In what may be a first in the battle over the proposed route of a Lawrence bypass through wetlands on the city's south side, a former Haskell Indian Nations University student has filed a sworn affidavit stating he twice found human remains in the wetlands.
The affidavit, submitted to federal officials by David Farve, is thought to be the first written, first-person account of someone encountering skeletal remains in the Baker Wetlands.
The document was included in comments by the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation tribal council filed last month with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The filing was in opposition to the corps' endorsement of a 32nd Street alignment for the proposed South Lawrence Trafficway.
Jackie Mitchell, a member of both the Potawatomi tribal council and Haskell board of regents, said Farve's statement was credible and should be taken seriously.
"I've really, really stressed to people that I don't want to have anything to do with this if it's something that's been concocted to put a new or different twist on this (trafficway debate)," Mitchell said. "I have been assured that that is not the case and that this individual is a reliable source."
If confirmed, the presence of graves could delay or block routing the trafficway through the wetlands.
Opponents of the trafficway have long argued that between Haskell's founding in 1884 and the early 1930s, many students died from disease, injury or abuse and were buried in what is now the wetlands.
Mitchell said she did not know and had not met Farve.
In the two-page affidavit, Farve wrote that while walking during 1998 in the wetlands after a heavy summer rain, he encountered "the bones of what appeared to be two children. I saw two sets of human spinal columns and two human skulls, one of which was broken."
Another time, Farve said, he was in the wetlands looking for snakes when he "looked down and saw the bones of what looked to be a child. I saw a human jaw bone and part of a rib cage."
On both occasions, Farve said, he covered the remains and reported his findings to Haskell biology professor Chuck Haines. Each time, Farve said, Haines told him not to tell anyone about the remains out of fear someone would attempt to disturb the site.
Journal-World attempts to reach Farve for comment were unsuccessful.
Haines declined to comment on the affidavit, saying he considered Farve's findings confidential.
"I can't say anything about that," he said.
Haines said Haskell's early history was loaded with documented reports of student deaths and runaways. But, he said, records show many of those students' bodies were neither returned to their families nor buried at the Haskell cemetery.
Haines does not doubt that many of those students were unceremoniously buried in the wetlands.
"It was a fairly common and well-documented practice at other Indian schools, and I suspect it was here as well," he said.
Haines cited a 1996 letter from the U.S. Department of Interior's Office of Environmental Policy and Compliance, in which then-director Willie Taylor wrote: "Our understanding is that the burials were done surreptitiously in the 19th century because of school officials' desire to understate the official mortality rate of the students."
Paul Brockington, an archeologist and president of Atlanta-based consulting firm Brockington & Associates, spent several weeks in 2001 using ground-penetrating radar and other means to search for human remains in the wetlands. None were found.
"As an archeologist, I have to say it seems very unlikely that there are human remains in the wetlands," Brockington said.
The searches were conducted as the corps was collecting information before choosing a route for the trafficway's unfinished eastern leg. The 14-mile bypass was designed to link Kansas Highway 10 east of the city with Interstate 70 northwest of the city. The nine-mile western leg has been open for several years, but opposition to the wetlands route has stymied completion of the bypass.
No remains found
Brockington said he did not doubt reports of Haskell students dying or running away. But he does not think they were buried in the wetlands because, if they were, their remains would have been uncovered long before now.
"We're talking about an area -- the wetlands -- that throughout much of Haskell's history was active farmland," Brockington said. "It was plowed, it was disked, it was hoed over and it had cattle on it. There's been major canal, ditch and pipeline work done there, and there's been a highway (31st Street) put in -- and yet there are no documented reports of remains being found."
Brockington said it was unlikely Haskell officials or confidants of the deceased had buried the students in an area that, at the time, was routinely plowed or grazed. Haskell stopped farming the area in 1936.
And even if the remains escaped detection, Brockington said, it is doubtful that decades-old skulls, spinal columns, a jaw bone and part of a rib cage would remain intact after the area reverted to a wetland.
"As an archeologist, my thinking is, no, that's highly unlikely," he said.
After Brockington's study, searches conducted by the Kansas State Historical Society and the state Department of Transportation also came up empty-handed.
Taking it seriously
Stan Ross, a longtime member of the Wetlands Preservation Organization, welcomed news of the Farve affidavit.
"A lot of us have known about it," he said.
Ross said he and other American Indians weren't bothered by the search efforts' not finding actual remains.
"We know people are buried there," Ross said. "Many, many tribal elders and Haskell alumni have told us this."
He added, "As Indian people, we see the wetlands in much the same way the United States looks at Sept. 11 or the Oklahoma City bombing -- those are sacred monuments and places because of what happened there. For us, it's the same with the wetlands. We know what happened there."
As yet, Farve's affidavit hasn't raised many eyebrows at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers regional office in Kansas City, Mo.
"It's been received, it's been looked at, but I can't say that it's been analyzed," said Janie Cavitt, a deputy legal counsel with the corps.
"But it will be," she said. "We take these things very seriously."