense we are revisiting the situation. We understood in their response in 1999 to be no to 31st Street under the conditions it was presented. The circumstances now are different and the discussion of what can be done is different. What we are talking about now was not presented in 1999."

Controversy surrounding the SLT split the community for years. For more than a decade, Haskell students, alumni and employees and members of the Lawrence community have fought to stop a road project that would have been built across the southern end of the campus, an area called the Haskell Wetlands. Many in the Lawrence Indian community consider the land sacred and have fought the long battle to keep the traffic way at bay.

If the project goes through, the bypass will connect with Kansas Highway 10, the main artery between Lawrence and Kansas City. Sound barriers and 'berms' would be built to keep the noise level of vehicles passing the campus down. Many students object to having a major highway so close to the campus.

The thought of the wetlands being torn up and the noise from the proposed highway kept protesters picketing along the shoulders of 31st Street for years. They called for an end to the encroachment of the area by the Kansas Department of Transportation. Grass-roots support from the Lawrence community helped in the fight to stop the four-lane road. Countless legal papers, community meetings and debates later, the Wetlands Preservation Organization had achieved victory, but it was to be short lived.

The state was at one point so confident the project would go through, it built the first leg, which ended at an unfinished overpass which traversed Kansas Highway 59 in the southern part of the city. SLT opponents have known for a long time that as long as the haunting silhouette of the overpass remains, the fight will continue.

"As long as that bridge is unfinished ... egos got hurt, they got stopped by Indians and Indians shouldn't have any say so in this community," said Anna Wilson spokeswoman for the Wetlands Preservation Organization.

Before the board voted to stop the traffic way, the U.S. Department of the Interior took the position the Regents' decision would be the final word on whether the traffic way could be completed through the Haskell campus.

Whether Interior's stand would change in the face of new incentives being offered by the state - in the form of land and money - is unknown though regents are hopeful BIA support will continue.

Those opposing the project question why state and local governments are pushing so hard to put the project through land adjoining Haskell. Both Baker University and the University of Kansas have wetlands in the area, but neither college is being pushed like Haskell to approve the road project. Wilson said that to her knowledge, little pressure had been put on those institutions to give up land for the SLT.

She said this is just another attempt to build a project that has been defeated. "We oppose any alignment north of the river. It's still the same concept, something we have always opposed."

She said the new alignment proposal for 32nd Street made little difference because it still is north of the river. Her group is working hard to have the land put on the National Historical Landmark Register in hopes of finding a permanent end to the traffic way, she said.

As the state renews its efforts to get the project finished, Rees hired a consultant to "get information to the Indians."

Robert Pirtle, a consultant and self-described go-between working on behalf of the state has been contacting Haskell Regents in what those close to the board are calling "Let's Make a Deal"-type negotiations that would allow the state to go ahead and build the once-defeated traffic way. The state's efforts may have backfired as many of those Pirtle contacted are angry and don't consider him to be a consultant or spokesman. They call him a modern day Indian Agent.

Rees defends hiring Pirtle to begin a dialogue. "He was the one person that I knew ... who had a whole life time of experience in representing Native Americans in pursuit of their interests. As I worked on trying to come up with some solution for the traffic way, it occurred to me that I am not able to nor did I know who to go to. I'm not sophisticated or just have no experience in dealing with the Native American culture. I sought him out originally for advice as to what he would suggest I would do to get out the message I had across."

Rees said he believed that since Pirtle, a former attorney, had dealt with the Native American community throughout his career, that he had the connections to get the information to the right people, something Rees believed he had been unable to do.

Why did Rees believe it was necessary to hire a go-between?

"Because I consider myself to be an educated person," Rees said. "There are differences between me and women and Eastern Asian people and Native Americans. I don't have the contacts or the experience Bob Pirtle does in communicating with the Native Americans. I am a white man and I have spent my life among white people and when I am trying to do my job I try to get the best person I can to help me. Bob Pirtle has devoted his life to the various nations in this country. I think he is better able to relay these messages than I am."

