Some of the 600 police officers involved in the eviction of demonstrators at the Hiawatha Free State 1998 Photo by Paul Udstrand
As I’ve watched a militarized police force confront peaceful protesters at Standing Rock I can’t help be but reminded of a past but similar confrontation that in many ways presaged the confrontations we’ve witnessed in recent years. The militarization of our police force and it’s tactics, institutional racism, and environmental assaults under the guise of “progress” and “necessity” were all on spectacular display here in Minnesota during a small but determined effort to save Coldwater Spring and adjacent sacred land in Minneapolis at the turn of the century. In fact, the Minneapolis police action in 1998 was larger in terms of personnel than the current action in Standing Rock. In 1998 authorities reported using over 600 officers to subdue and evict a much smaller protest while around 200 officers are currently confronting demonstrators at Standing Rock.
Hiawatha reroute battle yielded mixed results in Minneapolis; while sacred trees were felled by the bulldozers Coldwater Spring was saved and has since been restored and preserved as part of a National Park system. Another victory of sorts that emerged in Minneapolis was a coalition of Indian of tribes, and non-Indian groups (although on a smaller scale than Standing Rock) that were able to block construction that would have destroyed unique and sacred waters. Perhaps a similar coalition on a larger scale will prevail now in Standing Rock.
With the possible lessons and perspective of history in mind I am publishing my 2003 article about the Hiawatha/Coldwater Spring battle here on my blog. It’s a long article but I hope you find it worth your time.
The Attack of the Invisible People:
Confronting Irrational Transportation Policies in Minneapolis
By Paul Udstrand
In August of 1998, the invisible people struck in Minneapolis. Members of the Mdewakanton Mendota band of Sioux Indians and Earth First!, moved in and occupied several abandoned houses that lay directly in the path of a proposed highway route. They were supported by several local groups who had been opposing the highway for nearly 10 years, as well as thousands of local residents. The activists christened the occupied area the: “Minnehaha Free State” and declared that no drugs, alcohol, violence, or highways would be permitted there.
Three months later, at 4:30am, seven twenty foot Ryder trucks rolled into the Minnehaha Free State with their lights shut off. Inside the trucks S.W.A.T. teams waited for the signal to commence “Operation Cold Snap”, the largest and second most expensive law enforcement operation in Minnesota history. Within minutes of the S.W.A.T. team’s assault, over six hundred police officers accompanied by fire fighters and utility workers, pored into the area. By the time it was over, thirty nine people had been arrested, and the previously occupied houses had been completely demolished. The Occupation and subsequent “eviction” were the most dramatic events in a ten year conflict over one of the last vestiges of highway planning left over from the late 50s and early 60s. This is the story of a fight between residents, environmentalists, and Native Americans, and a state machine bent on pursuing irrational transportation policies. Transportation activists everywhere should take heed of the lessons learned here.
Workers tear down previously occupied houses after arresting and evicting “occupiers”
So what is the nature of this highway project that the state was willing to go to such lengths to complete, and demonstrators were willing to block with their bodies? Hiawatha Avenue, like dozens of streets, lakes, streams and cities in Minnesota owes it name to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 19th century poem: “The Song of Hiawatha”, a retelling of mostly Ojibwe stories. The road crosses over Minnehaha Creek (Another reference to Longfellow) and connects downtown Minneapolis and the Twin Cities International Airport south of the city. For almost thirty years the road had been allowed to deteriorate badly. Aside from its poor condition, it was quite possibly the ugliest stretch of road in the country as it runs along two miles of industrial property, most of which are old railroad yards and giant grain elevators. At its southern end, Hiawatha had deep ruts and quirky curves which made it dangerous especially in cold and icy conditions.
Hiawatha is one of those roads that is technically two roads. On a map it appears both as Hiawatha Avenue, and Highway 55. Highway 55 was supposed to come in from the west, run through downtown, and cross the Mississippi River on the south side of Minneapolis. In the 60’s and 70’s as far as the Minnesota Highway Department was concerned, Hiawatha was just an unfinished section of Hwy 55. The Highway Department eventually became the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT), but the plan for Hwy 55 never changed. The plan for Hwy 55 called for the destruction of 160 houses (done in late 1970’s) followed by a straightening and widening of the road to accommodate more traffic at faster speeds. In order to straighten the southern end of the project the plan called for the road to be moved up to three blocks east. This plan to move the road became known as the Hiawatha Reroute. The reroute would roll right over acres of urban green space, seven houses, and the historical site of the first white settlement in the state, and one of the last stands of native Burr Oaks in the country. It would also destroy a small but valuable patch of sacred Native American land, and has threatened to cut off the flow to a sacred spring that is also the last natural source of clean water in the city of Minneapolis. All in order to complete a highway that was designed decades ago and no longer really made sense.
