As part of back-to-school season, we’re featuring several impressive young preservationists who are saving places all around the country. Enjoy the first profile in our series!
Her blisters may have healed, but Millicent "Millie" Pepion’s work isn’t over.
This summer, the 27-year-old, a senior at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kan., trekked 1,300 miles from her Midwestern college town to Washington, D.C., to raise awareness for the Wakarusa Wetlands. The only remaining indigenous wetland prairie in Lawrence, the sacred site is threatened by proposed highway construction.
The land has been used as a space for ceremony, prayer, and education since the university was founded in 1884. For Pepion, whose origins are in Navajo and Blackfoot tribes, these wetlands have both historic and personal significance.
"I go there every week," Pepion says. "Walking around, putting energy into it, I feel better. It’s holy to me."
Saving the wetlands, she says, means honoring the children who died there in Haskell’s early days, as well as saving the more than 400 indigenous plants and 260 migratory birds that have been documented on the grounds.
As former president of her university’s environmental group, Pepion felt compelled to take action.
"Some people have been like, 'Just build the highway. It doesn’t matter; it was a long time ago. How will we ever move forward?'" she says. "But I think we can move forward. If something is truly special, it shouldn’t be destroyed just for a freeway."
Naming the walk the Trail of Broken Promises, she wrangled together a group of 13 students and community activists, plus one intrepid dog, to call attention to the wetlands and the challenges that come with preserving sacred places within Indian Country.
The walkers pause at the Trail of Death marker in downtown Paris, MO. Top row (l. to r.): Jackson Shaad, Wayne Yandell (Choctaw), Leonard Lowery III (Choctaw), Isacc Mitchell (Osage), Chad Buttram, Mary Iorio (3 Affiliated Tribes of ND), Shireen Ohadi-homadani (Creek), Michael Ofor (3 Affiliated Tribes of ND), and Millie Pepion (Navajo, Blackfeet). Bottom row (l. to r.): Julia Trechak, Mark Olsen (Citizen Band Potawatomi), and Chad Crisco (Kaw).
Setting out on May 13, the group covered eight states, taking turns to walk in groups of three or four while the others rode in cars, and arriving in Washington, D.C., seven weeks later.
Along the way, they visited little-known Native American sites and participated in events like the Great Lakes Native American Cultural Center’s powwow in Portland, Ind. They also met former President Bill Clinton and his daughter, Chelsea, at the Clinton Global Initiative America conference in Chicago on June 8, delivering a proposal to create a CGI Native America convention.
Once in the nation’s capital, Pepion and her group presented to Congress a piece of legislation to amend the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978, "to provide a right of action to protect Native American Sacred Places" -- like the Wakarusa Wetlands. They also met with the Committee on Indian Affairs, National Congress of American Indians, and U.S. Department of Agriculture and Forestry to discuss the wetlands and the importance of preserving Native American sites.
Back in Lawrence, Pepion will continue to educate people about the importance of the wetlands and raise support for the legislation she presented to Congress.
"The walk is over, but we’re not done yet," she says. "We still have a lot of work to do."