Pirtle who spent the majority of his career working in tribal law sees the negotiations going on between the state and Haskell as a victory for Indians.

"The real key here is the state is so worried about what the city of Lawrence is going to do ..." Pirtle said. "These guys (the state) will give a lot."

But regents say the problem is that it is Pirtle, who works for the state as a consultant, is negotiating with the state, not with them or for them.

Regents President Mamie Rupnicki is furious about the situation.

"Tribes should be insulted the way Mr. Pirtle is speaking for them, as if we need an interpreter in this day and age," she said. "We are not back in the 1800s, in treaty time. The majority of tribes now are highly educated and understand the legalities. I think the state of Kansas did a backdoor thing by bringing Mr. Pirtle in.

"Where is his authority to speak for the board?

"Where is his authority to speak for the different tribes?

"All he is doing is creating conflict. You don't handle business from the backdoor."

Rupnicki said the insult of bringing in a translator was a very deep one. "Me, as just a tribal member, speaking in my own behalf, I feel very insulted that the state of Kansas felt they needed an interpreter, that we need a go-between. Why do we need a go-between? When business people come together and are making a decision, they don't need an interpreter, is the way I am looking at it.

"Mr. Pirtle is acting as an interpreter because he has such a great rapport with the Indians. It's something like an Indian agent or even Custer for that fact. where 'I can take care of these Indians and we can negotiate.' The state of Kansas should have come to the Board of Regents and laid down a proposal."

Haskell regent and spokesman George Tiger also is angered. He also sees the state's efforts as a reversion to the old treaty days. Tiger said he was angered by a letter from Pirtle, full of offers of extra land for Haskell that ended with, 'but the opportunity is only ripe now, at this very moment.'

Other offers from Pirtle of more land for Haskell, new science buildings, donations to the Haskell Foundation to be given to students and other incentives have been offered verbally by Pirtle to board members and to Indian Country Today - after he had been in contact with Rees.

During a telephone interview, Pirtle recounted his conversations with Rees regarding the negotiations.

"I think Haskell can get 116 acres here. I called Mike (Rees) and said, 'Mike, there is one other problem here we've got.' There is a trust it is the Haskell Foundation Trust, I'm not really sure what the name of it is. It's not run by the board, it's bankrupt. It's run by some turkeys who are using Haskell's name," Pirtle said.

"They've been raising money for Haskell, you know, saying, 'This is for Indian students, give us money,' and then they stole it. That is just horrifying. I said, 'Mike, we need a million dollars in a trust that's run by the board of the directors of Haskell ... then he calls me back and says they are willing to put up a million dollars for that."

In a letter to Indian Country Today, Pirtle described the offers from the state of Kansas in this way: "During my entire career as an Indian lawyer since 1964, I have never had such a plum drop into my hands ... ."

Pirtle stated he is 1/32 Cherokee, but not eligible for enrollment with the Cherokee Nation.

Rupnicki said that although offers have been flying around, no offers have been presented to the board and until they are, the offers meant absolutely nothing. "Until it comes to the board in black and white ... nothing. Plums don't fall from the sky, you have to stand near a bush," Rupnicki said.

Board members say the offers coming from both Pirtle and the state do not appear to be simply goodwill gestures because leverage is intimated.

Pirtle maintains he is negotiating for the tribes and when he meets with the board he plans to instruct them "to get everything in writing and make sure all the I's are dotted and T's are crossed. Asked if what he was proposing represented a conflict of interest, Pirtle said no, he was no longer a licensed attorney, merely a go-between."

In a letter to ICT, Pirtle wrote: "Get this point: if the city expansion of 31st Street goes forward, Haskell will lose on all sides; it will get more traffic at 31st Street, further damaging the prayer wheel which is only 400 feet or so north of the street and will helplessly stand by and see the Baker Wetlands cut in half.

"But more important is this: I discovered that 16.9 acres of Haskell land is cut off by 31st Street in its present form which is a built up roadbed, perhaps six to eight feet higher than the natural lay of the land. It is now unusable by Haskell since the right of way encompasses all of it; and will become even more so since the widening of 31st Street by the city to four lanes, or ... eight lanes, sometime in the future would certainly mean the city would never be willing to give up any part of the right of way."

