Mará Rose Williams | After road battle, Haskell students look for next fight

Mará Rose Williams
Mará Rose Williams

Some students at Haskell Indian Nations University likened their two-decade battle to save the Wakarusa wetlands to pleading for someone on death row.

They wanted a full reprieve to save the wetlands from the South Lawrence Trafficway. But such stays, they learned, are rare.

The battle over the wetlands south of the Haskell campus pitted the Federal Highway Administration and the Kansas Department of Transportation against the students and several environmental groups.

This past summer, the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that government environmental studies were enough to let construction of the roadway go forward.

Even with the last legal roadblock gone, some opponents are still pleading with KDOT. They’re hoping state leaders might see more than $170 million in construction costs as too expensive.

Others are looking for some way outside the courts to continue fighting for the protection of the environment and Native American sacred places. Environmentalists and students have argued the wetlands are a sacred American Indian place, where — so the story goes — Indian children who were held at Haskell starting in 1884 sometimes ran away and died.

But most no longer expect they’ll halt the roll of heavy equipment. Instead, some said they find satisfaction in knowing students held up the project for nearly a quarter century. They learned a lot, and now they are ready to take on other land preservation battles.

Topeka lawyer Robert Eye, who has supported students on the wetlands issue since 1986, has seen many students rotate in and out of the Wakarusa movement. Some were so moved by their involvement, he said, “they changed the course of their academic career to pursue something related to environmental preservation.”

Last year, as a senior at Haskell, Millicent Pepion led Haskell and University of Kansas students on a trek from Kansas City to Washington, D.C., to bring attention to the wetlands. Along the way, they found out about other sacred Indian lands threatened by progress.

When word came that they had lost the wetlands fight, Pepion was disappointed but not done. Now a student at Arizona State University, she is seeking a bachelor’s degree in American Indian policy, then heading to law school.

“I don’t regret anything that I did fighting for the wetlands,” Pepion said. “It was an eyeopener. I realized that the fight is so much bigger than just the wetlands.”

Pepion has drawn up legislation to protect Native American sacred places.

“I don’t have to be in Kansas to do this,” she said. “I’m going to write a letter to every legislator until I get someone to sponsor it.”