On a breezy fall afternoon at the southeast corner of Haskell Indian Nations University, pinwheels spin above the bones of more than 100 Indian children buried in orderly rows beneath faded white headstones.
The graves belong to infants, kids and teens who died long ago, most within the first 15 years of the school’s founding in 1884, when its mission was to destroy tribal identity and force Indian assimilation to the ways of white America. It was set to do as Army Capt. Richard Henry Pratt proposed when such schools were established: “Kill the Indian to save the man.”
Largely hidden from view behind the sewage pumping plant and up against the treeline shielding it from a paved city running path, the graveyard’s seclusion speaks to the shame of its origin.
“It is a very sad part of the Indian boarding school history,” said Daniel Wildcat, professor of American Indian Studies at Haskell.
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Wildcat walks across campus to stand amid the dusty stones in that child cemetery at least once a month.
“It is a place that needs to be remembered,” he said. “We need to understand the history, that graveyard, the sacrifice, pain and hardship.”
Wildcat said the cemetery has given generations of Haskell leaders, students and faculty the drive “to want to be an example of what tribal education should be. We are not the school that Richard Pratt wanted 125 years ago.”
At Haskell, preserving and promoting Native American history and culture is a primary part of the mission, even while its own history has been fraught with failure and disappointment.
Students enrolled from more than 140 government-recognized tribes are surrounded by history. It spills from American Indian studies lectures across the 320-acre campus. Culture abounds in the names of Hiawatha, Jim Thorpe and Blalock halls and in the photos and artwork adorning the walls in Navarre Hall. It’s in the Medicine Wheel earthwork south of campus, designed to symbolize the scope and richness of indigenous cultures, and in the bronze sculpture of the Apache “Hoop and Pole Game Player” that stands watch over the Haskell grounds.
Haskell opened 54 years after the 1830 Indian Removal Act, which forced tribes from their lands. More than 4,000 of 16,000 Cherokees who started on the long Trail of Tears march from homelands in the southeastern U.S. to what would be designated Indian territory west of the Mississippi River died of hunger, disease and exposure.
First called the U.S. Indian Industrial Training School, Haskell, like a hundred others, began as an American Indian boarding school designed by government educators to remove Indian children from their homes and influences of their language, religion and community. Their hair was cut and clothing changed from native attire. Some got sick — pneumonia, typhoid, diphtheria.
It started with 22 students. Within a semester the training school housed 400 children and quickly grew to more than 600 who came or were brought there from 35 states.
When they weren’t working the school’s farm fields for their food, boys were taught tailoring, wagon making, blacksmithing and harness making. Girls learned how to cook and sew. The government ran the school as if it was the military; students wore uniforms and marched around the grounds.
In 1887 the school was renamed the Haskell Institute, after Dudley Haskell, the congressman who placed the school in Lawrence.
Students were trained as teachers and clerks — jobs the government figured were needed in tribal communities. Initially students stayed at the school four years.
When Henry Roe Cloud, the first American Indian to graduate from Yale College, became Haskell’s first Native American superintendent in 1933, the school curriculum began an evolution emphasizing Indian culture.
Three decades later, about the time the U.S. government had been convinced to end legalized segregation of black citizens and the civil rights movement was in full swing, Haskell graduated its last high school class. Work began to make it a school of higher learning.
In 1968, Sen. Robert Kennedy, then a newly announced candidate for president, visited the campus pledging better education for what he called “the forgotten American.” The report he started before his death, “Indian Education: a National Tragedy — a National Challenge,” was released by his brother Sen. Ted Kennedy in 1969. The Kennedy Report helped spawn a movement to provide higher education opportunities aimed specifically at Native Americans where few existed before.
Haskell evolved from a vocational-technical school to Haskell Indian Junior College, which sat its first class in 1970.
“That is when we finally began to bloom,” said Eric Anderson, a member of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation and chairman of Haskell’s department of American Indian studies. “It’s when Haskell began to move toward the level of education that the early generations of American Indians envisioned for their children.”
But ideas were slow to bear fruit, Anderson said. Bureaucratic regulation and rigidity, he said, have plagued the institution for decades. Nearly another 20 years would pass before Haskell transformed from a junior college into a bachelor’s degree-granting university.
It became Haskell Indian Nations University in 1993 and offered a four-year elementary education teacher training program. By 1998, Haskell was offering degrees in American Indian studies, business administration and environmental sciences.
That’s when Teresa Milk, a Lakota Sioux from South Dakota, arrived on campus.
“I came here because it was affordable, I stayed because it became home,” said Milk, who now,with a 2006 doctorate in American Indian studies from the University of Kansas, teaches at Haskell.
Haskell students don’t pay tuition. They pay student fees. A year ago, they totaled just $182 a semester. But students pushed to have them raised to fund campus improvements. Now it costs $715 a semester for those who live in the dorms and $240 for those who don’t.
