On January 19, 2012, an important legal proceeding is scheduled to occur. On that date, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit will hear the Prairie Band Pottawatomie Nation, et al., Appellants v. Federal Highway Administration (FHA), et al. The proceedings center on the proposed construction of the South Lawrence Trafficway (SLT) through a historic area (the Haskell Agricultural Farm property). This is a site that is on the southern portion of the Baker Wetlands, an area more commonly referred to as the Haskell Wetlands. If you have attended or visited Haskell Indian Nations University, no doubt you are familiar with this area of campus.
Lawrence, Kansas, is one of the hubs of Indian Country. A charming town with a fascinating history, Lawrence is located in the eastern part of the state and is home to both the University of Kansas (est. 1866) and Haskell Indian Nations University (est. 1884). As such, there are well over 140 American Indian Tribes represented in Lawrence. The result is a vibrant college town that pulsates with interestingand significantactivity, ranging from the cultural and social, to the political. However, the town of Lawrence does not exist in a vacuum. It is in proximity to four Tribes: the Prairie Band Pottawatomie Nation, the Iowa Tribe of Kansas and Nebraska, the Kansas Kickapoo Tribe, and the Sac and Fox Nation of Missouri.
As noted by both Rolling Stone Magazine and U.S. News and World Reports, Lawrence is, overall, an enjoyable place to live. So of course, many American Indians who initially move here to attend either Haskell or KU end up staying on. Yet, who can deny the anti-Indian activities that have occurred in Lawrence? Settlers founded the town on a mission of social justice, but did so within the context of U.S. federal acts and policies that were devastating to American Indian Tribes. Even today, there are times when miscommunications and, at times, fierce setbacks, occur. Yet we keep forging ahead, slowly. For some of us, this is partly rooted in our immense overall affection for an inimitable community that flourishes due to the presence of a prominent Tribal college and all of its important offerings. Consequently, as is so common in the towns of Indian Country, the Native and non-Native populations here have to navigate the shared, sometimes perilous waters of respectful coexistence with each other. In the documentary, 8th Fire, which is currently airing on the CBC, Edith Cloutier (Algonquin) perfectly described communities such as Lawrence: Nobody’s going anywhere. Everybody’s here to stay. Now, how do we work it out together?
The upcoming SLT hearing in Denver will test the resiliency and nature of the communitys relationships between the populations. Obviously these legal proceedings and controversywhich have been ongoing for over two decadesare not only of interest to American Indians and our allies who have a direct stake in the well-being of Lawrence. Like the San Francisco Peaks, the Keystone XL Pipeline, and other neighborhood concerns, the political and legal wrangling over the Haskell Wetlands is a commentary on contemporary non-Native understanding and practice of respectful coexistence, which is at the heart of sovereignty, as well as all of our respective abilities to intelligently engage our responsibilities within an participatory democracy. To understand this more, I recommend the excellent overview written by a Haskell student who recently interned at the National Museum of the American Indian in D.C. (http://bit.ly/NMAI_wetlands).
In addition, when one reads through the reports and briefs regarding the proposed construction of the SLT, we also can identify a process in which it appears that a federal agency, the FHA, failed to uphold its mission to serve the public interest. I know most of us are not shocked by this or the other such facts present within the Haskell Wetlands case. What stands out, too, as one becomes more familiar with this case, and the threats posed to the community by the proposed SLT, is the impressive history of individuals from numerous different Tribes who have crafted and maintained a coalition of allies through all these years to protect the wetlands and Lawrence. Whoever says Indians cannot work together on an issue, or should not work with non-Indians on a problem, are reading from the wrong handbook.
Most of us recognize that the SLT case is occurring at an interesting, I would argue even a fortuitous, time in Indian Country. Seen within an all-things-are-connected framework, what I think of as The Big Here, then the Occupy movements and the threats posed to our lands by the complex of corporationsas reported by the Indigenous Environmental Network (http://www.ienearth.org) and Censored News (http://bsnorrell.blogspot.com)are providing an ideal moment in which we ought not to limit ourselves only to mutual assistance. This is a moment that encourages us to engage our Tribal representatives and Tribal organizations and congresses to play more visible and assertive roles in these affairs. This can be achieved without minimizing the importance of all the hard work that our beloved grassroots undertake.
Threats to our neighborhoods and communities, whether it is the SLT or Keystone or lack of access to healthy water, are urging us to gather together in a way that has not been seen in decades. Such an Indian Country gathering to discuss strategy and tactics requires the presence of not just those of us from academia and high-profile and well-business-suited advocacy organizations, but is absolutely dependent upon the input from our communities. Can you, too, see this gathering in your minds eye? A forum where the grassroots is listened to and immensely respected by the Tribal groups representing us in D.C. and elsewhere?
Yet solidarity and calls for assistance to individual cases remain important. Lawrence, Kansas, one of the focal points of Indian Country, needs your support. If you are able, please plan to attend the Denver hearing on 19 January 2012. Details, including ways to provide support, will be available on the Wetlands Preservation Organizations Facebook page: www.facebook.com/wetlandspreservationorganization.