Streams of gray smoke from burning sage and cedar swirled into the air, and an American Indian intertribal honor chant rose above the chirp of birds at Pioneer Springs Park in Independence.
Cupping an abalone shell filled with the burning embers, Millicent Pepion — part Blackfeet, part Navajo — waved smoke around her body from head to toe and then did the same for her 13 fellow travelers. Together they blessed the nameless Potawatomi Indian who is buried in the park.
Pepion said she and the other students from Haskell Indian Nations University and the University of Kansas are on a journey — the “Trail of Broken Promises” — walking from Lawrence to the nation’s capitol to save the Wakarusa wetlands from being paved over for the long-proposed South Lawrence Trafficway.
The 14.5-mile trafficway was designed to carry traffic from Kansas 10 on the southeast side of Lawrence to Interstate 70 on the northwest side. A section from I-70 to U.S. 59 has been open since 1996. But opponents have blocked the proposed $174 million, four-lane, six-mile section through the wetlands that would complete the project.
The battle over the wetlands, south of the Haskell campus, pits the Federal Highway Administration and the Kansas Department of Transportation against the students and several environmental groups, including the Sierra Club.
The matter has been tied up in court off and on for more than a quarter century. Now, Kansas transportation officials say, a decision from the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals that is expected later this month could finally end the dispute.
The students blessing the Potawatomi burial place on Monday had already traveled about 60 miles that day, including 30 miles on foot, starting near Lawrence.
A stone marker proclaims the Independence park a site along the 1838 Potawatomi Trail of Death — 660 miles traveled when Potawatomi Indians were forced by the U.S. government from Indiana to present-day Osawatomie, Kan.
The Potawatomi Nation, one of 152 tribes represented at Haskell, supports the students’ effort to preserve the wetlands adjacent to their school. Haskell owns a small tract of the wetlands, but the largest portion was acquired by Baker University from the federal government back in the late 1960s. KU owns a very small piece, too.
Baker spokesman Steve Rottinghaus said the university supports the Kansas Department of Transportation’s plan.
The students’ walk — 58 days and more than 1,300 miles from Kansas on back roads of Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, through the Appalachian Mountains, West Virginia and Pennsylvania, will take them to Washington, D.C. There they plan to present U.S. lawmakers with a bill the students drafted to amend the American Indian Religious Freedom Act. The amendment would ensure the protection and preservation of “traditional Native American sacred places.”
Pepion’s group plans to walk 30 miles a day, in three shifts of four to six walkers at a time, until they reach Capitol Hill. They walked to Richmond, Mo., on Tuesday. They expect to reach the Capitol by July 9.
Along the way, Pepion said, they will visit sacred Native American sites and talk with people they meet. They hope to raise some money for food, gas and camping fees.
“This is not a protest,” said Stanley Perry, a Navajo and Pepion’s uncle. Perry leaned on a wooden staff the group made topped with wild turkey, hawk and eagle feathers. “This is an awareness walk.”
Perry, who is driving the route with the students, said that while they hope to halt destruction of the wetlands, they also want to talk about other sacred places that have been developed over and prevent any future destruction of Native American sacred places.
Pepion said when she walks through the wetlands near Haskell, where she is a junior, “I feel a high level of spirituality. I go there to sing my holy song.”
Those wetlands are sacred, she said, because when Haskell opened as an Indian boarding school in 1884, many of the children forced to live there ran away to the wetlands and died there.
“We don’t build on our holy places,” Pepion said. “We draw power from Mother Earth. It is an issue of spirituality. Had we built a church out there, would they tear it down to build a road? This is disrespectful to our history, to our religion.”
Haskell students and environmentalists since 1986 have rallied against disturbance of these wetlands for the sake of a highway. The current Kansas proposal would develop 370 acres of man-made wetlands, prairie and riparian areas to replace the 57 acres of wetlands the road would cover.
Attorney Robert Eye has spoken for the Potawatomi Nation and the Sierra Club on this project for several years.
“They would completely ruin some of the best wetlands around,” Eye said during a telephone interview. “But we believe that federal law does protect them.”
The 10th Circuit Court heard arguments in January questioning whether those planning the trafficway had conducted a noise-impact study as required by federal law.
Kansas transportation officials said they expected the government to prevail. The “only other place for this case to go would be the U.S. Supreme Court,” said Joshua Powers, a spokesman for the state transportation department. Given the case load at that level, it’s possible the Supreme Court might never hear it and the lower court decision would stand.
“We have been out there surveying,” Powers said. “In the eventual acquisition of the property, we could start right away.”