Most students, alumni and members of Haskell’s 15-member Board of Regents believe the federal government owes American Indians a free or nearly free education, both by treaty and as compensation for generations of cultural oppression.
The National Congress of American Indians explains it this way:
Indian tribes ceded land that now constitutes the United States. In return, agreements or treaties were made during the 19th century between tribes and the U.S. government that established a “trust” responsibility for the well-being of Indian peoples in perpetuity. But many of the agreements demoralized American Indians, and too often the government didn’t adequately keep up its side.
“When we agreed to treaties with the federal government we did so in good faith,” said Anderson, an alum of the University of Kansas, where he got his doctorate degree. Anderson came to Haskell while doing graduate studies on the history of the institution and developed a love for the college and the students. He came back to teach in 2008.
“Tribes have been trying to reassert their sovereignty since it was compromised by the whole treaty-signing period in the 19th century,” Anderson said.
Venida Chenault, a member of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation and Haskell’s president for the last two years, sees her institution as key in holding the government accountable for treaties that assured education for American Indians in perpetuity.
“We are the promise keepers,” Chenault told students and faculty who came to the university auditorium last month to hear her plans for moving Haskell forward and away from bureaucratic limits imposed by government control.
Anderson and other faculty agree. “We need Haskell because, as my students are always saying, Haskell is so very unique,” he said.
There is no other four-year university in the country that is so representative of Native American tribes. Many students, he said, are the first in their family to seek a college education, many coming from very poor homes. Many are from reservations and away from home for the first time. “They find comfort in being able to come to an all-Indian institution,” he said.
Haskell has success stories to tell.
In 1964, Billy Mills, Oglala Lakota and Haskell graduate, won the Olympic gold medal for the 10,000-meter run in Tokyo. Allie Reynolds, a member of the Creek nation and a Haskell graduate, was a Major League Baseball pitcher for 13 years with the Cleveland Indians and the New York Yankees.
But Haskell hasn’t found itself here, pushing toward self-governance, without controversy rooted in distrust and dysfunction.
In the last 10 years Haskell has been plagued with problems, including several years operating with an absent president after the Board of Regents voted no confidence in Linda Warner and the Bureau of Indian Education sent her on a temporary assignment to Oklahoma — but did not take away her title as Haskell president.
In her absence, the university saw four acting presidents come and go and allegations surface concerning squandered federal funds, ethics violations and administrative bullying. Dysfunction at the only fully federally funded, four-year, degree-granting institution in the country grabbed the attention of Sen. Pat Roberts, a Kansas Republican who called on the secretary of the interior to launch an investigation. That was when U.S. Assistant Interior Secretary Larry Echo Hawk made his first visit to the Haskell campus.
Eventually, a new full-time president was named. Chris Redman came from the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 2011. But in two years, he was abruptly moved to another federal job in Oklahoma and current President Venida Chenault, who had served as interim president on two occasions, was named to the top post.
Haskell celebrated its 131st anniversary in June.
The day before the class of 2015 paraded through commencement in colorful pomp and circumstance, white smoke and the scent of smoldering cedar filled a room in Navarre Hall where the Haskell Board of Regents had gathered.
Tom Spotted Horse, a campus worker, waved an eagle feather through the curling smoke and over the head of each regent:
“God help this board to do good.”
This month the board returns to that same room on the campus. The plan, said board President Russell Bradley, is that the members will remember those children buried on the east side of the campus and the sacrifices that generations of American Indians before them made to get Haskell where it is today.
And with those things in mind, they will talk about Indian sovereignty, about fear of failure, and “then do what is the best thing to move Haskell into the future,” Bradley said. “I think we can do better.”
Here’s how Haskell compares to some other small four-year and two-year public colleges in Kansas. Tuition and fees are annual costs, and except for Haskell, they do not include room and board.
(Information from the National Center for Education Statistics College Navigator )
Haskell Indian Nations University
Tuition and fees: $1,430 a year (living on campus)
Student to faculty ratio: 20 to 1
Students getting Pell grants: 84 percent
Fort Hays State University
Enrollment: 11,643 (undergraduate)
Tuition and fees: $4,469
Student to faculty ratio: 17 to 1
Students getting Pell grants: 42 percent
Pittsburg State University
Enrollment: 6,270 (undergraduate)
Tuition and fees: $6,230
Student to faculty ratio: 19 to 1
Students getting Pell grants 40 percent
Kansas City Kansas Community College
Tuition and fees: $2,640
Student to faculty ratio: 13 to 1
Students getting Pell grants: 56 percent
Johnson County Community College
Tuition and fees: $3,090
Student to faculty ratio: 20 to 1
Percent getting Pell grants: 40 percent
Source: National Center for Education Statistics College Navigator