“You Can’t Stop the Ceremonies:” The Wakarusa Wetlands


The thing about ceremonies is that you can’t stop them. They tried to do that with the ceremonies here at Haskell before. And that’s what the wetlands were for. That’s where the students went to do their ceremonies. But you can’t stop them because . . . it was about something higher. And you can’t ever stop me from doing that.

—Tyler Kimbrell, Haskell Indian Nations University


Here we focus on a decades-long fight by activists in northeastern Kansas to prevent the construction of a four-lane, closed-access trafficway across the Wakarusa Wetlands. The wetlands once covered 18,000 acres1 and were sacred ground for a number of Native nations as well as students enrolled at Haskell Indian Nations University, once a federal Indian boarding school and now a thriving tribal university. The South Lawrence Trafficway (SLT), which opened for traffic in November 2016, runs just south of the city of Lawrence on a course directly across the largest intact remnant of the Wakarusa Wetlands. Proposed in nascent form in 1930 and in modern iteration in 1985, the trafficway was finally approved in 2012 after a twenty-five-year fight led by a coalition that included Haskell Indian Nations University, the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation, student groups at the University of Kansas, and other activists from the region.

The SLT is 14 miles long and is intended to relieve traffic congestion in the city and provide long-haul traffic with a bypass that links Kansas Highway 10, from Kansas City, to Interstate 70, which heads west to Denver, Colorado, and beyond (Map 1). There is speculation that the bypass is part of the far bigger NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) superhighway that runs through Kansas City, which is designated as an international port facility within that system. For the five miles that traverse the wetlands, the road has a 12- to 16-foot concrete noise barrier on both sides and an expanded footprint to accommodate a realigned, four-lane city street running parallel to the trafficway.

During the years when Haskell Indian Nations University was an off-reservation boarding school and education for Indians was compulsory, the wetlands provided students with a ground for resistance and survival. Beginning in the 1980s, the wetlands called Native and non-Native people to its defense in resistance against the SLT. Through this activism, ceremony served as a mechanism of protest, while protest became a kind of ceremony. 

The Wakarusa

The Wakarusa River begins in the Flint Hills region of Kansas and runs eastward some fifty miles before entering the Kansas River near the city of Eudora. It occupies the southern edge of the basin of a pro-glacial lake that formed as the Kansan ice sheet retreated some 300,000 years ago, an event that changed the river’s course from the southeast to the east. With this change, the Wakarusa began to empty into the Kansas, or “Kaw,” River, and when the Kaw floods, its tremendous flow prevents the tributary Wakarusa from emptying. So the Wakarusa backs up and water spills over its northern bank into a backwater swamp, a feature commonly known as a “Yazoo” wetlands (Richardson and Brinson 2001). After countless floods, the Wakarusa dumped enormous loads of river-borne sediment onto the land. And although this flooding mostly ceased after the Army Corps of Engineers built Clinton Dam on the river in the 1970s, during the millennia of floods prior to that time, the accumulation of silt in the bottomlands created a clay soil that prevents water from percolating downward. The water table, which intersects the land surface at the base of the slope, added a constant seep of groundwater. A wet prairie ecology of cordgrass, sedges, aster and gama grass developed, attracting a tremendous diversity of birds, reptiles, amphibians, mammals, and medicinal plants. The place known as the Wakarusa Wetlands came into being.

Elders from the Kanza (Kaw) nation say that before their own ancestors came to the valley in the late 17th century, there was a people, now gone, who had always lived there. These people were probably the Oneota, an Upper Mississippian group whose homeland once extended to the western Great Lakes (Dorsey 1891; Martin 1994). They taught the Kaw about the plants and animals of the Wakarusa and how, with proper care, the wetlands would sustain them. In the bottomlands were abundant medicinal plants that could heal, palliate and restore. Although a few of these plants were found almost nowhere else in the region, the healing power of the wetlands lay in its concentration of medicine all in one place (Kindscher and Noguera 2002). Still today, the Wakarusa Wetlands is a biologically abundant and diverse place. Modern-day counts come to more than 400 species of plants, 265 bird species, forty species of reptiles and amphibians, and nearly thirty each of fish and mammal species.2 As a position paper written by Haskell Indian Nations University students put it, the “Wetlands are a nursery, a place where life abounds and where the earth is renewed.”3

Wakarusa Wetlands. HALEY RAINS

A number of tribes have known the wetlands—the Kanza (Kaw), Pawnee, and Wazhazhe (Osage) and, following removal treaties4 of 1825 and 1846, the Neshnabé (Potawatomi), Lenni Lenape (Delaware), and Shaawanwaki (Shawnee). In 1825, the Kanza ceded much of their land, including the Wakarusa Valley, within what would later become the state of Kansas. Over the next three decades, a number of Native nations signed treaties by which they ceded their lands in the east and moved onto reserve land in the region. Their occupation was temporary. In 1854, under pressure to provide land in the newly created territories of Kansas and Nebraska, Indian commissioner George W. Manypenny developed the “extinguishment of title” policy to terminate Indian ownership. The Shaawanwaki and Lenape ceded most of their reserve land that year in exchange for land allotments made to individual families. The Prairie Band of Potawatomi (Mshkodésik) stayed on their reserve until 1861, when it was reduced to one-eighth of its original size. The vast remainder of Indian land was made available to railroad companies, land speculators, and settlers.

