In the weeks before Fifth Congressional District DFLers decided to endorse Keith Ellison, Pulse contributor David Tilsen posed a question for delegates to consider while assessing candidates: “How did they respond to the unprecedented and excessive use of force during the Highway 55/Camp Coldwater struggle?” That’s a good question, but until I read a newly-released book with a really long title—Listen: the Story of the People at Taku Wakan Tipi and the Reroute of Highway 55 or The Minnehaha Free State—I didn’t realize how good.
I was out of state during most of the 16-month encampment in South Minneapolis, which began after a direct action on Aug. 10, 1998, when a group of people put themselves in the way of the reroute of Highway 55, and ended on Dec. 18, 1999. The group included property owners whose homes have since been destroyed by the reroute; Earth First!ers; the Sierra Club; members of the pagan community; members of the Mendota Mdewakanton Dakota Community, now in the process of seeking formal recognition of tribal status from the federal government; Dakota and Anishinabe activists; and others.
The Free State encampment encompassed a portion of the B’dota, or traditional sacred area—stretching from the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers up to Minnehaha Falls. It was bordered by 52nd Street on the north, Fort Snelling State Park on the east, the Bureau of Mines complex on the south (adjacent to Coldwater Spring) and Mailbox Road, 54th Street and Riverview Road on the west.
The encampment was one of our country’s longest urban occupations, second only to the 18-month occupation of Alcatraz Island, where thousands of Native Americans occupied the abandoned remains of the island’s federal penitentiary to protest the U.S. government’s human rights abuses—a myriad of broken treaties, a lack of respect for tribal sovereignty.
Encampment members and supporters pointed to the prophecy of Crazy Horse, of the Oglala Band of the Lakota People, as a testament to the group’s purpose. The prophecy states, “I see a time long after the skies have grown dark and dirty and the water has become bad smelling. I see a time of seven generations when all the colors of mankind will gather under the sacred tree of life and the whole earth will become a circle again. And in that knowledge and understanding and unity among all living things, the young white ones will come to those of my people and ask for this wisdom.” Chris Leith, a Dakota spiritual elder from the Prairie Island reservation who participated in the Coldwater struggle, says in the book: “The prophecy states that we are to help those that want to survive. And that’s where people come together as the human race and worship. Those are going to be the survivors of this country. That’s the prophecy of the First Nation people and the Indigenous nations throughout the world.”
The cover art of the book is the Canku Sica poster designed by Parker McDonald, which also reflects the Four Directions and the four colors of people coming together, in this case, as the Coldwater Nation. Canku Sica means “bad road” in the Dakota language.
The Coldwater Nation set up a village in the middle of Minnehaha Park, complete with places to sleep, the Star Lodge; places to eat, “Coldwater Cafe;” places to worship, the “sacred fire,” and places for security—“treesitting” describes one of those. And then there were the Four Sacred Trees, which were originally planted in 1862 at the time of the Dakota uprising, and which represented a spiritual signpost to Native Americans. MNDOT and the state didn’t agree that the trees were sacred, and so, shamefully, the trees were cut down. Suann Martinson shared her feelings after this happened. “I cry for the trees, the earth. But I draw strength from the land to go forward and continue the struggle.”
Throughout the encampment, there was trouble from the police, stories of campers beaten up, thrown on the ground, and maced directly in their eyes during lockdown (while attached to trees or buildings to prevent destruction). In some cases, cops pried open activists’ eyes, and then sprayed the mace. All this, even though the group itself had committed to nonviolent principles; anyone who didn’t adhere to this was asked to leave.
After I returned to the Twin Cities, I noticed that some of my friends seemed sad and angry after the ordeal, mad at Arne Carlson and Jesse Ventura, mad at MNDOT, mad at the cops, mad at Sharon Sayles Belton, mad about ignorance of treaty laws, the list goes on.
After reading the book, I have a much firmer grasp on why. It is a compelling story that deconstructs how the insane idea of an unnecessary highway expansion was eventually bulldozed through by the curiously-powerful Minnesota Department of Transportation—but not without a fight.
What people were willing to risk to stop it, and the dirty deeds committed by brutal cops and ignorant politicians along the way, provide lessons for future struggles as well as a historical account of something remarkable. With firsthand accounts of 78 people involved in the struggle compiled and edited by Elli King, the book gives activists the opportunity to tell their own story, their own way. King said she was a depressed 17-year-old high school student when she first set eyes on “camp.” “I was like, whoa! I didn’t have any idea anything like this existed in the whole world … I said ‘I really wanna be here. I really wanna be here.’” Many activists who had refused to be interviewed for a previous book, “Our Way or the Highway,” by Mary Losure, did contribute to this one, more confident that their words would be honored by one of their own.
King’s forest name was Freedom, and her accounts add additional context to other individual memories of events and circumstances during the occupation. Activists adopted forest names for security reasons; in the book, Marshall Lough (martial law) stands out as one of the more tragi-comic ones. Thunder, Teatree. Willow and Squash are others.
For anyone who has experienced the empowerment of nonviolent direct action, in the anti-war ’60s or the current struggle at Alliant Tech or the “School of the Americas,” or anywhere, this book will remind you why resistance is a powerful, necessary tool for people who have had enough.
The Highway 55 reroute/Coldwater struggle was remarkable for many reasons, one of which was intergenerational unity. Elders (of many colors) were an integral part of the struggle.
Book collaborators purposely decided not to put a bar code on the book, so that it would be sold only at select, smaller stores. “That’s where business and money flow should be kept, in the hands of small businesses and collectives. With people who have their values in the right place.”
The book is available for $20 at the following locations: Amazon Bookstore, Arise! Bookstore, Magers and Quinn, MayDay Books, NorthCountry Co-op, Northern Sun Merchandising, Present Moment, St. Martin’s Table, and Hard Times. A special event is being planned at Arise! Bookstore for some time in July.