Fire destroys tipi honoring Haskell graduates; investigation underway

photo by: Elvyn Jones

The poles of a tipi are pictured on the Haskell Indian Nations University campus on Saturday, May 9, 2020, after an overnight fire destroyed the structure. The tipi was built to honor Haskell's graduating class.

Story last updated at 4:16 p.m. Saturday

An overnight fire destroyed a tipi at Haskell Indian Nations University that had been built to honor the school’s 2020 graduates.

The HINU student newspaper, the Haskell Indian Leader, first reported about the fire, which occurred early Saturday morning. Many associated with Haskell and the larger Lawrence community expressed dismay about the incident on social media, noting the structure’s cultural significance as well as its importance to the graduates who had their final semester upended by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Fire officials said the incident is under investigation, though the university and local public safety agencies had released little information about the incident or its cause as of mid-afternoon Saturday.

Firefighters were called to the Haskell campus around 4:30 a.m. Saturday, Lawrence-Douglas County Fire Medical Division Chief Tom Fagan said late Saturday afternoon.

Emergency crews arrived to find that the fire had consumed nearly all the covering on the tipi, and they put out the remaining flames with a handheld fire extinguisher, Fagan said.

After learning of the incident Saturday morning, the Journal-World reached out to Haskell officials, the Lawrence fire department and Lawrence police for details. The Journal-World spoke to officials at Haskell who declined to comment and directed requests for information to the Haskell President’s Office, which had not responded as of 4 p.m. Saturday. Lawrence police did respond but told the Journal-World that the department did not have information related to the fire.

A Journal-World reporter who went to the campus observed the remnants of the structure but was asked by security to leave campus while attempting to gather more information about the incident. Individuals the Journal-World spoke to on campus, including campus security, declined to comment.

Classes at Haskell have been moved online and traditional commencement ceremonies have been canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic, as the Journal-World has previously reported.

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