Haskell's Indians crave the elusive "49 songs."

Chased By Spirits 

Haskell's Indians crave the elusive "49 songs."

Centuries-old tribal feuds sometimes live on at Haskell Indian Nations University, on the southeast edge of Lawrence.

Haskell students know, for example, that their classmate Corey Ladson is a Crow and that his tribe is an ancient enemy of the Sioux. And it's easy to distinguish the Sioux because of their French-sounding last names, Ladson says. General Custer is said to have used Crow scouts to locate the Sioux for the battle that would become his famous last stand.

Misunderstandings sometimes come easily. Haskell is one of 32 federally recognized tribal colleges and universities in the country; some of its students come straight from reservations; others have never set foot outside of urban neighborhoods. Some kids at Haskell come only for the cheap classes or to play sports and don't know their heritage, says Ed Tsoh, a Navajo and Apache whose grandfather was a Navajo code-talker in World War II. A student at Haskell has to be one-quarter American Indian, descended from an enrolled member of a tribe, to qualify for Bureau of Indian Affairs education benefits. One semester at Haskell is $105 for an on-campus student, $70 for those who live off campus.

Among the first things students learn are the ghost stories.

A marked cemetery on campus contains 103 gravestones, but virtually everyone at Haskell believes that far more bodies lie in the wetlands at the southern end of campus, which continue onto land owned by Baker University. From 1884 to 1930, the eastern portion of the wetlands was drained to make farmland so that the first Haskell students could learn European agricultural skills. Forbidden to return to their families for periods of up to ten years, students sneaked into the wetlands to practice tribal rituals and meet relatives in secret. They were underfed and overworked; scores caught diseases such as pneumonia and tuberculosis and died because of inadequate medical care. Since that time, the farmland has been restored to wetlands. The spirits of Haskell's first students are rumored to watch over the grounds, tickling the toes of sleeping girls and playing pranks on others.

"Natives aren't usually afraid of spirits," says Jeremiah Lahm, a student in his third year at Haskell. "We know they're around us all the time, and all you have to do when one is bothering you is say, 'Hey, I'm trying to eat' or 'Hey, I'm sleeping.' Most of the time. You never know, though.

"After class one day, it happened," Lahm continues. "I went to my room to take a nap, and I heard it, someone crying, and I froze up. I couldn't breathe ... I thought maybe it was someone's grandma, a relative, telling us we were doing something we weren't supposed to be doing, something that was hurting our family, our people. Someone was giving us a warning."

Gary Dorr, a 37-year-old senior from the Nez Perce tribe near Yakima, Washington, says a friend of his felt invisible fingernails poking him in the ribs one night after smoking a joint too close to the Haskell cemetery. In 1999, Dorr says, students noticed an increase in spirit activity on campus; a few weeks later, a Chevy S-10 carrying a keg flipped on the railroad tracks off Maple Avenue in Lawrence, killing three students and one of their friends.

"Drinking isn't part of our culture," he says. "It's not what we're supposed to be doing. No good ever comes out of it."

Besides, he adds, "Drums were never traditionally used under the influence of alcohol."

Outside the Roe Cloud residence hall, the latest Trillville single, "Neva Eva," rattles the windows of students' cars. It seeps out from under dorm-room doors. The lyrics get tossed back and forth between students who roam the first floor with an easy, Friday-afternoon slide.

Jeremiah Lahm breezes through the hall's glass doors. He's dressed in a long shirt, baggy pants and athletic shoes -- urban gangsta chic, though he's from the Omaha reservation near the Iowa-Nebraska border. His white canvas baseball cap reads "Savage Family" in black, threaded script. It's the name of a Native hip-hop group as well as an ironic moniker referring to "educated Natives." Lahm skips up the stairs to his second-floor room at the end of Thunderbird wing.

There, Lahm settles into an uncomfortable piece of residence-hall furniture, a thin, blue couch. The suite's central area branches out into three rooms: a tiny bathroom; Lahm's room, which he shares with a guy called Jazz; and their suitemates' room, where Tsoh and Ladson live.

Two posters hang in the common area. One is Cindy Crawford, '80s style; she wears a yellow one-piece swimsuit with the legs cut up to her armpits and a zipper down the front, hair gelled to the sky. The other is a black-and-white picture of a Native American woman wrapped in a blanket and standing on a windy rock. "Only after the last fish has been caught, the last tree chopped down and the last river poisoned, only then will you realize that money cannot be eaten," it reads.

