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Mendota Mdewakanton Dakota Tribal Community

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Mendota Mdewakanton Newsletter

Remembrance Of Highway 55


PART 1 | PART 2 | PART 3

36-37. Mary O’Brien, CSJ, John Harmon and Rita McDonald, CSJ, keep vigil with others across from the cottonwood tree wherein the remaining four environmental activists had “locked down” in their attempt to halt construction of the Highway 55 reroute and save the almost 100-year-old cottonwood – October 1999. Mary’s sign contains a quote by Eleanor Roosevelt: “I say to the young: Do not stop thinking of life as an adventure. You have no security unless you can live bravely, excitingly, imaginatively.”

38-39. Zach of the Objibway nation drums and chants support for activists “locked down” in the cottonwood tree which can be seen to bear the scars of attempts by cutting crews to remove the activists from its branches.

40. Theresa O’Brien, CSJ, braves the cold of an autumn afternoon to support the activists high atop the cottonwood. “I came to support the young people here who have a vision for the future – one that they struggle to be true to. Their vision encompasses all of us and the earth. It’s a vision of interdependence and respect for all things.”

41. Zach looks towards the strong police presence gathered at the base of the cottonwood tree and preventing any food or water reaching the activists within its sheltering branches. For the duration of the activists’ occupation of the cottonwood, supporters kept a 24 hour vigil across the street. After ten days, the last of the activists were forced from the tree. The cottonwood and several other surrounding trees were subsequently destroyed.

42. Susu Jeffrey, flanked by Mary Jo Iverson and James McNamara, holds an acorn from the felled Princess Oak – October 1999. Located above Minnehaha Falls, and south of Minnehaha Creek, the Princess Oak was one of several large bur oak that grew around the first railroad track connecting St. Paul and Minneapolis to the Falls.

43. Ken Pentel of the Green Party of Minnesota, expresses his outrage during an interview beside the felled Princess Oak – October 1999. Over 200-years-old, the Princess Oak was destroyed as MnDOT crews cut a swathe of destruction in their advance southwards towards the Four Oaks Spiritual Encampment.

44-45. By early November 1999, tree-cutting crews working for the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) were felling trees south of the former Camp Two Pines. Activists prevented the immediate destruction of several trees by setting up camp high within their branches.

46. Jan from St. Paul places a lighted candle upon the stump of one of the trees destroyed by MnDOT. Referring to the destruction of the trees and to the activism of the young people from the encampment, Jan expressed her belief that “the hope for the whole is in the people and Earth. Not ‘the’ earth, but Earth. I will not objectify the planet. It is the common sense and insights of the people that are the gifts needed to restore all to wholeness.”

47. Emily – Four Oaks Spiritual Encampment, November 1999.

48-52. Under the shadow of MnDOT’s relentless approach, life at the Four Oaks Spiritual Encampment continued – with time even for celebration. In late November a birthday breakfast was held for longtime reroute opponent and encampment supporter, Susu. Among those celebrating were Solstice, Tree, John and David.

53. A member of the Four Oaks Spiritual Encampment offers prayers at the sacred fire within the sanctuary of the threatened grove of oaks – November 1999. As MnDOT destruction crews drew closer, the encampment began bracing itself for another police raid. On December 2, the Mendota Mdewakanton Dakota Community facilitated a special pipe ceremony at the four oaks. During the ceremony each tree was scaled by a climber who placed in their uppermost branches a sacred eagle feather – a powerful symbol of protection. One week later on December 9, an eviction notice was served to the occupants of the encampment.

54. The Four Oaks Spiritual Encampment – December 1999. With prospects of the destruction of the encampment and the four sacred oaks increasing daily, a commentary by Nick Raleigh was published in the alternative newspaper, Siren, which attempted to account for the failure of the many and varied efforts made to halt the reroute: “Lobbying the legislature, going to court, occupying houses slated for demolition, squatting in parks, and [people] chaining themselves to trees. So far, nothing has worked and the project continues. The outcome of the protest has left a number of people wondering what went wrong . . . Perhaps the best thing to blame is cultural imperialism.”

