Sunday, 1 January 2012

Sacred Spaces Under Threat in Lawrence, Kansas: Part II

It is heartening to read in Patricia’s post that the Chilean government is returning land to its indigenous peoples. In addition to ILO Convention 169, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples also addresses the return of land in Articles 26, 27, and 28. In particular, Article 28(2) says:
“Unless otherwise freely agreed upon by the peoples concerned, compensation shall take the form of lands, territories and resources equal in quality, size and legal status or of monetary compensation or other appropriate redress.”
The Chilean efforts would seem to be at least in the spirit of this article. But the government responses to the Wetlands, the sacred space in Lawrence, Kansas, are anything but. The litigation over the Wetlands and the proposed road has spanned more than a decade. The public and media attention on the on-going litigation seems very low. The case is “Prairie Band Pottawatomie Nation, et al., v. Federal Highway Administration, et al.” As the date approaches for the oral arguments, I will post any updates that I can find. In reading what I can find about public reaction to the case, many people feel that the taking of the Wetlands is justified because it would increase the convenience of their car commuting time around or through the town of Lawrence. The sacred space of the Wetlands, its meaning to indigenous peoples, what the loss of it would mean—none of this seems to strike a chord in apparently impatient car driving populace. And this is most disheartening—showing that attitudes of the settler society about the value of indigenous cultural heritage remain alarmingly dismissive. The legacy of destruction is active and carries on in the present day.

The 31st December 2011 Wall Street Journal, on page A13, carries a quote from G.K. Chesterton, from his 1929 book, “The Thing” that is very apt for viewing the Wetlands litigation and the positions taken that support the Wetlands destruction:

“There exists… a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I do not see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer, “If you do not see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it…”
Some person had a good reason for thinking (the gate or fence) would be a good thing for somebody. And until we know what the reason was, we cannot judge whether the reason was reasonable. … The truth is that nobody has any business to destroy a social institution until he has really seen it as an historical institution. If he knows how it arose, and what purposes it was supposed to serve, he may really be able to say that they were bad purposes, that they have since become bad purposes, or that they are purposes which are no longer served.
But if he simply stares at the thing as a senseless monstrosity that has sprung up in his path, it is he and not the traditionalist who is suffering from an illusion…”
Those who support the destruction of the Wetlands for the sake of a road (and there do exist alternate routes for the construction of such a road) seem to view the Wetlands and their meaning, history, cultural value and heritage as Chesterton’s “senseless monstrosity.”
Additionally, compliance with the UNDRIP would require that if the Wetlands are to be taken for the construction of a road, that alternate lands be granted equal in quality, size and legal status—much in the same way that lands are being returned to indigenous peoples in Chile.

Written by Sarah Sargent.

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