The United States Industrial Indian Training School, now Haskell Indian Nations University, was founded by an act of Congress on May 17, 1882. It was renamed the Haskell Institute in 1890 to honor U.S. Rep. Dudley Haskell, the congressman responsible for bringing the school to Lawrence. The school was among the first in a system of off-reservation Indian boarding schools administered by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). These schools followed Richard Henry Pratt’s vision for compulsory government education5 designed to “civilize” Native people, who, it was argued, would secure their own well-being and prosperity in American society (Adams 1995). A number of religious and philanthropic groups known collectively as the “Friends of the Indian” promoted assimilation as the only way Native people could survive what they saw as the inevitable transition to civilization but what really was the onslaught of government-backed colonization and cultural genocide (Prucha 1984). In Pratt’s infamous wording, the goal was “to kill the Indian . . . and save the man.”6

Haskell’s original 280-acre campus included a portion of the Wakarusa Wetlands that became known as the Haskell Bottoms. By 1916, Haskell had expanded its campus to a total of just over 1,000 acres, most of which were in the bottoms extending to the Wakarusa River about a mile south of the campus buildings. With the exception of three small parcels of “virgin prairie,” much of this 600-acre section was drained using a system of levees and canals with 26-inch diameter subterranean clay-tile pipes that emptied water into the Wakarusa River.7 Once drained, the Haskell Bottoms were put into production for cattle pasture and crops of alfalfa, oat, wheat, potatoes, and corn.8 Student labor was used to drain the wetlands, and under a new course of study introduced in 1916, students were expected to work on the farm for 22.5 hours per week.9

In these early years, Haskell was run in strict military fashion with regimented marches, drill practice, 5:30 a.m. bugle call and a cadet battalion of five companies designed to break up students from the same tribe (Milk 2006). Children who arrived at Haskell with Native names were given English names. They were not permitted to speak their Native languages, wear long hair or practice traditional ceremonies. For those who violated these rules, harsh punishments followed, including solitary confinement in the guardhouse or root cellar, floggings with a belt or confinement in chains (Haines 1997). Infectious diseases such as tuberculosis and pneumonia were rampant (Anderson 1997). Haskell did not have a functional heating system in its first years, and hardtack rations were often the main food source. Malnourished and crowded in their dormitories, sleeping two to four children to a mattress and living in unsanitary conditions where sick children were not separated from the others, students succumbed easily to disease (Dorchester 1889, 320–23). On the official record, 35 children died from 1884 to 1889 (Milk 2006, 24). Elders report a number of other undocumented deaths, allegedly because Haskell officials put sick children on trains to their reservations, an allegation that has been confirmed for at least some children (190–209). These children died either en route or shortly after they arrived back home, so their deaths were not attributed to the school.

Haskell graveyard. HALEY RAINS

The Wakarusa Wetlands nurtured Indigenous resistance and resurgence among the students. The Wakarusa flooded regularly, generally every five years or so, with some floods reaching the buildings on campus. Students were awed by the river (Lynn 2003, 222). Some identified with the Wakarusa—the water’s power to undo the institute’s efforts to tame and farm the wetlands provided students with a concrete vision of their own resistance against being “tamed.” Native families, who were not permitted to stay in Lawrence when dropping off or receiving their children, established a series of campgrounds on the south bank of the river, at the southern edge of the wetlands. These campgrounds provided students with a line of communication back home while enabling relatives to send medicines, information and other materials prohibited by Haskell authorities. Working on the Haskell farm — oppressive as it was — could be an escape for students to a place that enabled Indigenous resurgence. Former Haskell student and current instructor Melinda Adams-Crow told us that the Haskell Farm in the wetlands was 

a place where children could talk their Native language to one another, or talk to family members in their Native language, or practice their ceremonial songs. These were things that were against the rules and were met with harsh punishment if you did them within the walls of the boarding school. So it was a place for escape. It was a safe place. A sacred place is a safe place. A place you could express yourself without the repercussions you would have if you were caught in school.10

Some students fled into the wetlands to escape the institute, and tragically, the Wakarusa is, allegedly, a final resting place for some students (Lynn 2003, 222). Haskell officials estimated some 700 student deaths over the years, but the cemetery contains just over one hundred burials. This circumstance has led many to believe that at least some of these children are buried in the wetlands (Eakins 2001; Low 2003). Some of the children recorded in the Haskell Student Registration Ledger as deceased are not found in the Haskell cemetery, for instance, and there is evidence that Haskell officials used the term “dropped” as a euphemism to minimize the official number of deaths (Milk 2006, 209). One of the major concerns Haskell activists had is that the construction of the SLT would uncover and desecrate the remains of those for whom the wetlands is their final resting place (Indian Country Media Network, February 9, 2012). Coincidentally, the contractors working for the Kansas Department of Transportation (KDOT) were under strict instructions not to remove any earth at the site to use for building the SLT’s roadbed. Instead, they imported fill excavated from other areas to raise the road above the floodplain.11