Raleigh goes on to clarify his analysis: “Cultural imperialism is what happens when a dominant group fails to recognize the validity of the interests, values and beliefs of other non-dominant groups. The colonial version looked something like this: a ship full of Europeans land in the ‘new’ world, encounter native people, declare the native people to be primitive and inferior to themselves, and exploit their land for all of its natural resources. The cultural imperialism faced by the Highway 55 protesters is more subtle. The dominant group here includes the common people of Minnesota and their decision-making institutions. The dominant group’s interests, values and beliefs are widely held as the norm. Using the norm, the dominant group has carelessly cast aside the critical viewpoints of others who do not fit its descriptions. The Highway 55 protesters were unable to stop the reroute because their values and interests didn’t match those of the dominant group. Because of this mismatch, their voice has been oppressed in the local media, MnDOT and the Legislative . . . [Such oppression has] shaped a general public sentiment that says the Highway 55 protest is both misguided and insignificant.”

55. Dawn at the Four Oaks Spiritual Encampment – Saturday, December 11, 1999. Even as this photograph was being taken, state troopers were swarming into the camp and surrounding a group of fifty protesters gathered at the four bur oaks.

56-59. Opponents of the reroute, including Kurt, Esther, Tom and Pepperwolf, had been called to the encampment during the early hours of December 11 after a tip-off of an imminent raid. Confirmation came at 5:00 a.m. when it was reported that state patrol cars and troopers were massing at MnDOT’s reroute depot. At 6:30 a.m. a large pile of wood used for construction at the camp and situated near the remnants of the labyrinth, was set ablaze.

60-61. As those present huddled together in the glow and warmth of the bonfire, Jim Anderson, Cultural Chair of the Mendota Mdewakanton Dakota, thanked them for their support throughout the encampment’s sixteen month history. The crowd then moved into the circle of the four sacred oaks as over one hundred state police dressed in riot gear entered the encampment at 7:00 a.m.

62-63. Surrounded by police, those gathered within the circle of the oaks were led in a ceremony by members of the Mendota Mdewakanton Dakota. The police respectfully allowed the ceremony, which involved drumming, singing, and words from Jim Anderson and Clyde Bellecourt, to be completed.

64-67. After the ceremony was completed those gathered were told that they could either leave the area without risk of arrest or remain and be arrested. About half of the group reluctantly chose to leave, including those present from the Mendota Mdewakanton Dakota Community. Those who remained, as well as several activists who were occupying surrounding trees, were arrested and removed from the encampment. A total of 33 people were arrested. Later that day as tepees and a sweat lodge were dismantled and removed from the area, the encampment’s kitchen and starlodge were leveled.

At 4:31 p.m., the four sacred oak trees were felled.

68-69. “. . . Native Americans have already lost enough to cultural imperialism. It is unjust for Minnesota to continue using a subtler version to rob local tribes of culturally significant land.” Nick Raleigh, December 1999.

70-71. Bob Brown and other members of the Mendota Mdewakanton Dakota Community observe the felled sacred oaks – Sunday, December 12, 1999. I find photograph 70 particularly poignant when recalling Bob’s deep love and respect for the trees and his role in introducing them and their significance to his people, to so many – myself included (see photograph 4).

Two weeks after these photographs were taken, Kurt Seaberg (picture 56) had a letter published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune: “Isn’t it interesting how the media collude with the institutions of power in denying the sacredness or significance of a place . . . The four oak trees that were cut down by the Minnesota Department of Transportation for Highway 55 were 137 years old and therefore, according to a December 17 article, ‘too young to have been significant in sacred American Indian ceremonies.’ If indeed the trees are 137 years old, that would mean they were planted in 1862, a date significant not only to Native Americans but all Minnesotans, as that was the year of the ill-fated Dakota conflict. It’s quite possible that the oaks were planted to heal the broken hearts and spirits of a people torn apart by that terrible war, which would make those trees very sacred and removal of them an unconscionable crime . . .”