American Indians see the South Lawrence Trafficway as an encroachment on their freedom of religion.
American Indians know that their opposition to the South Lawrence Trafficway on religious grounds is enigmatic to people outside their culture.
``Native people in this community never have and are not now asking that other people understand our spiritual values,'' said Pemina Yellow Bird, one of four American Indians who filed a lawsuit to stop the trafficway.
``All we ask is the same kind of respect ... that our ancestors extended to your ancestors when they first arrived fleeing religious oppression,'' Yellow Bird said. ``I don't think that's a very unreasonable thing to ask.''
Yellow Bird, a member of the Airkara tribe, leads weekly purification or sweat lodge ceremonies in the wetlands on the southern end of the Haskell Indian Nations University campus. The area also is the site of the Medicine Wheel, where other ceremonies are conducted.
Yellow Bird contends that construction of the South Lawrence Trafficway on the 31st Street alignment would increase the noise and other distractions that already intrude upon worship.
Although the Medicine Wheel wasn't put there until 1992 and the sweat lodges are not permanent structures, American Indians say the use of the area for prayer is an enduring tradition. In addition, they say that most Native American spiritual practices are centered on nature, which makes the outdoors an appropriate place to pray.
``We are taught that we are related to all living things, and that includes things like rocks and mountains and lakes and rivers,'' Yellow Bird said. ``We know they're alive. We know they have a spirit, that they live and breathe.''
That philosophy also makes the destruction of natural areas for public projects like the trafficway offensive to American Indians, she said.
The wetlands are where American Indians have gone to pray at least since the days when Haskell was a military-style boarding school for indoctrinating Indian children into the white culture.
Thomasine Ross, a Comanche who is another of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said her father-in-law, who attended Haskell in 1918, told of Indian children secretly practicing their native religion in the wetlands. They did so at the risk of punishment by Haskell administrators, who prohibited them from practicing anything but Christianity.
``They would go down there and pray and then sneak back,'' Ross said.
She also used the wetlands for prayer when she was a Haskell student in the early 1970s. Today, she and her family continue to do so.
Yellow Bird said American Indians believe that Haskell children who disappeared from the boarding school during the early years of the institute were buried in the wetlands by Haskell administrators who wanted to avoid scrutiny. Beatings, imprisonment and poor sanitary conditions that fostered disease have been documented from Haskell's early years.
Today, Yellow Bird said, American Indian students at Haskell, some of whom are away from home and their traditional cultures for the first time, seek solace in the wetlands.
``What is left of these lands that were paid for by the suffering and sorrow of the little kids who were kidnapped and taken from their homes, that is the only place young Native Americans have to go today,'' she said.