Highway 55 is about ‘us versus them’

This weekend, I went to the U.S. Highway 55 demonstrator site and met some of the participants. I met a man named Jay Red Hawk and his friend from Earth First! who referred to himself as C.I.A.I.A.M. (It stands for “Calib is at it again, man.”) Their stance was sound and to the point: Indians have been treaded on and disrespected in this country for years, and now they would like for this one artifact to be respected by the system.
I noticed that their reasoning deviated substantially from that of the University student named Garrett Daun, who was recently profiled in the Daily about his experience as a demonstrator. His angle was more strictly environmentalist. “Preserving what is left (of the wilderness) drives the environmentalist, whether it be four oak trees in Minneapolis or entire forests in northern Minnesota,” Daun said. Though it makes sense that environmentalists and Mendota Mdewakanton Dakota community members are allies, there is no necessary connection. The environmentalists would have been sympathetic regardless of the tribe.
I decided to do a little ambush-style straw polling this weekend on people’s opinions about the reroute. That is, I asked random people at various locations what they thought about the Highway 55 issue. My queries began at Golf Galaxy in Roseville.
Though taken aback, the first unassuming victim was cooperative. The man, in his mid-20s who wished not to have his name disclosed, admitted he knew little about the issue. Nonetheless, he offered an opinion.
“I feel that the Native Americans and stuff like that — whom I have nothing against — are making a big deal about it now, like the Schubert theatre where nobody seemed to give a rip until somebody wanted to do something in that area,” he said. After this, I asked what his handicap was, but he wouldn’t say. He then got into his car occupied by a patiently waiting white cockapoo. I took note.
The next guy I approached was less cooperative. While walking briskly to the store, he said that the protesters should “get out more,” all the while shooing me away like a fly with a wave and a grunt.
Golf Galaxy started to get as unpleasant as a triple bogey, so I decided to move onward. At a place just across the street called REI, an outdoor equipment store, I immediately approached the first customer in sight after she parked her minivan. Like the guys at Golf Galaxy, the customer, named Marlene, hadn’t thought much about the issue but still had an opinion.
“I think in this society, we should have respect for sacred places, and I think that’s what is involved here,” she said. In other words, she sympathized with the protesters. Marlene drove a Mazda minivan that had a bumper sticker reading: “TV-Free America: The environmental movement of the mind.” I took note.
While at a stoplight near Dayton’s in Edina, I was struck by the high density of American flags in the area. There was a cluster of five flags in the Dayton’s parking lot and at least three more in various locations in my line of sight. God bless Edina!
People didn’t seem to care for me at Dayton’s. I struck out six times. Not a single person talked to me.
Dayton’s is in proximity to a jewelry store called Whitehall Company Diamond Store. I saw a couple leave the store and decided to approach them. The woman vanished but the man, Gary, responded. Throwing his brown scarf around the collar of his trench coat, Gary said, “It seems like an unused corridor with lots of potential that the city has been trying to develop for decades now.” Gary and his wife were out getting a diamond repaired that night. I took note and exited the mall.
There was just one more area I wanted to hit: Uptown. On my way there, I knew I was getting close when I passed a house which had a sign in the front yard reading: “Don’t Expand Super America.” Once in Uptown, I noticed several people walking dogs that seemed big. I pulled into an organic food co-op called The Wedge. The people there seemed more willing to talk than at Dayton’s. In fact, I was seven-for-seven. The first two people I approached, when asked if they were in a rush, said yes, but stopped anyway. Though neither Terry nor Jeanine knew much about the issue, both agreed that the demonstrators were in the right. They also thought it was funny when I told them I went to Golf Galaxy.
Carrie from Powderhorn, however, stated her views with more conviction. “They’ve been trying to jam this through — to shove it down people’s throats — for years, and people have been pissed off about it,” she said.
Of the next four people asked, all sided with the demonstrators for a variety of reasons. Two guys looking like characters from “Mallrats” had separate but harmonious opinions which mirrored the correlated but separate reasons touted by the demonstrators: respect for the Native Americans and the preservation of the environment. Another man simply had qualms with the notion of making more highways to save people a few more minutes. His wife agreed.
At this point, I had had enough. I checked over my list. In a nutshell, there were few surprises, but that’s not quite the point. This isn’t about stereotypes, but about correlations. Despite the fact that many people of either side knew little of the ordeal, there seemed to be noticeable patterns. Somehow, as there seems to be an invisible string linking Earth First! and the Dakota community, there also seemed to be an invisible string linking outdoor apparel, organic food, large dogs, anti-Super America signs, anti-TV bumper stickers and demonstrator support. Likewise, a similar mysterious string linked golf, Dayton’s, jewelry, American flags, small dogs and support for the Minnesota Department of Transportation.
What are these strings? And why does it make so much sense that such unrelated places and concepts should spawn such predictable results? It almost seems that we form opinions on the basis of the “us vs. them” notion more so than on the weighing of pros and cons. Perhaps people have a tendency to define what they stand for by identifying who they’re not. Thus, quick decisions are made about complicated issues because we dislike “them” — the hippies, the hicks, the bleeding hearts, the suburbanites — not just their ideas. What seems to be forgotten is the actual issue. Instead, the debate sometimes seems to be more about the kinds of people we like or dislike.

Rob Kuznia’s column appears every Tuesday.