Haskell’s agricultural education program was transferred to the Chilocco Indian Agricultural School in Oklahoma in 1934, and the institute began to lease the reclaimed bottomland to local farmers. In 1953, Public Law 47 authorized the Department of Interior to transfer any land no longer required for federal Indian education to public entities for educational or public purposes. In 1957, the BIA transferred a number of wetland parcels to various state and county organizations, including the University of Kansas (KU). The remaining 573 acres of Haskell’s “surplus” land was eventually transferred to Baker University (a small liberal arts college in nearby Baldwin City, Kansas) in 1968. Over the following decades, Baker professors Ivan and Roger Boyd returned much of the land on this acreage to wet prairie. Haskell’s campus, meanwhile, was reduced to one-third of its size. Only a small section of the southern edge of this property now contains wetlands.

Today, Haskell is a leading institution of Native empowerment through higher education. In 1927, the school reformed its educational curriculum and began offering high school courses accredited by the State of Kansas. In 1933, Dr. Henry Roe Cloud, coauthor of the Meriam Report and instrumental in the Wheeler-Howard Act (Indian Reorganization Act) of 1934, became the first Native superintendent (Sanders 2004). Under his leadership, Haskell transitioned to include a post–high school, vocational-technical curriculum. Decades later, Haskell was among the first Native educational institutions to develop a college curriculum, leading the way in the nationwide transition to tribal colleges and universities in the 1970s under the American Indian Higher Education Consortium. In 1993, the assistant secretary for Indian Affairs approved the board of regents’ recommendation for a name change to Haskell Indian Nations University, reflecting the institution’s role as a national center for Indian education, research and cultural preservation. Currently, Haskell’s annual enrollment consists of approximately 1,000  students from tribes across the nation who are pursuing higher education through baccalaureate programs in elementary education, American Indian studies, business administration and environmental science.

Ceremonial Interventions

Activism against the SLT unfolded in two distinct phases. In the first phase (1985–2000), environmental issues took center stage, at least 

initially. In 1985, Douglas County commissioners announced their intent to consider a $3.5 million bond issue for a bypass south of town, ostensibly to alleviate congestion. Speculation soon arose that this was part of a bigger plan for commercial and residential real-estate development. The first protest against the SLT commenced the next year, when several Douglas County residents organized themselves as the Committee to Elect a True Amphibian and placed Agnes T. Frog (a fictional persona styled after the wetlands’ endangered northern crawfish frog) on the ballot to run against one of the commissioners who was behind the bond initiative. The federal government issued its first plan for the SLT in 1986, which involved building the road through the wetlands on 31st Street, an alignment that crossed Haskell’s property (Map 2). Because the project would involve federal funding — Congress approved $2.7 million for the project in 1987 alone — an environmental impact statement (EIS) was required under the provisions of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The first EIS was completed in 1990 without input from Haskell.

Activism began to materialize at Haskell at this time. In the fall of 1992, the county failed to include Haskell on the mailing list soliciting input from property owners affected by its application for a permit under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act pertaining to mitigation plans along the proposed trafficway route. With only a few individuals and agencies responding, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (the Corps) approved the permit. Coupled with the blatant lack of consultation in the 1990 EIS, this development compelled Haskell officials to act. In 1993, the university’s board of regents passed a resolution opposing construction of the SLT along the 31st Street alignment. Under pressure from the U.S. Department of Justice, the Douglas County Commission ordered a supplemental EIS that would incorporate Haskell’s input. That same year, the Haskell Student Senate created the Wetlands Preservation Committee, which later became the Wetlands Preservation Organization (WPO), to coordinate information regarding the SLT “in defense of the student body” and raise awareness among SLT stakeholders and the Wetlands Preservation Organization (WPO) community about the students’ opposition to the project in defense of the wetlands (Hasselman 2014).

One place played an especially important role in calling Native and non-Native people to this activism: the Haskell medicine wheel near the wetlands on the southern edge of campus. The medicine wheel came into being in 1992 on the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s voyage to the Americas as part of a collaborative project involving tribal elders, Haskell students, professors Daniel Wildcat and Leslie Evans and crop artist Stan Herd. The wheel is based on the sacred circle of life: four lines cut into the grassland, radiating out from a ceremonial fire pit in the center and ending at cairns that mark the four cardinal directions. Two poles mark the solstices. To the west, a bear claw is cut into the grass and to the east, a large spirit bird effigy. The medicine wheel was blessed by a medicine man and subsequently has hosted sunrise and solstice ceremonies, National Days of Prayer to Protect Native American Sacred Places, ceremonies by the Native American Church, solstice observations and individual prayers and offerings.

