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Highway 55 Protesters Building Support
By Mary Losure
February 4, 1999

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Opponents of the reroute of highway 55 in Minneapolis are building a new protest camp in the path of the proposed highway. They're determined to protect what they say are historic sites and places sacred to Native Americans. In December, more than 600 law enforcement officers leveled the protesters first encampment, but as the standoff continues, the protesters' claims appear to be gaining more credibility.

On the banks of the Mississippi south of Minnehaha Park, in a snow-covered field in the midst of the city, a group of Earth First protesters is sitting around a campfire. In the weeks since a police raid ended a four-month occupation of the first protest site not far from here, a new settlement has risen from the snow. Several dozen people live in an eclectic village of brightly painted teepees, tents, two battered school buses, and an aging motor home. An odd, teepee-like structure of pallets, scrap lumber and blue tarpaulins is under construction. A protester explains.

Protester: It's a sleeping quarters for at least 16 people, made entirely of found materials. It's temporary , it's not actually attached to the ground or any other trees.
The protesters are a mix of white Earth Firsters and Native American activists. They have chains and nets in place so they can to lock themselves to tree trunks or lie suspended from the branches to try to protect the big oaks in the path of the highway; but they're also making some headway in the courts.

This week a judge ordered federal mediation of the dispute. The same judge ruled late last month that the Minnesota Department of Transportation must conduct an archeological survey before beginning any construction or preparatory work. In addition, the State Historic Preservation Office, which is responsible for insuring that federally funded highway projects comply with federal historic preservation laws, has asked for investigations of two issues raised by highway opponents.

One is whether construction of the highway will damage the natural water flow in a spring at the site of Camp Coldwater, settled in the 1820s by soldiers from nearby historic Fort Snelling. The highway would run adjacent to the spring. The State Historic Preservation Office's Dennis Gimmestad says the agency also wants to determine whether the spring or other areas nearby may fall under federal law that protects what are known as "traditional cultural properties".
Gimmestad: We already know the spring itself is listed on the National Register as part of the Fort Snelling District. We don't have the evaluation of it as a traditional cultural property, which sort of adds an additional kind of significance to it. Whether or not its evaluated as a traditional cultural property or not, we really need to see the results of the investigation.
A "traditional cultural property" is defined as one "associated with the beliefs, customs, and practices of a living community of people", often Native Americans. The law recognises that, often, beliefs and practices are not written down, but passed down through generations. That means oral tradition is given serious consideration when deciding if a given site should be protected.

In the case of the Highway 55 project, several respected Native American elders have expressed their concern, including Dakota Spiritual Leader Chris Leith.
Leith: My ancestors lived there long ago. In that area there was a large village, long before Minnesota became a state and long before Fort Snelling came into existence, there was a large village all along the river, the Minnesota River, so we know that it's a sacred area for us, because anytime there's a village like that there's always ceremonies and respect and honor of God's creation.
The Minnesota Indian Affairs Council, a state agency made up of the tribal chairs of all 11 federally recognized tribes in Minnesota, is looking into the question of whether any sites in the path of the highway meet the federal definition of a traditional cultural property.

Highway opponents have also been going through records at the Minnesota Historical Society for written documentation that will help support their claims of the historical and religious significance of the area.

Jim Anderson is a member of the Mendota Mdwekanton Dakota Community, a group which has never been formally recognized as a tribe but whose ancesters lived near Fort Snelling. A former Minneapolis pipefitter who quit his job to work full time on the highway issue, Anderson says people in power are finally starting to listen to him.
Anderson: Everytime I go look up some history or talk to another person that's got anything to do with things, I just get reaffirmed that what I've been saying all along is the truth. The evidence is all on our side. They say that what we're saying has no validity. Well if they'll look in their own history books, they'll see that validity is everywhere.
One of Anderson's recent finds is a reference dating the the 1860s, cited in the Minnesota Historical Society's archeological and historical sites inventory. It refers to a burial site on a small hill in the vicinity of Fort Snelling, known to the Dakotas as the dwelling place of the Gods. The document notes the exact location and present condition of the burial site is unknown.

The Historical Society itself has kept a low profile on the issue, but researcher Alan Woolworth, who retired from the Society last year after working there since 1960, says there may well be burial sites in the path of the proposed highway.
Woolworth: I'm an archeologist, an historical archeologist, with long-term experience in this region, and I think there's a pretty good possiblity that there are unmarked Indian burials there; Dakota Indian burials and also some of the earlier white settlers.
The Minnesota Department of Transportation plans to begin its archological survey of the area next week. If there are artifacts, it's not clear how easy it will be to find them. MnDOT spokesperson Bob McFarlin notes that the area is highly disturbed and has been built and rebuilt upon for decades. But he says the Department is following all the required procedures to address the protesters concerns.
McFarlin: We want to get to that as soon as possible so we can keep the project on scedule. We will be out in the field, in that corridor, we will be thawing frozen ground, doing the kind of archeological digs and soil testing that we had hoped to have completed last fall. But we were kept from completing by the protest activities.
Last fall, highway protesters prevented the completion of an archeological survey, saying they distrusted the contractor, BRW Incorporated. BRW is a national consulting firm specialing in design work for highway projects.

MNDot has agreed to have a representative of the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council, as well as Jim Anderson of the Medota Mdwaketon Dakota, present when the surveys are done.

McFarlin says he does not expect the archeological work will delay construction of the highway, which is scheduled to begin this summer. In the meantime, the protesters are keeping what they call "sacred fires" going in the snow, trying to stay warm until spring.

Mary Losure covers environmental issues for Minnesota Public Radio. You can reach her at