At the end of U.S. Indian Treaty Negotiations in 1871, the U.S. government began formal assimilation policies geared toward the civilization of American Indian peoples. One result of this “civilizing” mission was the growth of Indian boarding schools from the end of the 19th century through the early 20th century. To reformers, assimilation and off-reservation boarding schools were a better alternative to policies of literal extermination, and so Bureau of Indian Affairs agents were given license to forcibly remove children from their homelands, families, and culture, all in the name of saving them.
The United States Indian Industrial Training School, as the Haskell school was first known, was one of the first boarding schools and opened in 1884 with the goal of giving American Indian students the vocational skills necessary to assimilate in order to “kill the Indian and save the man.” Haskell began its boarding school with twenty-two Indian students from various tribes across the U.S., first focusing on agricultural trades. Student life was rigid and inflexible: if a child was caught speaking their tribal language, practicing traditional customs, or not adhering to the militaristic standards of school behavior, cruel and unusual punishments were utilized to deter their “deviant” behavior—which sometimes resulted in the death of the child.
The school was located on wetlands to use land that white settlers did not want, yet the wetlands became a place of comfort and ceremony for many of the students forced into this harsh new way of life. The wetlands served as a place of farewells, where elders left children with words of advice and prayer, and a meeting place for students to reunite with their families and friends when they were homesick. Students often went to the wetlands to perform ceremonies, pray, commune with nature and the environment, and even to bury their dead. The children’s deaths were caused by disease, suicide, sometimes the environment itself, as runaway students died of exposure in the wetlands. Students were secretly buried in the wetlands by their fellow students, who performed spirit release ceremonies using a lock of hair. Thus the area has always been a site of resistance, a fact recognized by school officials, who tried to “kill” the wetlands—cutting down vegetation and draining the water—in order to prevent the cultural activities which took place there.
However, decades later, the wetlands returned to life after being abandoned, “some believe as a gift from the creator, to honor the incredible transformation of Haskell from one of the nation’s most notorious boarding schools to a true university,” in the words of Michael Caron of Save the Wetlands. Various unknown and unmarked graves in the wetlands are a constant reminder of the brutal realities which boarding school forced on the children. Because of these graves, the history of the wetlands, and the experiences that these native children experienced as chattel of the United States government, many tribes consider this land sacred. Indian people continue to use the area for prayer and in 1992, Haskell students constructed a Medicine Wheel which is a site of ceremony. Its historical and cultural significance also makes this land worthy of protecting as a National Historic Site.
The school continues to draw students, though now on a voluntary basis with a curriculum based on Native American cultures. It has gradually evolved from a trade school into a four year university, designated Haskell Indian Nations University in 1993. It enrolls Native American students from around the country and provides B.A. degrees under the auspices of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, training students in elementary teacher education, American Indian studies, business administration, and environmental science. In 2002, the university opened its Cultural Center and Museum which documents the institution’s long and varied history, storing its archives and hosting contemporary exhibitions.
A proposal for construction of the South Lawrence Trafficway, an extension of K-10, has generated fierce opposition. Scientists and environmental researchers contend that the trafficway would do irreparable harm to a unique and sensitive ecosystem. Furthermore, the area holds historic and cultural significance for the Prairie Band Potawatomi, Kickapoo, Sac and Fox, and Iowa tribes. Opponents also point out that the trafficway threatens state historic sites and, if completed, would contribute to urban sprawl. A proposal to mitigate for lost wetlands, loss of pedestrian access, and to reduce noise has been approved by US Army Corps of Engineers, Kansas Department of Transportation, and the Federal Highway Administration.
See Also: A Selected Timeline of the Baker Wetlands / South Lawrence Trafficway
By Clark W. Coan