Highway 55 revisited: When the bulldozers came to Minnehaha Park


When neighbors, environmental activists, and Native Americans stood together to stop the re-route of Highway 55 through Minnehaha Park in 1997-99, ultimately making a permanent encampment for a year and a half, Ann Follett was there—both as a participant and as an observer. Ultimately, the Minneapolis filmmaker realized she had a job to do.

“When I came to it as a story was when I was there watching trees [being] cut down,” she said in a KFAI interview. “It was a visceral experience. Before, it was ‘this is wrong.’ It was an environmental justice issue. But when I could hear the machines ripping away the trees and people singing, that’s when I felt ‘this story has to be told!’ And I didn’t see anyone telling it.”

stop the re-route: saving sacred land screens mar. 21, 2 p.m. at the walker art center, 1750 hennepin ave., minneapolis. admission $8. the film also screens mar. 28, 7 p.m. at roosevelt high school, 4029 28th ave. s., minneapolis. admission $5. hear the kfai interview with ann follett on catalyst, mar. 20, 11 a.m. (program archived for two weeks after broadcast.)

The result is an extraordinary documentary, Stop the Re-Route: Saving Sacred Land. The film is screening on March 21 at the Walker Art Center, closing the Women With Vision Film Festival.

Plans to drive Highway 55 through acres of urban green space, destroying 160 houses and risking Coldwater Spring, began in the late 1950s. Public input was never really sought by the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MNDot), since tens of millions of dollars had already been given in contracts to private firms.

Follett described the struggle as it stood when she first became involved. “Federal money had already come through and houses bought up. There was one remaining homeowner, Carol Kratz. She went to the meeting about putting through the highway through Minnehaha Park. People were not happy about it—to put it nicely. They felt there were different options. They formed the Park and River Alliance, [which] eventually [became] the Stop the Re-Route Coalition.”

Follet’s film really begins at the time of the encampment beginning in August 1998, when the coalition had grown to include Earth First!—who use tactics of direct action—and the Mdewakanton Mendota tribe, who were re-discovering their connection to this historically sacred land that had some of the last remaining Burr Oaks in the United States as well as being home to Coldwater Spring.

“It was the neutral point [for all tribes to gather at],” Follett explained. “For the Lakota, the center of creation comes from the point of confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers.”

Follett obtained and copied hundreds of hours of home video made at the encampment by activists and community members, who were “trying to show their side of the story.” She interviewed Jim Anderson (the tribal chairman of the Mdewakanton Mendota), feisty homeowner Kratz, ongoing Coldwater Spring activist-poet Susu Jeffrey, and members of Earth First! including “Solstice”—who also contributes a stirring song to the film.

Director John Sayles, whom Follett describes as “one of great progressive filmmakers,” is an obvious influence in the film’s subject matter. African-American filmmaker Julie Dash and lesbian experimental filmmaker Barbara Hammer have also shaped Follett’s style. Follett is a collaborator—not only with her co-producers, but also with her subjects.

An amazing community calling itself “the Minnehaha Free State” was created at the encampment, and Follet shows daily life there: camping in all weather, cooking over campfires, sharing food, performing Lakota ceremonies, and enacting non-violent civil disobedience. Ultimately, that community was dissolved by a show of force including over 600 local, state, and federal law enforcement officers.

The film includes several inspiring portraits of courage. Seeking no self-aggrandizement, without money or opportunity offered, people—most of them young—simply acted on their convictions, putting their bodies on the line. The locked themselves to bulldozers. They risked injury or death when fire department cranes tried to dislodge them as they sat in the tops of 137-year-old trees. They endured tear gas and police brutality.

Although Highway 55 was built through Minnehaha Park, the struggle to protect Coldwater Spring has continued. Follett says people shouldn’t conclude that “that it’s only worth being in a struggle if you can win. Struggles build upon each other.”

This film is “people’s history” at its finest, a chapter of Minnesota history that would have been erased if not for Follet. “Because of the people who were involved,” she said, “I think MNDot or any government agency will think long and hard before they try something like this again.”

Lydia Howell (lhowell@visi.com), a winner of the 2007 Premack Award for Public Interest Journalism, is a Minneapolis independent journalist writing for various newspapers and online journals. She produces and hosts Catalyst: politics & culture on KFAI Radio on Fridays at 11 a.m.