Boulder, Colo. There is a "good possibility" that there are Indian graves in the Haskell-Baker Wetlands, a highway department consultant conceded Wednesday.
Haskell Indian Nations University officials met here with Kansas highway department consultants to discuss various proposed routes for the eastern leg of the South Lawrence Trafficway.
Members of the HINU Board of Regents have long protested plans to build the road near their campus or through the wetlands because they consider the area and the graves thought to be there sacred.
The seven-hour meeting produced no resolution to the trafficway deadlock or concessions from either side.
But both sides characterized the meeting as a positive.
Ron Manka, regents attorney, said the consultants' pledge that highway officials are giving serious thought to building the road south of both the wetlands and the Wakarusa River counts as a new and "significant development" in the discussion.
The Kansas Department of Transportation has for years pushed a 31st Street route as its preferred way to finish the uncompleted trafficway, which is intended to connect Kansas Highway 10 east of Lawrence with the Kansas Turnpike northwest of the city. The western 9 miles of the road opened in 1996.
Recently, KDOT made public maps showing five possible routes for finishing the eastern third of the road, including one south of the river.
At the Boulder meeting, consultants assured HINU officials that each of the proposed routes was being seriously considered.
"We are giving equal consideration to each alternate," said Terry Flanagan, vice president of Kansas City-based HNTB Co., the engineering firm assigned to the project.
Manka said Flanagan's comment signaled a major shift in the Haskell-KDOT dialogue.
"For years, Haskell has said 'Go south of the river,' and for years KDOT has said, 'No, that won't work,'" Manka said. "But now it looks like there's a way the highway can be built without going through the wetlands. That's a significant development."
Eleven of 15 regents attended the meeting.
Though the group did not endorse any of the proposed routes, many said they prefer the south-of-the-Wakarusa course.
Paul Brockington, a consultant hired by KDOT to assess the historical significance of the wetlands, told Haskell officials there was a "good possibility" of finding Indian burial sites within the wetlands.
'Trample on it'
Regents said routing the trafficway through the wetlands would be tantamount to blasphemy.
"To some people in Kansas this is about a marsh," said Gil Vigil, the board's vice president. "But to native people, it is much more than that."
The wetlands are sacred, Vigil and other regents said, because former Haskell students are known to be buried there and because the area has come to represent American Indian history, culture and connection to the environment.
"To understand what we are going through, think of something that is very sacred to you and then having somebody trample all over it," said Clarena Brockie, a regent from Montana. "What we keep hearing on South Lawrence Trafficway is: 'OK, well, may we trample on it, please?'"
Brockington said he initially doubted there were graves in the wetlands, but he changed his mind after interviews with tribal elders. He said he now believes there are graves near the north side of the river.
The consultants said they couldn't promise no grave sites would be disturbed during road building.
But Brockington and Flanagan vowed that construction would stop the moment a grave was detected.
It would be irresponsible to take the risk of disturbing graves, Vigil said, for the sake of cutting a few minutes off the time it takes to drive across town.
Manka called the likelihood of workers finding graves "a showstopper issue."
The meeting was at the Native American Rights Fund building in downtown Boulder. The building is a converted residence.
Regents and Haskell President Karen Swisher listened to the consultants while sitting on couches pulled into a circle. It was a relaxed setting. The windows were opened to the cool mountain breezes and the sound of traffic from nearby Broadway Street. The group lunched on Indian tacos.
Brockington and Flanagan praised the group's candor. They said they hoped the meeting wouldn't be the last.
"I hope this is the first of a number of conversations we can have," Brockington said.
Two or three regents are expected to attend a Sept. 6 trafficway discussion in Lawrence. That discussion will be conducted by The Osprey Group, the consulting firm that organized Wednesday's meeting.