When he goes back home to the reservation and to Lincoln, Nebraska, where his father lives, Lahm says he gets respect from his old friends, a rough crowd who call themselves the North Side Native Gangstas. But they also tease him for being a college boy. Now 23, he's been here three years and is set to graduate this month with an associate's degree in American Indian studies. He'll be the first in his family, on his mother's side, to graduate from college.

"If you do the work, it's really positive," Lahm says of the education he's received at Haskell. "It's an eye-opener about your people and about your nation too, and the United States government." He makes sure to get his studying done during the day. "I do my homework before I do anything," Lahm says. "I do that before there's anything else going on."

Educators on Haskell's campus say that although Native American students might slip through the cracks at a mainstream college or university, they thrive in an environment where they learn about their own intellectual traditions.

"There's a good number, we see it increase every year, of students who are encouraged by their own success and get another two-year degree in graduate school," says Lori Tapahonso, the university's spokeswoman. Over the 15 years she's been in Lawrence, Tapahonso says, she has seen more and more Haskell students go on to grad schools.

For his own part, Lahm plans to stay at Haskell after graduation and start a four-year program in elementary education.

Everyone knows that it's the University of Kansas that gives Lawrence its identity as a college town. Throngs of KU kids fill the bars on Massachusetts Street and throw after-parties in apartments that their parents have paid for. Kids at Haskell party, too, but when they act like college kids letting off steam, much more is at stake.

"Indian kids have a lot of difficulties that make it hard for them, and they look for relief through other things," says Donald Bread, Haskell's acting vice president of academic affairs and dean of its business school. "And it's different for them than other college kids. You see a KU student staggering down the street and it's no big deal, but if you see a Haskell student, they're suddenly a drunk Indian and it's cause for shame. When you're young, it's a difficult chore to process that difference."

For many Haskell students, social life exists outdoors on back roads, in the window between nightfall and when the cops come.

There's a knock on Lahm's door, and a short guy in a baggy T-shirt steps in. His name is A.K., and he's a freshman. He's from Lahm's reservation, so they've grown tight. Sometimes they trade words in the Omaha language.

"Hey, let me get a $20," A.K. says.

"You're not going back to the rez again this weekend," Lahm chides him.

"I gotta go back and get two bills. Then I'll have money, so I can stay around," A.K. says. "I need the $20 to get home."

Lahm relents. People on campus share cars, clothes, cash. "We're tribal," Lahm explains. "In tribes, you share everything."

Suddenly, lyrics from the J-Kwon video playing on BET -- Errbody in the club getting tipsy -- have competition from drumming and throaty singing from behind Tsoh's door.

Lahm mutes the TV and explains the song's structure: A lead singer handles the first verse in the singer's native language, and everyone else sings after that. There are four "push-ups," like choruses with hey yas mixed in. Most of these songs go with a particular ceremony or a certain time.

Lahm opens the door for Ladson and a girl known as Coach, who drops heavily to the couch. She's carrying pamphlets from the George Catlin painting exhibition at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, where she's been for a class field trip.

"Was it good?" Lahm asks.

Coach throws him a booklet and a ruler from the exhibit that reads "Great Indian rulers." She shakes her head.

"No, all the pictures of chiefs looked like white people painted to look like Indians," she says. "And in the scenes of ceremonies, he made the people look like demons. The men looked like women, and the women looked like men."

Lahm and A.K. leave to pick up dinner -- and "treats."

They return with a Wendy's bag and bottles: a bright-red Alize, an electric-blue Seagram's Gin and Juice and a big Admiral Nelson's rum. The Admiral gets poured into a quarter-drained Dr Pepper from the soda machines near the laundry room.

The plan for the night is to go to Club 508, a remote bar in a residential area of Lawrence. The clientele there is mostly Native American. From there, the night will likely continue, because it's nearly warm enough for 49s.

Unlike most traditional Native American songs, which are sung for specific ceremonies, a 49 song is purely for entertainment. There are 49 songs about love and 49 songs about Mickey Mouse. There's a 49 called "The Indian Pepsi 49." Typically, people sing 49s outside at night, often after a long powwow.

Some people travel the "powwow circuit" all around the country, competing for cash prizes in dancing and singing. This year's Denver March coincided with Haskell's spring break, so lots of students trekked over to Colorado. The Gathering of Nations powwow in Albuquerque, New Mexico, is considered the world's largest.

There is a strict powwow etiquette. Out of respect for the competitors, attendees try to remain in the powwow circle for as long as the event takes. They reserve the socializing and freestyling for afterward, sometimes called "the 49th hour." Some veterans of these massive powwows say they've seen crowds gathered afterward of more than 400 people.

