Last-minute efforts fail to save disputed trees on Highway 55

Max Rust

and V. Paul Virtucio
Enshrouded in spirituality and the pungent smell of burning sage and sweet grass, opponents of the Highway 55 project physically and spiritually prepared for the inevitable.
State transportation officials rejected a compromise Tuesday that tribal leaders hoped would save four disputed trees in the highway’s path.
Law enforcement officials said the four trees and the camp protecting them will be cleared by the end of the month.
To further protect the trees — which Native Americans say carry religious and historical importance — tribal leaders organized a ceremony in which more than 80 people had pieces of their skin carved from their arms as flesh offerings to hang from the trees’ limbs.
At the same time, Mendota Mdewakanton Dakota tribal leaders met with state officials in St. Paul to discuss for the first time a possible compromise; they would agree to the project’s completion if the highway was re-routed around the four trees.
While project opponents hoped their concession would succeed, state officials simply met with tribal leaders to inform them a re-route was impossible, said Kent Barnard, a Minnesota Department of Transportation spokesman.
“That’s not going to ever happen. There’s no way that can happen at this point,” Barnard said. “It’s not possible to do that without taking out additional trees and also taking out more homes, too.”
Because state law enforcement officials expect to clear the encampment before Jan. 1, project opponents realized they needed to find a middle-of-the-road solution to preserve at least a part of the park and land they considered sacred.
“You have to be a realist,” said Jim Anderson, the tribe’s cultural chairman. “The whole park is destroyed. They’re coming. If you can save the four trees, maybe you can save a hundred trees along with it.”
The removal of the trees will occur immediately after the protesters’ makeshift camp is cleared, said Capt. Kevin Kittridge of the Minnesota State Patrol.
A mixing of elements
Earth, air, water and fire were all called upon in Tuesday’s ceremony, attended by more than 100 people. A woman named Soil, who had climbed one of the trees earlier in the evening to hang an eagle’s feather, helped dozens of people wrap each tree with green and blue cloth, representing the ground and the sky.
“We were instructed by our elders on what to do to prepare the trees,” Anderson said. “We’ve got to put eagle feathers up in the trees. We’ve got to put flesh offerings up in the trees and take cloths the color of the sky and earth and put them on the trees, too.”
Tom and Judy Standmark of Mora, Minn., witnessed the ceremony. Their son Greg circulated through the crowd with burning incense in a tin can, washing individuals in smoke.
Standing in the space under the four trees, Dorene Day and four students from the Heart of the Earth Survival School performed a prayer ceremony for Coldwater Spring, another disputed site in the project’s path.
“So that we can create a balance in life, the male role is to tend to the sacred fire, and the female role is to tend to the sacred water,” Day said.
Although they have not given up in their struggle against the project, the activists’ resolve has taken them toward a different path of resistance.
“In one respect, physically we’ve done what we can. Now we have to let the spirits take over,” Anderson said.
The road to the end
After preparing for months, about 40 protesters occupied the disputed area for the first time in August 1998.
Last December, hundreds of police officers raided the activists’ camp before dawn, using pepper spray and what many deemed brutal force. Thirty-six people were arrested.
Earlier that month, the Mendota Mdewakanton Dakota filed a lawsuit against the state, stating the land is sacred to them and the four oak trees were once used to entomb dead tribal members.
A Hennepin County District Court ruling convinced the transportation department to further examine the plaintiffs’ claims. The department also hired an out-of-state civil-engineering firm to excavate and search for evidence of ceremonial activity in the area.
Activists challenged the firm’s conclusion that the land is not sacred. They said the findings were invalid since the firm did not dig deeply enough to find artifacts.
The project continued smoothly until crews began cutting down trees last July. Activists chained themselves to various objects, including construction machinery.
Now the protest camp awaits another, final raid.
“We will not give up hope,” Judy Standmark said.

V. Paul Virtucio welcomes comments at [email protected] Max Rust welcomes comments at [email protected]