The communications gap between state highway officials and Haskell Indian Nations University students isn't quite as wide as it used to be.
For the first time, the Kansas Department of Tranportation's chief legal counsel, Mike Rees, on Wednesday went to Haskell for the sole purpose of hearing students' concerns about routing the proposed eastern alignment of the South Lawrence Trafficway near or through the Haskell and Baker wetlands.
He got an earful.
"You say you want to talk, but you don't listen," said Monette Terry, a Haskell student. "You don't want to understand."
Terry said she and others have grown weary of the highway department's overtures. KDOT, she said, refuses to accept the university's opposition.
She called the trafficway a "white man's land grab," adding, "It's like, what part of 'no' don't you understand?"
Terry's comments drew a brief round of applause from the 25 students attending the two-hour forum at Stidham Hall.
Michael Contreras, acting president of the Wetland Preservation Organization, said he, too, didn't put much faith in KDOT's overtures. He said that while KDOT now characterizes a south-of-the-Wakarusa River route as one of many viable options, it's "not something to really be pursued."
Other students' comments implied that KDOT was two-faced and conniving.
Rees did not argue. Instead, he confessed to not understanding American Indians, their culture, or their approach to making decisions. And, he said, he doesn't have any American Indian friends who can help him work through the differing points of view.
For years, he said, he's avoided meeting with students because he did not feel welcome on campus.
Rees asked the students to meet with him individually or in small groups "somewhere without a microphone" so both sides could come to know each other better.
"I have no power over you at all," he said.
Afterward, Contreras said he thought Rees' comments were "sincere, for a change" and agreed to arrange another less formal meeting.
"I'll meet with him," Contreras said. "It can't hurt."
Haskell professor Dan Wildcat, who served as the forum's moderator, said he was struck by the two camps' persistent inability to communicate.
"There's an odd disconnect," he said. "A lot of it, I think, is that KDOT is looking for things that are quantifiable, things that are measurable, that you can put with a number or put on a chart. But, frankly, I don't know that the Haskell community can do that. I mean, how do you quantify a sense of place?
"And just because there's a problem in measuring or understanding these things, that doesn't mean they're any less important."