There may be as many explanations for the name 49 as there are 49 songs. One student's theory is that 49s all derive from one song about a battle in which fifty warriors went off to fight and only one returned. Another student jokes that the number signifies how many songs you sing or how many beers you drink.

"Maybe they're called 49s because there were 49 people at the first one, partying," guesses Lahm's friend Marcus Oliveira. (He just got back from Olympic boxing tryouts in California, where he says he was beaten by one point.) Haskell spokeswoman Tapahonso suggests that the name is as old as Haskell itself. When Haskell was founded in 1884 as the United States Indian Industrial Training school, its administrators aimed to erase its students' Native American identities (a strategy that the original administrators called "killing the Indian to save the child"). Students would try to escape; Tapahonso says that a path through the wetlands led to the edge of campus, where they would consider themselves free. The students sang 49 songs to build up bravery for the trip back home, she says.

Whether 49s began on Haskell's campus is debatable, but Haskell students do throw their own 49s. It's usually after a night out at Club 508 or at a bar and pool hall at 2228 Iowa Street called Bubba's.

"You'll be at a powwow, and someone will come by and say, 'There are gonna be some badass 49s tonight,'" Lahm says. "Sometimes I sing some to my girl. Say I wrote one, and everyone in my tribe liked it, and I went to some other tribe's powwow, and I sang my 49 there and they liked it. They'd remember it and sing it.

"There's a dirt road intersection that everyone goes to called '49 Road,'" Lahm continues. "It goes out to the riverfront. Everyone drives down there, and there's also an underpass everyone goes to, on a dirt road north, and it's all Haskell students out there."

On a Friday night in early March, the red SUV charges down Highway 40, makes a sharp left past the junction to Interstate 70 and heads down a dirt road marked by a sign that reads "Riverfront Park." Then it comes to a stop. The way is blocked by an idle train's boxcars.

The SUV makes a U-turn, heads back out to Sixth Street and continues driving north, parallel to the river.

"We're heading all the way out of town!" a passenger moans.

But then, on the left, past industrial warehouses, a sliver of dirt road reappears. The SUV darts left, and soon there's nothing but dark twists and turns, illuminated by high beams. Up ahead is the tail end of the sitting train. The riverfront is in sight, a sparkling stretch of pewter against the black. Flooring it over the tracks, the driver bumps past the motionless train on the left. The occupants look right just in time to see the headlamp of an oncoming train.

The SUV clears the tracks.

Around a bend, taillights come into view. The SUV swings around in the clearing, dodging shadows that materialize into people. The driver aligns the SUV with the other parked cars, facing back the way they came for a speedy exit when the cops come.

Around fifty Haskell students are hanging at the riverfront tonight, milling around in tight clusters, hovering near cars that buzz with bass. Everyone's clutching sweaty beer cans and shivering. It's still a little cold for an after-party. Guys greet each other with one-two-three handshakes that end with bumping fists. They talk about singing 49s. But in the end, no one's heart is in it.

The next Saturday, though, feels like the first warm weekend of spring. And there's no train blocking the path to the riverfront, so getting there is a breeze. The dirt path is lined by car after car after car; cars are parked in the lot near the boat ramp, too.

It's loud. The underside of one car glows with blue neon. Both of its doors are open, and the radio pours out bass-heavy music. Everyone has beer, and someone is smoking weed. Someone else is peeing in the grass, his silhouette outlined by the nearly full moon.

A guy named Brando is looking for someone to sing 49s with. He's too shy to kick off a song by himself, so his friend Big Mike asks around. "Yo, we need some singers for Brando." But then Brando proves he can sing, softly starting a bobbing, weaving melody.

At the same time, there's a great shift in the clearing on the other side of the trees.

First instinct: It's the cops. But there are no whooshing headlights or authoritarian voices.

"Drummers!" someone says. "Someone brought their big drum."

A beat pounds out of the black.

The drummers have arrived unnoticed by those hanging out closest to the river. Now a close circle forms around the newcomers, three older men with wide, flat, handheld drums. Around the perimeter is a looser gathering of kids who would rather talk or smoke or make out.

As the drumbeat washes over the tight circle, people nod their heads slightly. Over the top of the beat, the men start singing loud notes that cut through the air. Three women match their tones, adding another layer of sound. The words they sing sound like hey-ya and ya-aye.

Soon, words float out. Come on down, see me sometime, hey a wey ya hey ya hey.