Pirtle's letter goes on to say that working with the state is the only way to stop the encroachment and that the state could be the savior of Haskell by giving it more land and possibly even removing 31st Street and the right of way all together.

Asked if the state had the power to do that, Pirtle answered yes and said that Rees "was pulling the strings."

Both Pirtle and Rees confirmed that the city of Lawrence is getting ready to widen 31st Street to four lanes. Pirtle said the city was already taking bids on the project.

He also said the regents stopped an environmental study from being done but that wouldn't stop the city. He said the city could put in the road without any Environmental Protection Agency studies.

However, an employee at the Lawrence Public Works Department denied that the city was calling for bids to begin construction and said at this time only plans for a study of the possible expansion of 31st Street had been discussed and even that study would have to be discussed at city commission meetings. She went on to say that no road could be built in the area without conducting environmental impact studies and that the city must comply with federal regulations.

Wilson agreed with the information supplied by the city, but she said neither the state, the city of Lawrence or Douglas County is giving up on the project. "They (the city) are going to use it as an arterial road," Wilson said. "That is what they are trying to do. They say they are going to use it as an arterial route instead of the traffic way, but essentially they are going to put in four lanes and connect it from the traffic way to K-10. That is what the feasibility study is about."

Wilson added that the attempts to strong-arm a road through the area aren't anything new.

"The city and the county think they are above the federal law on this." She said the city and county had already tried to go to Washington to try to get the roadway through a backdoor method in the past, but failed.

"They had the traffic way built years ago." She also said that regents could put a stop to the project, "But they've got to get on it. (Haskell President Karen) Swisher could stop it at any point in time," Wilson said, "but she wants to continue to try to work with the city and county."

Tiger confirmed that Dr. Swisher and two other members of the administration met with Pirtle, but he didn't tell them he was working for the state. She read that in an article about him in the local newspaper the next day.

Pirtle has said the state has the ability to remove 31st Street from Haskell land, if the board agrees to the state's terms and continues to instruct those he contacts that this is a one-time offer.

Of the leverage of widening 31st Street, Rupnicki said, "If we get back to the 'grass grows and the water flows ... that's like a treaty. They were all coerced by threat. That is coercion. That's a threat, that's not the way you negotiate."

"It sounds like as long as the grass grows ... ," Tiger agreed.

In an interview, Pirtle said he is excited about the prospect of gaining land and other incentives for Haskell. He said he believed the response from board members he contacted has been positive.

Tiger disagrees. "Here's a guy who is giving false hope to KDOT because he is assuming Haskell is wanting all this stuff. We have the same stand we have always had and that's not going to change. I really think he has to a certain degree misrepresented himself. He says he knows a lot about sovereignty. I have had some dealings with him ... I just think he is way out in left field on this."

Tiger said Pirtle has contacted some board members and that he also was contacted but refused to meet with Pirtle after he found out what Pirtle was 'up to.'

"To me he told KDOT that he knows all of these tribes and he can work with these tribes," Tiger said. "He knows sovereignty ... I'm really disappointed in him He has received income from tribes on some of the things he has done and it's like he has done a 360. It's like a contradiction. I'm disappointed in the man."

Tiger said he recently asked Oklahoma area tribes he was meeting with if they had heard from Pirtle. "They said they hadn't been contacted by him and that they were adamantly behind us on our decision about the traffic way."

"For someone who says he knows Indian people and tribes, he doesn't. He should know that Indian people aren't going to give up any more land."

Editor's note: This statement was included in material e-mailed to Mary Pierpoint after an interview with Mike Rees:

"We have said that we will do certain things as part of a solution, but we are not presenting any particular set of items. For example, we are prepared to commit $$ (stet) to wetlands mitigation but have turned the development of this over to those expert in and committed to conservation. If there is to be mitigation it will be designed by those who understand and care. No one has been excluded from participation."