LAWRENCE, Kan. – Not everyone agrees progress is a step forward; especially if development means destruction.
A dozen students from Haskell Indian Nations University are walking to the save the Wakarusa Wetlands, the only remaining native wetland prairie in Lawrence, Kan., from being destroyed in order to become the South Lawrence Trafficway (SLT). Their walk through seven states is named the Trail of Broken Promises, and their first steps were taken on May 13, 2012 from Lawrence, Kan. Their journey will go through 50 communities, cover 1,100 to 1,300 miles, and end July 9 in Washington, D.C. where the students will present the Protection of Native American Sacred Places Act to Congress. The bill amends the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, “to ensure that federal laws protecting the free exercise of religion include protection of traditional Native American Sacred Places where ceremonies, commemorations, observances or worship are conducted or occur, and to provide a right of action to protect Native American Sacred Places.”
“This is a spiritual issue. We believe that Congress needs to address specific legislation to protect sacred places in an inclusive manner for all people whom those places affect … By walking the Trail of Broken Promises we call attention to the spiritual interconnectedness that we as human beings have with our environment and all elements within it,” Millicent Pepion, of the Navajo and Blackfeet Nations, said to United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples James Anaya, on May 3 in Tulsa. “We declare that a mutual respect and dignity be given to Native American people in concerns that affect our home communities. We respectfully request that the U.S. government adhere to our cultural, social, medical, environmental, and spiritual interests that the Trail of Broken Promises members seek to protect.”
Pepion is active in the Wetlands Preservation Organization and the Indigenous and American Indian Studies Club at Haskell. Her quest to bring awareness to the wetlands is part of her Commitment to Action that was accepted into the Clinton Global Initiative University. In her commitment letter she quotes Dr. Daniel Wildcat, her advisor, as reminding her, “‘It is not our right to protect Mother Earth, it is our responsibility.’”
“It could be these wetlands or the San Francisco Peaks. If we allow desecration of these sacred places in the name of ‘progress,’ what chance does any place in this world have? Or animals and people?’” she stated.
The Federal Highway Administration and the Kansas Department of Transportation have been fighting to pave through the wetlands, located behind the Haskell campus, for years. The issue remains in court, however, a U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals decision is due this month, according to Kansas transportation officials. The Sierra Club and other environmental groups have also voiced opposition to the $174 million project that would steer traffic from the southeast side to the northwest side of Lawrence.
“This is not just another ‘Indian problem.’ Forced relocation of these plants and animals is both an environmental and social threat. As one of the country’s remaining natural wetlands, this ground is home to a multitude of indigenous medicinal plants from Evening Primrose to Eastern Red Cedar. It is also a common stop for some 260 migratory birds. This delicate ecosystem is of sentimental significance as well,” Pepion, a Haskell Indigenous and American Indian Studies junior, stated. “When Haskell was first founded as an Indian boarding school in 1884, the wetlands were a sanctuary for its earliest students. Current Haskell students use the wetlands as a place to study, relax, and perform ceremonies.”
Students on The Trail of Broken Promises harvested a 2,000 lb. buffalo days before they left Lawrence in order to obtain the energy needed to fulfill their journey. They will trek through Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Maryland. They are divided into four teams: land, animal, people and drivers. Among other duties, the land team will pick up trash along the freeway; the animal team will coordinate meals; the people team will meet with local people along the route, and the driver’s team will help everyone and set up tents. All teams help to haul water. Each team has their own starting and stopping point, but they camp together each night.
The first resting stop for the group was 2 miles east of DeSoto, Kan. on the Shawnee Reserve Number 206.
“They had a great time while here. We provided the facilities they needed, got some great pictures. (It was a) beautiful night for them. Great students, very smart. (We) had a great bonfire for them. We wish them a safe trip; (we) talked about how to be safe,” United Tribe of Shawnee Indians Principal Chief Jim Oyler said. “Great people; sure glad they had time to spend the night here on our Indian Country.”
The teams are traveling approximately 30 miles each day for four days then they rest. The group connected onto the Potawatomi Trail of Death while in Buckner, Mo., and they will disconnect from the trail on June 6 in Lafayette, Ind. From September to November 1838 Potawatomi Indians were forcibly removed by the U.S. government from their homelands in Indiana to Kansas, and 42 people died; making it The Trail of Death.
The group has already visited the Shawnee Indian Mission while passing through Shawnee, Kan., and they plan on ending up at Carlisle Indian Boarding School on July 4. Anyone interested in hosting the group or making a donation for trip expenses/supplies can contact Pepion at (480) 258-2930.
“We have a choice to either work with or against our environments. I am against the desecration of sacred places. I am against people who choose to ignore certain members of their community. Most of all, I am against organizations who are unwilling to keep their promises. The history of my people has taught me that the decisions made in the past have not always been in the majority’s best interest. I refuse to sit on the outskirts of an irresponsible society and let them decide what they think is best for me and my generation, and future generations!” Pepion stated. “Lastly, let it be known the Wakarusa Wetlands is but one piece of land that is asking for help. All of this land, all over the world, is calling for representatives. The Trail of Broken Promises is committed to addressing their cries as well.”
The Trail of Broken Promises can be followed on Face book at: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Trail-Of-Broken-Promises/300284686671395 and on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/#!/ToBP2012.
Students from Haskell Indian Nations University are embarking on 1,000 plus mile trip to bring awareness to the protection of Native American sacred places and present a copy of the Protection of Native American Sacred Places Act to Congress.