Although outside observers may think the medicine wheel was created in 1992, those who were involved in its inception told us they did not create the wheel. Instead, it came from land, out of the many distinct tribal traditions of Indian Country and the “mythic action space” (Cash Cash 2008) of shared cosmological relationship. Its appearance was a healing gesture that consecrated the sacredness of the wetlands. Daniel Wildcat explained it to us this way:

[The medicine wheel] was meant to be a healing gesture. [But some people] were claiming that hey, you built that just so you could make a sacred site there and try to stop the trafficway. And we said, well, you guys are ignorant in the first place because we don’t make sites sacred. They are sacred in and of their own being. That really explains the collision of cultures. Because the students were saying, hey, we just put something here that we’re acknowledging that this is sacred ground — its historical significance for the children who were here; the fact that this is a place that was viewed as an important medicine collection site by the Osage, by the Kaw. We’re not talking about buildings, we’re not talking about property lines. We’re talking about the wetlands and what they represent. And I don’t know if that medicine wheel hadn’t been there, that the whole thing might not have taken so strongly that flavor. Because these things were happening at essentially the same time that the students . . . formed the WPO [Wetlands Preservation Organization]. And I became a faculty advisor, supporter, confidant for them. So my direct activity in many ways had to do with my involvement in the creation of the Haskell Medicine Wheel and then my support for students and their efforts to challenge this trafficway. 

The medicine wheel actively called people to activism and coexistence struggle. It inspired students to form the WPO in 1993 and since that time has taught more than two decades’ worth of students about the history of Haskell, the wetlands and how these places tie into their own tribal identities. Importantly, the wheel is also a place where non-Native people have learned Haskell’s history and participate in ceremonies that both stimulate and affirm their own activism against the SLT. It is a place for nonhumans as well, not only the mythical figures of Thunderbird and Bear but also the birds, mammals, grasses and trees whose own coexistence in the wetlands is guarded by the wheel and the direct action it calls humans to engage.

Beyond calling people to activism, places become agents of activism in their own right, intervening in the struggle through the palindrome practice of protest and ceremony. During the first phase of activism, the WPO worked with non-Native organizations and activists, including the Kansas chapters of the Sierra Club, Audubon Society and Herpetological Society; women’s groups such as Lawrence NOW and the League of Women Voters; the Douglas County Preservation Alliance; Lawrence activists; KU faculty; and the KU student group Environs. The places of protest included marches and vigils on 31st Street; protests in the wetlands, at public hearings and in downtown Lawrence; and ceremonies at the medicine wheel. At times, these places turned protest activities, both secular (for example, holding signs, stopping traffic, marching) and sacred (for example, singing, dancing, ritual enactment), into a ceremonial occasion through which activists experienced their solidarity as an event with social and political relevance and spiritual and religious significance (Hondagneu-Sotelo et al. 2004, 137). Haskell instructor Bill Welton told us the story of an early 1990s protest against the SLT on 31st Street where WPO students and their non-Native allies lit farolitos, paper bags anchored by sand with candles inside, along the shoulders of 31st Street to guide their protest march:

As we were lighting those farolitos — and this was something the students brought out to me — if you’ve never spent time in this corner of Lawrence, you lose the understanding of how dark it is. How night is truly night. Whether we were working from the medicine wheel, which is right north of 31st Street, how it seemed to — I’m thinking spiritual here — how it seemed to rise above the rest of the City of Lawrence with all of its lights and all of its noise. It was still a special place, unlike any other thing that you would associate with an urban area like Lawrence. So there was some very significant spiritual, cultural things that happened as part of those nonviolent protests.12

On 31st Street, a nondescript two-lane blacktop, the place affected and moved the people, transporting their being-together in the wetlands to a realm “above” the city of Lawrence, toward what Welton described as “something higher,” a sense of transformation through place.

On other occasions, the places involved in the struggle against the SLT intervened by turning ceremony into a form of protest, reversing the direction of this palindrome and disrupting the flow of “everyday life” on behalf of the wetlands. Bill Welton shared another story of a protest on 31st Street that the WPO organized in response to a series of pro-trafficway articles that appeared in the local newspaper, the Lawrence Journal-World. The students obtained permission from Lawrence police to stop traffic on the roadway for fifteen minutes each hour for an entire weekend. “So,” he told us, 

the cops would stop traffic and we would go out there [on the road] and have drumming or dancing for 15 minutes out of every hour. And I think some people were pretty pissed off, but a lot of people were like, “What’s going on?” And we’d tell them — they didn’t know about the South Lawrence Trafficway.

Similar interventions occurred at public hearings. Mike Dunaway, former WPO president, gave us the example of a public hearing for the trafficway in 1999. He and the student body president had gotten Haskell students together to go to the hearing at South Junior High and submit their opposition on record. They had been at the school for about an hour.