Hey ya ah, you always say you got another one/You don't got one like me, hey ya hey ... dance the 49, hey ya ayyy.

A few girls on the outside link arms and step to the beat, so close they brush past the backs of those in the inner circle. "You're pushing me," one says and laughs. The girl next to her answers, "No one's pushing me, fucker!"

The drummers are from Oklahoma, visiting Lawrence for a spring powwow hosted by the University of Kansas' First Nation Student Organization. Someone must have tipped them off to the 49 spot of the evening.

One of the out-of-towners hovers at the edge of the 49 circle. His name is Drew, and he's here from Durango, Colorado, where Fort Lewis College has a high percentage of Native American students. He's unimpressed with the Haskell population. "In Durango, it's just a different class of people," he shrugs. "They're not all trying to be gangsters."

The drummers announce that they're taking a break, but as soon as the circle loosens, the chill creeps in. Nobody really noticed before, but it's cold. And late. People started trickling off.

"Back to the rez," they say of their return to the Haskell campus.

On a Saturday night at Bubba's two weeks later, Lahm saunters through the crowd. With only one slow bartender at work, the bar is at least three people deep. A lot of the Haskell students have come straight from a boxing match in which their school's boxers dominated. Spirits are high.

Brando is wearing a ball cap and sunglasses, his hair in three long braids down his back. He sits at a table, shooting lines at a pretty girl named Yvette. She shyly avoids his advance and retreats to the boy she's with, a Haskell student named Alan. Brando takes offense. Walking up to Alan, he leans in close and shouts, "Yakama natives are fake."

Alan's response is hard to hear, but he stays calm. Yvette takes him by the hand and leads him to the opposite end of the bar. Brando follows with his eyes.

Lahm seizes control of the situation, huddling first with Alan, then with some others. Then he steps to Brando.

"What the problem is?" he asks innocently. Brando mumbles something and motions toward Alan across the room.

"You trippin' on tribes?" Lahm asks, smiling. He's trying to make the idea of fighting over girls or tribes sound absurd, but when it doesn't immediately take, he tries another tack. "Well, if you fight Alan, and any of your boys jump in, my boys'll jump in, because it's gotta be one-on-one. And who do you have that's gonna fight me?"

For a second, Brando seems like he wants to take it all back. But he shrugs, maintaining his composure. Lahm is still looking around dramatically. "Who here would fight me? Nobody would do it."

The next couple of hours pass without trouble. But the exchanged glances, the sly, over-the-shoulder nudges from Lahm's crew to Brando's make it clear where the two sides divide.

Some Native American students go to Bubba's because it's a haven from uncomfortable encounters with Lawrence's general population. "People ask stupid questions all the time, like, 'Why do you get free school?'" says a student named Kip. "Well, because we paid for it in blood."

But kids who drink, Gary Dorr says, are in the minority at Haskell. They're just the loudest, he says. "Out of 1,001 students, maybe 200 go to parties. Those 200 kids are the ones Haskell is most identified with around town, and then they're associated with all of us."

Dorr lives in Winona Hall, the honors dorm, which is so quiet and clean that it resembles a hospital ward. Pamphlets and fliers announcing Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and warning of "poison firewater" cover a bulletin board in Winona's lobby. East of Winona Hall, in Tecumseh Hall's basement, the tables at the Eagle's Nest campus snack bar are stocked with copies of a newsletter called "Community Voices," which contains statistics on drunk driving.

Dorr is one of Haskell's older students, but many students there are older than typical college students. (In 2003, the average age of a Haskell freshman was 21.) Dorr joined the military in 1985 and bounced around military bases before spending a few years in Korea. When he applied for an administrative position at an army base and the job went to a woman who had a college degree, Dorr applied to Haskell. After four years here, he will graduate this month with a degree in business administration.

Dorr used to drink but has quit since coming to Haskell. "I know what goes on at after-parties. I used to be out there with them."

Just after last call, Brando's friend Big Mike cups a hand to his mouth.

"Spillway," he announces. "Spillway."

A caravan is soon blazing down Iowa Street. Five minutes out of town, the procession drops down into a bowl created by the spillway at Clinton Lake. The drivers reflexively park facing the exit.

There are seven or eight vehicles, including the beat-up car with the neon-blue underside lighting. A small crowd gathers around this car, and people pass around a heavy bottle of brandy; a 40-ounce beer and a bottle of water circulate as chasers.

Lahm tries to get something started.

"Where are the singers at?" he asks loudly, looking around. "We got no singers tonight."

Big Mike has pulled up in a rusty van. Hearing Lahm's announcement, he puts a meaty hand on Brando's bony shoulder.

