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Archive for Wednesday, October 13, 1999

SLT pits commerce against culture

October 13, 1999

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— Minutes before the start of the Haskell Indian Nations University Regents meeting Tuesday, about 80 students and faculty gathered quietly outside the school's administration building.

They came to support the regents' stand against the proposed South Lawrence Trafficway.

Behind handheld banners that read "Haskell Indian Nation University Regents We Support You 100%," several students gathered around a drum and sang three honor songs.

"After the next song, we're going to take the banners inside and put them on the wall," said Carol Burns, a roll of gray duct tape in her right hand.

"Remember," she fretted, "be very respectful."

But apparently no one was there to cause trouble.

"As Native American people, we have a great deal of respect for our leaders," said Pemina Yellow Bird, a plaintiff in a lawsuit that's blocked construction of the proposed highway. "All of them on the board (of regents) are older than us and we respect that. They are our elders."

That so many students "got up at the crack of dawn to be here" proves opposition to routing the proposed trafficway through the Baker-Haskell Wetlands is as strong as ever, Yellow Bird said.

And that opposition is hard for the white community to understand, Yellow Bird said, because it's more about spirituality and culture than commerce and asphalt.

For example, Kansas Department of Transportation Secretary Dean Carlson on Monday told the regents that any burial remains discovered during the trafficway's construction would be relocated with the utmost care and concern.

The remark apparently seemed tactless to Haskell students and other Native American observers. As soon as the words left Carlson's mouth, heads began stirring in disapproval.

But relocating graves is only a small part of a bigger issue that whites seem incapable of comprehending, Yellow Bird said.

The wetlands are sacred, she said. Using them to accommodate a trafficway is unconscionable.

"Many of the people buried there are children, 6-year-olds who were taken from their parents and sent to Haskell to be made non-Indian," she said. "They were told they could not speak their native language, they had to speak only English.

"They were told every day 'You're not OK because you're an Indian.' They were sexually abused and spiritually abused. Those who survived were never the same again."

Burns said whites have trouble understanding spiritual issues most American Indians take for granted.

"I understand the need of the community to grow, to expand its commerce, and to get someplace faster," Burns said.

"But being out here allows you to slow down. There are no clocks out here," she said, motioning toward the wetlands. "This is about finding peace."

Mike Randall, Wetlands Preservation Organization president, said KDOT's frequent offers to mitigate any losses caused by the trafficway only widen the gap between the Haskell and non-Haskell communities.

"There's a difference in world views," Randall said. "They say 'This is only one road and a little bit of Indian land.'

"They don't see that we hold this land sacred and you don't mitigate spirituality by piling dirt on top of it."

Prentice Crawford, president of the Haskell Student Senate and a regent, said he's committed to building bridges of understanding between the two communities. But it's not easy, he said.

"Haskell is a place of great tragedy for the Indian people," he said. "It's a place where rape and genocide of the culture were institutionalized and made manifest.

"And it's a place that's rich and ripe with the flavors of our heritage and of our past. You can't mitigate that, and unless you are willing to immerse yourself within the culture, you can't understand it either."

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