Then in the distance you heard a drum. And you heard it coming closer. And then you heard singing. And it was coming closer. Then you heard footsteps. And they were coming closer. And each time you could tell that the Lawrence community members were getting a little bit more apprehensive, a little bit more apprehensive. And the police officers started unsnapping their guns. They did not know what was going to go on. When they came in, the drum came in first and the students walked in around the drum like you would in a powwow circle. Then they sat in the center of the room and sang. Students just kept coming in, kept coming in, kept singing. One by one, they would leave the circle to go up and sign “We don’t want the road” on these petitions. Then they would come back to the circle. And it was just almost surreal to me because it was like, wow. The students, without any violence, without any real show of force, kind of pushed the community members out of the room through the drumming and the singing and walking as a singular group. . . . It showed the power that can be brought forth by centering people around a drum and a song.

Although Dunaway noticed how the drum circle “pushed the community members out of the room,” the ceremonial dimensions of Indigenous protest can bring non-Native people into the fold of coalition activism, a phenomenon seen in other Indigenous social movements in the United States. The ceremonial activities involved in and surrounding protes t— singing, dancing, ritual enactment, visionary experience — bring diverse people into oppositional solidarity through which “a distinctively ethnic and religious form is adopted, transformed, and expanded to new inclusiveness” (Hondagneu-Sotelo et al. 2004, 137). Consider, for instance, an experience Mike Caron, a longtime non-Native WPO activist, told us about one evening in the fall of 1994. It was the evening before a public hearing to be held at Haskell the following day.

The night before the hearing I went down to the edge of the wetlands [on the Haskell campus] and parked my car. I started walking down across 31st street and heard this thing that sounded like Darth Vader, a slow hissing sound. So I started walking down into the wetlands, and it gets real dark, you know? You really lose the light out there. I kept following the sound until just before I got to the [Wakarusa] river. Back then Williams Gas Company had buildings on both sides of the maintenance road there with big cyclone fences and concertina wire. I walked toward the pumping station and that’s what the sound was, the hissing. I could smell the methane, and seeing all the wire around there, it seemed like an extermination camp. That’s the image that came in my head. It was an extermination camp. I’d heard stories of the kids running away and I thought about the cultural genocide that happened at Haskell and all of that. That whole thing was just a real emotional moment.

     After that I walked back up to my car. And as I got closer I started hearing this drum, like a heartbeat. So I walked towards campus to figure out what that noise was and I ended up at the gazebo [by the powwow grounds]. And there the Kiowa drum group is in the middle of that gazebo and they’re beating their hearts out and there’s all these Haskell students all around it. And I thought, that’s the heart of Haskell. They’ve survived. Having those two experiences in one night, it was mind-blowing.

The Haskell students had convened a drum circle in ceremonial preparation for the next day’s hearing. For Caron, the wetlands vision of a drumming ceremony overcoming a history of extermination was affirmation of not only his oppositional politics but also his ongoing involvement, as a settler-descended person, in Native activism. The intensely affective elements in Caron’s account of the wetlands — the darkness, the hissing, smell of methane, the mirage of the extermination camp in the pumping station — underscore how places generate the liminal atmospheres where ceremony and protest converge into decolonizing effect.

Sumer Mohsen, Haskell student activist. HALEY RAINS

Ceremonial Entanglements

Although the wetlands were singularly motivational for SLT activists, non-Native people initially came to protest largely for environmental reasons, whereas Native people were motivated to protect a sacred place as part of the centuries-long struggle against colonialism. And critics, for their part, targeted this alliance. In 2011, Mike Rees, Kansas Department of Transportation chief counsel, was reported as saying that non-Native activists had “encouraged” Haskell students to protest the SLT and “led” them to the fight, convincing them that it was their sacred land (Lawhorn 2001). The malicious assumption behind Rees’s statement is that the Indians were not sophisticated enough to organize protest on their own; they needed help from non-Native people. Coalition activism, then, was an entanglement of preexisting motivations, aspirations, and histories — in short, an entanglement of worlds, including those of developers and settler-state actors.

The point we wish to draw attention to is not only that these worlds are entangled in and through the wetlands, but that throughout the many years of SLT activism, the place guided Native and non-Native people to solidarity on an “uncommon ground” (Chatterton 2006) of dialogue, interaction and relationship — even as they pursued different goals from different positions within the colonized space of settler-state institutions. In this way, Wakarusa facilitated epistemic friction (Seawright 2014) and productive crossovers in oppositional strategy and vision. Non-Native activists began to articulate the spiritual dimensions of protest while Native activists recognized that the “environmental angle,” as Tyler Kimbrell put it, was an effective communication tool in raising public awareness. In August 1994, when SLT organizers held a groundbreaking ceremony for the nine-mile western leg of the trafficway, non-Native activists realized that Haskell students had not returned to campus from summer break (Mellinger 1994). They quickly surmised that the organizers had selected this date for their ceremony to diffuse Haskell’s involvement at the event (an allegation the organizers denied). So, the Alliance for Environmental Justice, an umbrella group of mostly non-Native organizations, held a protest and vigil to highlight what they perceived as blatant chicanery. Here, the ceremonial dimensions of protest were inverted as a non-Native contingent intervened in a government ceremony to represent a Native voice that had been silenced.

