7/16/12 On July 10 the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a new  highway can be built on the wetlands at Lawrence, Kansas. A panel of three judges unanimously ruled that government environmental studies were adequate to allow major highway construction through the wetlands area.

This was a blow to the group of students from Haskell Indian Nations University who walked from Kansas to Washington, D. C. to save the wetlands. Organized and led by Millie Pepion, a junior at Haskell, they called it the Trail of Broken Promises Walk.

They began their walk May 13 and ended it June 27 when they reached D. C. They followed the Potawatomi Trail of Death from Kansas to Indiana, and visited the nearly 80 historical markers on the Trail of Death www.potawatomi-tda.org. They had a special ceremony at the Chief Menominee monument in Marshall County, Indiana, June 7.

In Chicago on June 8 they met former President Clinton and his daughter Chelsea and the United Nations ambassador. They presented their request and were assured that there will a Clinton Global Initiative at Haskell Indian Nations University next year. Both Clinton and Chelsea touched the staff with eagle feathers and touched the Indian blanket the group wanted to present to President Obama.

On June 9-10 they visited the Great Lakes Native American pow wow at Portland, Indiana, enjoying the dancing and food. A blanket dance brought in $300 for gasoline for the group. An older couple gave them two eagle feathers which they added to the staff from the Wetlands. Then they headed east.

Running short of gas money, they decided to cut the trip a little shorter than originally planned. They reached Washington D.C. June 27 and walked from Arlington cemetery to the Capitol. By June 29 most of the students headed home. Only Millie Pepion, her uncle Stanley Perry, and Leonard Lowery III stayed in D.C. where they are contacting officials and asking them to save the Wakarusa Wetlands at Haskell. She presented the draft bill to Kansas congressmen’s staff, telling in detail how important it is in many ways to save the wetlands: Indian burials, sacred site to Native Americans, clean water aided by wetlands, historic value, and more. They talked to the Committee on Indian Affairs, National Congress of American Indians, and U.S. Department of Agriculture and Forestry. But they did not get to see President Obama.

In D. C. they are staying with Rose White, who works with the National Congress of American Indians. They have been hanging out at the National Museum of American Indians for free parking, a place to relax and eat snacks, visit with other tribes, etc. “They have been real nice to us,” Millie said in a phone conversation I had with her July 12. She hopes to head for home  to Lawrence, Kansas on July 15.

According to a news release, Dan Wildcat, Yuchi/Muskogee, faculty advisor to the students’ Wetlands Preservation Organization, said the verdict was like “adding insult to injury” when the court ignored Native voices about the history and importance of the wetlands. Haskell was a boarding school during a period when “our very identity was threatened and children there used the wetlands as a place to speak their language, sing their songs, and offer prayers in the days when they received corporal punishment to do so.”

Is this the end of the road? No, said Millie Pepion, “trail boss” of the Trail of Broken Promises Walk. When asked if she plans to tie herself to a tree, Millie said, “No, we will continue to negotiate in a peaceful manner that does not expose our persons to injury.”

She and people backing the saving of the wetlands have three ideas. 1. Get the wetlands included in the Haskell Historic District which includes the campus. 2. File another lawsuit. 3. Get the National Parks Service to declare it a park or a conservancy.

One other way is for the public to ask President Obama to issue a proclamation to save the Wakarusa Wetlands by making it a park or nature conservancy. If you want to help Millie and the other students who spent nearly two months walking the Trail of Broken Promises from Kansas to Washington, please send a hand-written postcard to President Obama, The White House, Washington DC 20500.  Hand-written postcards are individually scored and read, but typed letters and emails not always.

You will be joining your voice with the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation, which is one of 152 tribal nations represented at Haskell and several environmental organizations including the Sierra Club, the Jayhawk Audubon Society, and Ecojustice.

By Shirley Willard, Fulton County Historian, Rochester IN wwillard@rtcol.com