By DEBORAH GERTZ HUSAR
Herald-Whig Staff Writer
Millie Pepion's voice rises over traffic noise in the background.
Pepion walks alongside the cars and trucks on the roadway, talking about the mission that sent her and fellow Haskell Indian Nations University students on a trek from Shawnee, Kansas to Washington, D.C.
The walk, known as the Trail of Broken Promises, travels through 50 towns -- including stops in Quincy and several area communities -- to focus national attention on preventing desecration of sacred Native American places.
"Sacred places are places where you go and realign yourself with your environment and you realize that you're a human being inside a big, big interconnected world," said Pepion, who will graduate from Haskell next year and hopes to go into Native American law. "There still are places we can go to do our ceremonies and pray in the traditional ways."
But many sacred sites, like the Wakarusa Wetlands near the Haskell campus, are threatened by development, mining and lack of awareness or understanding.
The wetlands have been a sanctuary and sacred place for generations for Haskell students and other Native Americans, but now are threatened by a proposed highway project. Pepion said draining the rare clay-based wetlands could cost $100 million, destroy a long-standing ecological system and desecrate the site.
To raise awareness, about a dozen students began walking on May 13, covering about 35 miles a day, and hope to arrive in the nation's capitol on July 9.
"Some people say we're going to march to Washington, but no, we're peaceful. We want it to be respectful," Pepion said. "We don't go into Quincy and say you need to listen. We're not going to do that. Come and talk to us if you want to. Come and help us. We need food, water, gas money. It's not the easiest thing walking to Washington, D.C."
The students carry draft legislation, already approved by the National Congress of American Indians, to amend the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978 "to provide a right of action for protection of Native American Sacred Places" such as the wetlands where ceremonies, commemorations and observances or worship occur and to strength laws protecting free exercise of all religions.
"Our school taught us the way we push things through is policy," Pepion said. "We're doing policy to make sure future Haskell students can use the Wakarusa Wetlands just like the early 1800s student, the 1930s student, just like my grandmother, just like me."
The first leg of the trek follows in the footsteps of their elders, tracing backwards the Prairie Band and Citizen Band Potawatomi National Trail of Death which stretched from Indiana to Kansas in 1838. The Haskell students will visit Trail of Death markers along the route, including the ones in Quincy and Liberty, as a reminder of that heritage.
"Many of these students are not Potawatomi. They're from all the nations," said Shirley Willard, who has organized commemorative caravans along the Trail of Death. "As they walk, people are welcome to join in with them. I've encouraged people we met on the Trail of Death that if they can't walk, take them water, snacks, candy bars, let them know you're in sympathy with trying to save the wetlands."
It's vital to maintain such sites across the nation for the Native Americans, who saw generations of youngsters taken away from their families, sent to boarding schools and stripped of much of their history, culture and language.
"We want to protect all of those places, not just the Wakarusa, from mining and stuff like that," Pepion said.
Pepion already knows the potential risks. A sacred site in Arizona for her people, the Navajo and Blackfeet Nations, now houses a ski resort.
Just as important is building better relationships with the environment.
"Start making places a little more green," Pepion said.
One way, Pepion said, would be to reduce the number of cars on the roads. Instead of investing millions to drain the Wakarusa for a new freeway, use the money toward a light rail transit system.
"We need to respect all the land like how we respect our sacred places, but especially respect the sacred places and acknowledge they are holy to us," Pepion said. "We're working with our traditional ways and trying to incorporate that into a modern society in a respectful way. We're asking for mutual respect, too, asking people to respect all living beings that live around them, the grass, the trees."
Back on the walk, the days start with prayer, and for Pepion, perhaps an echo of her prayer to start the year.
"There is still good in this world and to let it grow in this year of 2012, to let it overcome the bad and let the goodness grow," she said. "That was my prayer, what me and my auntie prayed for all year."
Students from Haskell Indian Nations University will pass through 50 communities on the Trail of Broken Promises stretching from Shawnee, Kan., to Washington, D.C.
"Come and hang out. Talk to us. That's fine," said Millie Pepion, a Haskell student and chief coordinator of the trek. "We'll teach them a song, a prayer, a story. We'll tell them what we know."
Stops along the way include:
• Sunday, May 20 — Paris, Mo.
• Monday, May 21 — Monroe City, Mo.
• Wednesday, May 23 — Quincy
• Thursday, May 24 — Liberty
• Friday, May 25 — Perry
While in Quincy, depending on arrival time, the students will visit Indian Mounds Park, where efforts are under way to preserve the sacred mounds, and the Trail of Death marker at Quinsippi Island.
They likely will set up camp early evening at Driftwood Campground, 2300 Bonansinga Drive, near Bob Bangert Park. More information about the group's activities in Quincy is available by calling Steve Tieken, executive director of the North American Archaeological Institute, at 228-1541.
More information on the Trail of Broken Promises is available by sending an email to Trail.of.Broken.Promises.firstname.lastname@example.org and online on Twitter at @ToBP2012, tobp2012.tumblr.com, trailofbrokenpromises.tumblr.com and facebook.com/pages/Trail-Of-Broken-Promises/300284686671395.