The first phase of SLT activism approached its climax in 1997 when Douglas County, KDOT and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) reached an agreement to complete the SLT without federal financing. By removing federal support, they hoped to exempt the eastern leg of the trafficway from NEPA regulations requiring public review through a supplemental environmental impact statement (SEIS). Plaintiffs led by Thomasine Ross (former member of the Haskell Board of Regents) and including the WPO and the KU student group Environs, filed for and received an injunction on construction of the trafficway pending the completion of a SEIS. The defendants then appealed this decision, and in November 1998, a federal judge ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in Ross v. Federal Highway Administration. The SLT could not proceed until the SEIS was completed, because despite federal withdrawal of funding, the trafficway was still a “major federal action.” This was a substantial victory for the coalition. Then came a second victory when the final version of the supplemental EIS was released in 2000, declaring that “no build” was the preferred alternative. This appeared to mark the death-knell for the SLT.

Yet the SLT was not dead. The very next year, KDOT chief counsel Mike Rees floated a new proposal to build the SLT on the 32nd Street alignment across the property owned by Baker University. This alignment would take the SLT off Haskell property entirely and thereby remove much, though not all, of that institution’s basis for opposition. In addition, the plan called for removing 31st Street itself from Haskell’s property and realigning it alongside the SLT. Rees initiated a series of negotiations with Baker University, whose property the new alignment would cross. Baker ultimately agreed to this plan in exchange for roughly $9 million in funds and a net land transfer of 354 acres for wetlands mitigation (see Map 2). Meanwhile, Haskell’s Board of Regents and federal BIA officials issued a joint statement recommending that the eastern leg of the SLT be built on an alignment south of the Wakarusa River (the 42nd Street alignment), avoiding the wetlands entirely. The Prairie Band Pottawatomi Nation made a similar recommendation the following year. Despite this opposition, the Corps of Engineers (Kansas City District) issued its Record of Decision affirming the 32nd Street alignment in December 2003. Now, however, funds were no longer available for the project. So in 2006 Senator Pat Roberts included a $1.5 million earmark in the federal Highway Bill to “jump start” the project and with that, the trafficway was alive again.

These developments launched the second phase of wetlands activism (2000–2012). In contrast to the first phase, this phase of activism relied less on formal alliances among organizations and more heavily on peer-to-peer activism among students from Haskell and KU whose relationships both stemmed from and strengthened their entanglements in the wetlands. Peer-to-peer activism is an “affinity politics” (Day 2005) that builds on interpersonal networks in spontaneous, extemporaneous forms of direct action that unfold alongside conventional organizing. It is, in short, a looser and more fluid kind of activism that depends on strong interpersonal relationships. A number of developments contributed to this transition toward place-based, student-led affinity activism. A new student exchange program enabled Haskell and KU students to take courses on the opposite campus, which created both formal and informal cross-cultural learning opportunities that translated into interpersonal connections and sometimes, lasting friendships. These exchanges set the stage for affinity work. In the mid-2000s, interaction between the WPO and Environs increased, although throughout the decade KU professors began using the wetlands more intensively to teach about ecology and the SLT as an environmental issue, which culminated in a team-taught Haskell-KU course on the wetlands.

In the early 2000s, a group of KU students led by Ecumenical Christian Ministries (ECM) reverend Thad Holcombe started a process of self-education about Haskell, the Wakarusa and the SLT through research-guided tours of the wetlands.13 Once again, the wetlands started preparing and bringing people to activism. The ECM, in turn, became an important place for translating this knowledge into activism against the SLT. Built in 1960, the ECM building is located on private land immediately adjacent to KU campus. Historically, this location has provided an essential distance from the KU campus — much more than what the physical proximity would suggest — for radical activism, particularly during the 1960s and ’70s civil rights movement, women’s rights movement and opposition to the Vietnam War. The ECM has always been “‘part of KU but not part of KU,’ which gave people who met there autonomy to plan and further their agendas” (Harper 2008, 6). It was one of the few safe places for activists during the turbulent ’60s and ’70s when, as one antiwar activist put it, “there were National Guard rifles pointed at us during protests.”14 In the 2000s, KU Environs held its meetings at the ECM and, with Holcombe, began learning about the wetlands and Haskell’s resistance to the SLT. Entwining with the personal relationships some KU students had with Haskell students, this “safe place” at the edge of KU campus incubated a new group in 2008, EcoJustice, whose mission was wetlands preservation in partnership with WPO members.

