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Protecting the Sacred Wakarusa Wetlands in Lawrence, Kansas from Highway Construction

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The Wakarusa Wetlands in Lawrence, Kansas—an area steeped in Indian history, a former refuge for Indian boarding school students and home to a variety of animal habitats—are threatened by a proposed eight- to ten-lane highway called the South Lawrence Trafficway.

Approved by the Army Corps of Engineers, construction of the $192 million highway funded by Kansas taxpayer money is delayed by a federal law suit filed by the Haskell Indian Nations University student group Wetland Preservation Organization (WPO) and a consortium of supporter groups.

The wetlands sit south of the Haskell Indian Nations University campus, the country’s largest and most tribally diverse federal off-reservation boarding school. The wetlands once served as a crucial escape and harbor for young Indian students and their families fighting government efforts to exterminate their cultures. Parents and other tribal leaders often camped in the wetlands to visit their children, and elders used the Wakarusa Wetlands as an outdoor classroom to pass on traditional knowledge and their lessons on healing.

"...[T]hat camp ground became a magnet for children to run out of the dorms and try to get down to get news from home, or to try to find someone that could pass on news to the family that weren't censured by folks that were running the institution here," Michael Caron, member of the Save the Wakarusa Wetlands group, an association of Lawrence-based wetlands supporters, said in the video "A Fight for the Land."

While the University was originally created to assimilate Indians into society in the 1800s, it has transitioned overtime from a "cultural extermination camp" to "the principal Native American institution of higher learning," Caron explained in the video.

The less than 600 acres of sacred wetlands behind the University is the largest intact trace of the original Wakarusa Bottoms, an 18,000-acre biologically diverse prairie wetlands that existed for thousands of years before white people drained the vast majority of it in the early twentieth century. Natives in the region previously sourced valuable medicinal plants and food like waterfowl—in the duck family—and furbearers from the environment. Wetlands are known to be naturally occurring aquifers that filter out sediment before the water runs into rivers and act as flood control systems. A variety of fish, reptiles, mammals and birds have survived and flourished in the Wakarusa Wetlands, but recently, a report by the National Audubon Society listed about 20 common birds that have experienced sharp decline in the last 40 years in direct response to habitat loss, reported The historic Haskell campus, including the Wetlands, is being considered for designation as a National Historic Heritage area.

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"I think the wetlands are very important for all those reasons," Michael Dever, Lawrence commissioner, said in a KUJH-TV video of the wetlands' use as an agricultural, educational and spiritual environment. "The construction, the traffic way, is not going to inhibit any of those uses, but actually heighten the number of wetlands that are available and allow more people more access to the wetlands, I think in an easier fashion."

On the contrary, WPO asserts that construction of the South Lawrence Trafficway would destroy the wetlands and a fundamental remnant of Indian history. The highway would also detract from the use and enjoyment of the wetlands due to noise, pollution and reduction of wildlife caused by the project, states WPO.

WPO and Save the Wakarusa Wetlands will observe National Prayer Day at noon on Tuesday, June 21, beside the Wakarusa Wetlands to pray for protection of the wetlands from highway builders. Participants will mark the exact position of the summer solstice at 12:16 p.m. local time at the Haskell Medicine Wheel, located south of Lawrence. Haskell students and friends will then erect stone landmarks to permanently add to the healing site.