Activists powwow to protest expansion

by Robin Huiras

Celebrating on land once promised to them by the federal government, the Mendota Mdewakanton Dakota Indian tribe held a powwow Sunday to raise support for their protest of a highway expansion project that threatens to spoil their sacred land.
The celebration, with drums, dancing, music and colorful ceremonial dress involved about 400 representatives from the environmental movement Earth First!, the American Indian Movement, several Indian nations and community members.
Recent protests by activists opposing construction of the Hiawatha reroute — a four lane highway that will cut through acres of green space — has spawned much discussion between the Minnesota Department of Transportation and the Mendota tribe. The social powwow peacefully allowed individuals to voice concern and show community support.
“Many tribes are here to support the rights of the people,” said Susan Jasper, Green Party lieutenant governor candidate. Posted rules proved to the community that violence will not be tolerated in the fight to save the land.
“No drugs, no alcohol, no violence, no reroute,” read the signs, summing up the nonviolent, sobering encampment.
The encampment is an area of abandoned homes, tents and teepees occupies by activists against the highway reroute. Protesters locked in place 24 hours a day, seven days a week in various locations throughout the area are ready at all times for law enforcement officials, said Garrett Daun, an Earth First! activist and University student.
The protesters have thus far halted construction. Three houses slated for demolition in August still stand. But the federal government must step in to completely stop the demolition.
Lawyers working on the case claim the U.S. government promised the land to the Mendota tribe in 1863, but because at least part of the agreement was oral, convincing a federal appeals court might pose a problem.
Jordan Kushner, an attorney representing the protesters said the first step in the process is researching the land claims.
In 1985, researchers designated the site for development in the Environmental Impact statement, which, Kushner said, did not include lands south of 52nd Street S., where the sacred lands of the Mendota fall.
For land repatriation and recognition to occur, the Mendota Mdewakanton Dakota must prove their ancestors occupied the site, said Jim Anderson, cultural chair of the tribe. This proof is difficult because of the scattered members of the nation.
“Before we can take the case to court, we have to have all of our ducks in one row. The case needs to be steel,” Anderson said.
If the case is held up and construction begins, Anderson, among others, said he is willing to die.
“I know where I’m going. They can kill my physical body, but not my spirit.”