By the late 2000s, affinity activism had coalesced among students in the WPO, KU Environs and EcoJustice. Together, they discovered new places of protest. In November 2009, the coalition, which now included KU’s Indigenous Nations Studies Student Association, held the first of several petition drives on KU campus, asking for signatures compelling the university to use its 20-acre parcel in the wetlands for research and education instead of selling it to KDOT for the trafficway. The coalition also took their activism to national venues. In 2009, a group of students traveled to Power Shift, an international annual youth summit focusing on climate change and energy issues, in Washington, D.C. There they gave presentations on the wetlands and tried to raise awareness on a national level, networking with politicians and fellow student activists. Patrick Freeland, WPO president, and Jason Hering, EcoJustice president, even hatched an impromptu plan to talk to the Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar, sneaking backstage but getting stopped just short by his aide.

The coalition also worked together to care for the wetlands. As former EcoJustice president Jason Hering remembered, “We wanted to come up with some positive projects to work on instead of just protests, you know, something that would actually build community and build something in the wetlands.” The group held the first annual “Swamp Fest” in December 2010 at Jackpot Saloon and Music Hall, featuring local bands and a silent art auction. Proceeds went to the construction of the Haskell Wetlands Eco-Walk, an environmentally friendly,15 raised boardwalk that gives visitors the opportunity to discover the wetlands on Haskell’s campus with access to the medicine wheel. Activists envisioned the boardwalk as a way to help the wetlands — the place itself — raise awareness about the SLT in their absence (Metz 2010). 

The structure provides visitors with access to the place, while signage on a self-guided tour attunes them to issues surrounding the SLT. Swamp Fest III, held in 2013 at The Bottleneck (a Lawrence music venue), again featured live music and a silent art auction. The proceeds from this event went to create a soundscape that “document[s] the environmental and ecological impact of the traffic way project [through] an audio recording of the area before and after construction” (Donovan 2013). The soundscape project engages the very wetlands ambience — in this case the acoustic ambience — that circulates in the affective “charge” among activists in the politics of SLT opposition. The project uniquely demonstrates what the death of the wetlands sounds like through an acoustic illustration of an atmospheric disruption of the place and reduction of its distinctive personality.

At root, the peer-to-peer affinity activism among Haskell and KU students involved negotiating, through their mutual engagements in place, the imperatives of respectful relationship within new and evolving interpersonal connections across the Native/non-Native divide. From the work days building the boardwalk in the wetlands to the National Day of Prayer and Solstice ceremonies at the medicine wheel, Native and non-Native people found themselves in concrete situations in which dialogues, interactions and encounters provided a million little challenges in the invidious social and psychological structures of (post)colonialism that, when reworked, can become decolonizing moments, which, importantly, can involve nonhumans as well. The friendships between Haskell and KU students are living embodiments of place’s transformative agency through the ceremonial crossing into activism, which reminds us that though this crossing can take form in dramatic protest events or developments, it also emerges in the million tiny moments of dialogue and encounter that come from simply by being together in place.

In 2010, the Kansas state legislature passed a 10-year funding bill, and KDOT designated the SLT as its highest-priority project for the state’s northeast district. Construction could now proceed. When the district court affirmed the government’s decision to build the SLT on the 32nd Street alignment, the opponents filed an appeal in the Tenth Circuit Court in Denver asserting that the FHWA’s decision was arbitrary and capricious under the Administrative Procedure Act. The plaintiffs were led by the Prairie Band Pottawatomi Nation and included the WPO, Environs and EcoJustice. That May through June, the Haskell–KU student coalition undertook a 1,100-mile “Trail of Broken Promises” walk to the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., to bring national attention to the environmental and Native American spiritual issues involved in the opposition to the trafficway. Part of the route followed, in reverse, the path taken by Native Americans in the 1838 Potawatomi Trail of Death from Twin Peaks, Indiana, to Osawatomie, Kansas. The group carried draft legislation endorsed by the National Congress of American Indians to amend the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978 “to provide a right of action for protection of Native American Sacred Places.” The students carried the Wakarusa with them on this walk to Washington, sharing the message of how this place — sacred for Native Americans and spiritually important for non-Natives — had brought out this common cause.

Daniel Wildcat. HALEY RAINS

Just seven days after the students’ return from the Trail of Broken Promises, the Circuit Court announced its decision: the 32nd Street alignment for the SLT was upheld. This was one of the last possible options for legal recourse for the opposition. When the plaintiffs let the appeals period expire in October, the legal fight against the road was over. The legal decision to allow the appeals period to expire instead of pursuing the appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court was based, in part, upon that court’s recent set of rulings against Native American tribes, leading to a diminishment of tribal sovereign immunity (see Wilkins and Lomawaima 2001; Singer 2002).