"Brando's got a voice," he says, and Brando immediately sounds a distinctive wail, notes that flutter into the air like feathers.

Ignoring the bass from the neon-blue car, Big Mike, Kip, A.K., Lahm and Brando come together in a circle, the tension among them fading. Brando is accompanied by his brother, Darryl Jack, whose voice twists and takes corners without breaking, unlike the others, who can't seem to get their voices past the crumbly points to get to a clear, pure sound. Still, they're loud, trying to reach the high, starry sky from down in the basin of the spillway. After a discussion of whether to sing in the Northern or Southern style, a song begins.

You only look good from afar ... When I see you in my face, you are nothing but disgrace, hey ya ah ...

Girl, you know that was only last year/She was only a one-night stand, hey hey yah ...

The guys in the circle take turns trading lyrics, watching to see who can catch on, who knows their song. But it's not going well. Heads bob at different times. Yvette passes by with a girlfriend. "You guys need a drum," she says.

Someone tries a lyric that goes, Girl, you're mine/I'm glad you're mine/Because you're so fine. Another song is about a girl's smile. Lahm starts one about wanting to take a girl home to Nebraska. Though the lyrics resemble Motown hits, they're chanted to a beat, with a husky sound.

Girl, you know this one is true/You got the right one, baby, Lahm chants, busting out with the "Indian Pepsi 49," which gets a laugh. Still, the beat dies after a few verses.

"We're all too drunk to dri -- I mean, to sing!" he yells. "And we don't know the same songs, and without a drum -- "

"Wait, wait, hold it down, hold it down," Big Mike orders, motioning with a hand to stay in the circle.

Big Mike lifts his head to the sky, and his barrel chest heaves. Indian girls, he chants. Come with me. Come with me. Hold my hand. Let's go to the 49.

When Big Mike opens his eyes, he sees that the circle has broken, and he's standing alone.

Everyone's been distracted by more material things. Groups of girls flit around the spillway, greeting new cars as they arrive, checking their backseats for beer. The liquor supply is dwindling.

At 3 a.m., someone yells from the side of a van that's been leaking marijuana smoke.

"She doesn't want to go with you!" a girl shouts.

There's a scuffle behind the van, the sounds of grunting and pushing. Then Big Mike appears, fending off a tall, muscular girl who's pushing him. There's a loud smack as one of her blows finds flesh. Big Mike erupts, spraying the contents of his beer on her.

She backs off, wiping her eyes, and then Mike throws the bottle at her. It thuds against her, then falls back to earth.

The girl stands there, stunned, holding her face.

"You don't hit girls!" someone yells. "Mike, you don't hit a girl!"

It's hard to see what's happening, but someone comes stumbling past the onlookers, shouting, "I'm down, I'm down," his hands guarding his head.

Then, with everyone watching, one of Big Mike's friends starts the van. "Mike, get in!" he yells out the open driver's door. The van chugs off around the horseshoe and moves out of sight.

Though fights at after-parties are common, no one here remembers one like this. Water balloons are raining down from Roe Cloud's balconies at 10 on a Wednesday night. Graduation is close, and people are fidgety, restless about having to leave Haskell.

In the Thunderbird wing, some kids are seeing who can get a foot up on each wall of the thin hallway, climb a few feet up, balance there in the air and then spin around to face the opposite direction when they land. In the common area, kids are playing hacky sack. Lahm weaves through these groups, one ear tilted to his cell phone, his other hand clutching a water balloon.

On May 14, he'll walk with the graduates at the Coffin Sports Complex. When he comes back next fall to start his elementary-education program, he wants to act as a counselor, smoothing the bumps new Haskell students face in their first months away from home.

After all, Lahm can sink a basket, slam a beer and hand in a paper, all with a confidence that's contagious. Being an angel would make him a less-credible guide.

The end of the semester is bittersweet. "There are friends here we may never see again in our life," he says, surveying the hallway scenes. "Maybe at a powwow. That's just how it is."

But before then, the biggest, best Haskell party is just around the corner. Every year, after commencement powwows and ceremonies, Jesse Del Campo, the owner of Club 508, throws a party at a concrete, tepee-shaped building off North Third Street. It used to be a gas station; now the owner rents it out for events like KU frat parties. Del Campo's parties are reunions for Haskell alumni and the family and friends of current and graduating students. It's a tradition no one misses. "It's one massive party," says honor-hall resident Gary Dorr. "One last hurrah."

Maybe then, they'll finally sing the perfect 49.


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