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Mary Sanchez: Government activity near school sparks fear

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Mary Sanchez, Syndicated Columnist

The U.S. government is stirring controversy in Indian country, reviving for some the painful memories of the many injustices and iniquities committed against native people.

Mary Sanchez
Mary Sanchez

The Department of Homeland Security, working with Oklahoma State University, plans a "low level release outdoor of inert chemical and biological simulant materials" at the Chilocco Indian School campus outside Newkirk, Okla., near the Kansas state line.

The goal is to find out how to combat biological warfare. If terrorists hit the U.S. with such potentially catastrophic attack, the government needs to know how such agents might filter through buildings in order to prevent the loss of lives.

This has not gone over well with the fiercely loyal alumni of Chilocco, which as a non-reservation school educated 18,000 native people in academic subjects and trades from 1884 to 1980, serving 126 tribes.

Alumni are protective of the boarding school. It was like a small town, completely self-sufficient with a limestone quarry, dairy, ranch, poultry farm and a bakery.

They contend that other government testing and detonations, along with nearby fracking, may already be causing damage to their beloved school grounds.

"Chiloccoans are negative to any testing on campus that is detrimental to the environment, but more so to our lovely campus now being reduced to piles," wrote Jim Baker, a Chilocco alumnus and historian, in an email exchange.

Many local citizens are up in arms. One of them, a resident of Arkansas City, Kan., put her concerns this way in a petition on Change.org: "Our children go to school barely one mile away from Chilocco. We grow the crops in that area that feed our nation. We live our lives in the community. There are churches, an elementary school, casinos, and many residential homes in very close proximity to Chilocco."

The government swears the local community will be in no danger when the testing begins this winter and continues during the summer.

Rather, harmless particles will be set aloft inside and outside some empty buildings to measure how they penetrate buildings typical of U.S. construction. Government statements promise "no adverse impact on resources, human health or the environment" will occur.

U.S. Rep. Ron Estes, a Republican whose district covers south central Kansas, has gotten involved, criticizing the "inadequate" process that the DHS used -- or, rather, didn't use -- to inform people living near the proposed testing site.

"The citizens of Kansas have a right to know what is happening near their homes and I will do whatever it takes to keep our community safe," Estes said in a statement.

It would be a mistake, however, to cast this simply as yet another controversy between natives and the American government.

The seeds of this dispute were planted more than a decade ago when the Council of Confederated Chilocco Tribes (which includes the Kaw Nation, the Otoe-Missouria Tribe, the Pawnee Nation, the Ponca Nation and the Tonkawa Tribe) made agreements with OSU-University Multispectral Laboratories LLC, an offshoot of the university that describes itself as a "nonprofit research center that provides research, development, testing, and evaluation and tactical training to the United States Department of Defense and intelligence communities."

The Chilocco Tribes council has jurisdiction over the nearly 6,000 acres of the former school grounds.

It agreed to lease the campus for use in testing and training. Some in the council say the contracts are in keeping with native sanctity for the land. How better to protect it in the modern era than to be involved in testing for an attack?

Far too often, non-natives take a stereotyped view of tribal people -- either as relics and historical figures to be revered as noble warriors, or as pitiable victims of the white man's encroachment. Neither view fits the facts of the Chilocco controversy.

Its crux is a disagreement between native people with differing perspectives, who nonetheless are bound by agreements the council made with the government.

And that's how it should be: native people making their own decisions about the land as they willingly work with and profit from dealing with the U.S. government.

MARY SANCHEZ writes for The Kansas City Star. Her column is distributed by Tribune Content Agency.