Ceremonial Transit

In The Transit of Empire, Chickasaw scholar Jodi Byrd (2011) explains how American imperialism transits through a racialized Indianness that renders Native lands a domestic space subject to dispossession and that codes other populations as Indian and therefore subject to American authority. Here in the South Lawrence Trafficway, we see the literal transit of empire in the form of transportation infrastructure. In the beginning, the Federal Highway Administration and Kansas Department of Transportation tried to enforce the assumption that Haskell’s land was domestic space and therefore exempt from environmental review under NEPA. After Haskell activists succeeded in compelling the government to accommodate their interests through a supplemental impact statement, the government took the road off Haskell property, thereby removing much of that institution’s basis for formal objection. But the road still crosses Indian land that was first taken by treaty, later transferred into federal trust and finally “surplused” to another owner, Baker University, who ultimately agreed to the SLT’s construction. And the SLT crosses land that Native people still consider sacred and that many non-Natives consider to be spiritually significant. The trafficway is infrastructure for vehicular and freight transportation across the domestic space of North America and also the continuing, dispossessing transit of the settler state across Indian land.

But there is another transit at work here, one that is difficult to ascertain except through the scales of coexistence. In our research, the people we spoke with helped us to understand how ceremony and protest are entangled in the agency of place through the process of activism. In their accounts of the ceremonial crossing into activism, those at Wakarusa found the place demanding their respect, asking them to “look again” at their relationships with others. And by asking all of us to look again, the wetlands continue to provoke ontological struggle even as the road is being built, helping activists, their opponents and the (undecided, ambivalent, potentially engaged) public engage the transition discourses of coexistence, now ongoing in the mitigation efforts to restore the wetlands around the trafficway. Ultimately, the fight to save the Wakarusa concerns the intrinsic value of our being together as a more-than-human landscape, of being in relationship through place, in ongoing dialogues and struggles engaging those who occupy different worlds but inhabit the same place. ψ

Modified from Being Together in Place. Reprinted with permission from the University of Minnesota Press.


1 The acreage of the Wakarusa is based on the Soil Conservation Service field maps from the Douglas County Soil Survey based on the land area containing Wabash (hydric) soil.

2 Available on the Baker Wetlands website, http://www.bakeru.edu/wetlands/species-lists.

3 “Interconnectedness,” a position paper prepared by Haskell Indian Nations University students in response to the South Lawrence Trafficway, 1997. The paper’s position is “Haskell students believe that the SEIS is unjustified, discriminatory, misleading, and fails to adequately address Native American spiritual and cultural concerns,” p. 1.

4 The removal treaties were subsequent to the 1830 Indian Removal Act. These treaties most infamously involved the Five Civilized Tribes but also included a number of other treaties with nations east of the Mississippi. What is now the state of Kansas was once part of Indian Territory prior to the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854.

5 In the early 1890s, a series of congressional acts effectively made off-reservation education compulsory for Indian children, a policy that would persist in various forms through the 1920s (Cohen 1942).

6 Official Report of the Nineteenth Annual Conference of Charities and Correction (1892), 46–59. Reprinted in Richard H. Pratt, “The Advantages of Mingling Indians with Whites,” Americanizing the American Indians: Writings by the “Friends of the Indian” 1880–1900 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1973), 260–71.

7 Roger Boyd, “History of the Baker Wetlands,” available at http://www.bakeru.edu/wetlands. According to Boyd’s interpretation of a 1937 aerial photograph, three sections totaling 60 of the roughly 600 acres of wet prairie were not put into production for the Haskell Farm.

8 Letter from Superintendent H. B. Peairs to Commissioner Cato Sells, dated February 8, 1919, available in the Kansas Collection of the Spencer Research Library, Lawrence.

9 Daniel Wildcat (professor, Haskell Indian Nations University), in conversation with authors, June 2014.  Decades later, some proponents of the SLT would dismiss Haskell’s claims that the wetlands are sacred, arguing that, after all, the Indians were the ones farming it. This is a malicious misrepresentation. The decision to drain the wetlands was made with no input from Native people. As Daniel Wildcat told us, “This wasn’t something where we [Native people] all got together and said, ‘Hey, you know what? Let’s all go down there and we’re gonna farm the wetlands and tile it so it drains artificially.’ No. Bureau of Indian Affairs did that. And essentially they used enslaved labor to do the work.”

10 Melinda Adams-Crow (instructor, Haskell Indian Nations University), in discussion with the authors, November 2014.

11 Roger Boyd (professor, Baker University), in discussion with the authors, November 2014.

12 Bill Welton (instructor, Haskell Indian Nations University), in discussion with the authors, September 2014.

13 Jason Hering (student activist), in discussion with the authors, September 2014.

14 Rick Mitchell (former KU student during the late 1960s and early ’70s), personal interview by Tom Harper, November 7, 2008.

15 The group consulted existing design principles from the National Park Service and received $800 from the Elizabeth Schultz Environmental Fund to test different building methods and discern the one with the least impact on the wetlands ecology. They recycled old telephone poles from Westar Energy to build the walk, and later received $3,000 from the Fund to complete the project.


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