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The Elders Speak: Tribal leaders try to derail highway proposal
By Mary Losure
March 22, 1999
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Native American elders from several states are supporting the Mendota Mdewakanton Dakota in their effort to prevent the reroute of highway 55 in Minneapolis. In two days of testimony, the elders told federal and state transportation officials that a site near the route of the proposed highway has long been sacred to many tribes.

SEVERAL HUNDRED YARDS OFF THE ROUTE of the proposed highway is a natural spring where water flows out of a rock wall and into a small, clear pool. A Minnesota Historical Society sign identifies the spot as Camp Coldwater, where soldiers from nearby Fort Snelling spent the winter of 1820. The site is now surrounded by federal property and dotted with vacant buildings abandoned by the Federal Bureau of Mines, but Native American elders like Dr. Eugene Begay, an Ojibwe spiritual leader from the Lac Court D'Oreilles tribe of Wisconsin, say long before white settlers arrived, the site was sacred to many tribes.

Standing in front of the spring, Begay held a ceremonial pipe aloft and offered prayers as officials from the Minnesota Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration stood nearby. The ceremony was part of two days worth of testimony from Native Americans as transportation officials decide whether sites on and near the route of the proposed highway qualify as what are known as "traditional cultural properties" - a classification that would give them some protections under federal law.

Sharon Day, an Ojibwe who grew up on the Bois Forte Reservation and now directs the American Indian Aids Task Force, was one of several dozen people who gathered for the ceremony. She and other women carried a kettle of water taken from the spring and offered it for people in the circle to drink.

Day: Among our teaching, we native women are responsible for taking care of the water. We're the ones who collect it, who bring it to the ceremonies, we sing the water songs, and we bless the water. This is such a beautiful place, and we have so few beautiful places left.
The controversy over highway 55 has gone on for decades, and some - including Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura - have questioned why, if the highway really was going to destroy sacred sites, Native Americans did not step forward sooner. Bob Brown is chairman of the Mendota Mdewakanton Dakota, an unofficial tribe that was the first group of Native Americans to take on the highway 55 battle. Brown says until they were contacted by members of the environmental movement Earth First last summer, the Mendota Dakota did not know about the spring and its history; but many other tribes did.
Brown: There was a lot of reverence here for a long time, it isn't for people to know this, this isn't something that we want to want to publicize, we've been forced to do this by the fight that we're in the midst of. I had not personally been aware of this until last summer, but many of our people have.
The land the highway would go through is near the confluence of the Mississippi and the Minnesota Rivers, a spot with spiritual significance for many Native Americans. Since they joined forces with Earth First and began fighting the highway, the Mendota Dakota have sought help from other tribes. Don Wanate, a Meskwaki elder from Tama, Iowa told MnDOT and Federal Highway Administration officials his people believe the headwaters of the Mississippi and each place where a tributary joins in are sacred.
Wanate: So we're all aware of these rivers, because that is our world, our spiritual world is shown to us.
In a hearing room at the State Capitol, officials sat politely and attentively through hours of testimony as Native American elders gave what amounted to a crash course in a very different world view. Dr. Eugene Begay of the Lac Court D'Oreille picked up a ceremonial rattle as he explained Ojibwe creation beliefs.
Begay: That was the beginning. The Ojibwe creation story takes 14 days to relate in its entirety in the medicine lodge of my people. But I'm going to tell you just excerpts of that creation story that I feel that are pertinent to the land and the road and the water that we're talking about here. There was a noise that started it all, and here' s the noise ...
Native American groups opposed to the 55 reroute worry the highway will disrupt the natural flow of the spring at Camp Coldwater. They also want to save mature oak trees in the direct path of the highway, including four big oaks that form a diamond shape. Department of Transportation officials and other have questioned whether the trees are old enough to be of spiritual significance, but highway opponents like Bob Greenberg of Earth First told the group gathered for the ceremony that the real issue is freedom of religion for Native Americans.
Greenberg: I was brought up with a Catholic mother and a Jewish father, never were either of them asked to prove the sacredness of their ceremonies, or the things in their synagogues or churches.
Officials at the hearings gave no indication of their reaction to the testimony, or what chance the highway 55 sites may have of meeting the guidelines for classification as a traditional cultural property. Minnesota Department of Transportation Archeologist Joe Hudak says MnDOT will compile the evidence and make a recommendation to the Federal Highway Administration and the State Historic Preservation office soon.
Hudak: We're hoping to have the information that's collected today and receive the archeological and geological information within the next two weeks and hopefully have a report prepared early in April for submittal.
Hudak and other officials say they will compare the evidence with federal guidelines for identifying traditional cultural properties. Examples of traditional cultural properties listed in the guidelines include "places where Native American religious practitioners have historically gone or are thought to go today," or places "associated with the traditional beliefs of a Native American group about its origins, its cultural history, or the nature of the world."