The last time Larry Conyers dragged his ground-penetrating radar equipment through the Baker Wetlands, the electromagnetic pulses revealed only natural environmental features and dredged up a handful of hate mail sent to his office at the University of Denver.
This weekend, as he resumed his search for American Indian graves in the anticipated path of the South Lawrence Trafficway, Conyers was trying to keep himself, his crew and his equipment apart from the heated clash of cultures building behind the controversial highway project.
"I'm not familiar with what all the issues are here, but I do know that this has the capability in a very qualified and precise way of uncovering if there's anything in the ground that's we're interested in," said Conyers, working Friday morning in the wetlands southeast of 31st and Louisiana streets. "It can do that, and it's been proven to do that. What we will do is collect a huge amount of very precise data of what's in the ground.
"But on this crazy project, everybody has an agenda. And people will make of this whatever their agenda dictates."
Conyers' company, Geophysical Investigations Inc. of Denver, is conducting the $12,000 search in an attempt to bring closure to what has become one of many divisive issues separating the Kansas Department of Transportation and American Indians on the trafficway project.
Tribes and their representatives say American Indian children perhaps 200 were buried in the wetlands since the 1884 founding of the nearby Haskell Institute. Highway officials say, so far, they can't find any.
Anna Wilson, spokesperson for the Wetlands Preservation Organization, said the graves were among the many reasons KDOT shouldn't build in the wetlands, which are located south of 31st Street between Louisiana Street and Haskell Avenue. When KDOT releases its draft environmental impact statement for the project, possibly next month, the document is expected to call for a four-lane highway through the wetlands, along what would be 32nd Street.
As a graduate of Haskell Indian Nations University and a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin, Wilson said she was offended that state highway officials would proceed with a search for graves without consulting American Indian groups.
No American Indian input
But that's nothing new, she said, on a project that has spawned lawsuits, scrapped previous studies and left American Indians without a seat at the decision-making table.
"The Kansas Department of Transportation again has violated tribal rights," she said.
But John Pasley, a consultant hired by KDOT for the trafficway project, maintains that the radar search serves everybody's interests. The radar search does not disturb the ground, he said, but its results will offer a clear vision of what might be hidden beneath the surface.
"We're trying to do our best to find if there are buried bodies in the area, because we don't want to disturb them when we build the road," Pasley said. "We're obligated to find physical evidence. There can be stories, but we want to know for sure."
The eastern leg of the trafficway would connect U.S. Highway 59 at the south edge of Lawrence with Kansas Highway 10 on the east side of town. It would take about $100 million to complete the trafficway, which already connects U.S. 59 with the Kansas Turnpike northwest of Lawrence.
Kimberly Henderson, a graduate student studying anthropology at the University of Denver, monitored Friday morning's data-collecting efforts in the wetlands.
She watched as an SIR 2000 machine sent electromagnetic pulses through cables into the field, where fellow students were dragging a metal box across the surface. The machine sent waves about 4 feet into the ground, bouncing off water, rocks, sticks, soils and other subterranean items.
Henderson said she wouldn't be able to tell what they'd found for another couple weeks. The data needs to be run through a computer to create three-dimensional maps.
Any notable "anomalies" uncovered during the search likely would require further study.
"This certainly is a noninvasive tool for archaeologists," said Henderson, who will travel to Bolivia this summer to search for remains in the Andes Mountains. "But you always want to verify ground-penetrating radar with excavation, if possible, because there is room for error.
"This is not going to replace archeology. This is a tool that helps archeology."