America’s love affair with the automobile has never been a terribly rational affair. The process of turning the country into an automobile Mecca, with billions of dollars worth of new highways began back the early 1900s. Other industrialized nations preserved and enhanced their mass transportation systems, while simultaneously introducing automobiles. The US however dismantled and defunded its extensive mass transportation system almost as fast as it could. Public transportation funding was diverted from mass transit systems into massive road projects.
By 1940, lack of public funding, and incompetent management had driven all but around 40 urban trolley lines out of business. General Motors through subsidiaries and dummy corporations like National City Lines, bought out most of the remaining street car lines and systematically drove them out of business in favor of bus systems and automobiles. This of course meant gigantic profits for GM, since it created a huge market for GM manufactured cars, trucks, and buses. Of course GM’s conduct was clearly illegal, but the anti trust violations were largely ignored by a government that believed that what was good for GM was good for America.
By the time the cold war reached its height, the pentagon had become primary sources of funding for highway projects. Defense spending was channeled into the: “National System of Interstate and Defense Highways”. The rationale was that the extensive highway networks would be needed to evacuate cities and move personnel and material in the event of a nuclear attack. With the Pentagon on board, funding for interstate highways was almost unlimited, in fact during the 60’s the interstate highway system was the single largest and most expensive government project on the books. The combination of defense rhetoric, unlimited funding, dismantling of mass transit, and an American love affair with the idea of free cross-country travel in beautiful personally owned cars, created a juggernaut. For 20 years massive freeways were rammed through almost every city in the US, with almost no public discourse or input. Entire neighborhoods were obliterated, and countless buildings were destroyed. Commuter rail lines and passenger trains almost disappeared completely. It was against this backdrop that the highway 55 corridor was originally conceived.
The transportation scene in Minneapolis Minnesota was no different than the rest of the country in 1960. Nearly 500 miles of street car lines had been abandoned or ripped up in order to provide more space for automobiles. Highway officials in Minnesota laid out giant concrete routes in order to accommodate ever increasing numbers of cars. Unfortunately the emphasis on moving cars instead of people, led to a transportation system that doesn’t move either very well. The idea that you would quickly evacuate major cities via the highways was simply insane. Even in the 50’s common sense would predict monumental traffic jams in the event. Nevertheless, engineers and planners continue to cast all their new road plans as rational, and even scientific responses to congestion and urban sprawl. Accordingly, the “Hiawatha Corridor” has been sold to the public on the pretense that it is a rational response to community transportation needs. As we will see, any serious examination of the project’s claims to rationality quickly reveals severe shortcomings.
The state officials responsible for planning and building the road promoted the project by claiming that it would shorten drive times and relieve congestion without having any adverse effect on the environment. State officials repeatedly defended the reroute by asserting four main claims. First, they claim that all environmental impacts have been assessed, and all alternatives have been examined. Second, they claimed that the community supported the project and had been heavily involved in the planning. Third they maintain that the area is not historically significant. Finally, they claimed that Native American claims regarding the sacredness of the Four Oaks area are illegitimate. Unfortunately, all of these claims turned out to be largely unfounded products of a public relations campaign.
The primary basis for the claim that environmental impacts had been studied was an Environmental Impact Statement or EIS that had been completed in 1985. This document was written in the style and vocabulary of objective science, and it is loaded with data, tables, and charts. Nevertheless the study is riddled with questionable data, and bizarre predictions. The 1985 EIS was charged with the mission of comparing the impacts that different transportation options might have along the proposed route, followed by predictions and recommendations based on the studies findings. Unfortunately the outcomes of such studies can be easily manipulated and effectively predetermined.
One way to manipulate outcome is to control the working definitions that are used for terms like “environment”. In this case the concept of “environment” referred to what the different roads would look like if they were built, and what type and volume of traffic each design would accommodate. If you picked up this EIS to learn what might happen to the air, water, plant and animal life, or to find out what effect the road might have on businesses and neighborhoods, you would be quite disappointed because these things are barely mentioned, if at all. Another way to control outcome is to limit the scope of the study. This study was restricted to the examination of 4 different types of highway designs. Designs that included light rail were quickly ruled out for no apparent reason, and there was no serious examination of the possibility of simply improving the existing road. Finally the outcome can be controlled by simply limiting the actual geographical boundary of the EIS. The boundaries for this EIS were drawn up in such a way that the most ecologically and historically sensitive area in road’s path were excluded from examination. Although the possible effects on Minnehaha Creek were examined, the area containing the stands of Burr Oaks, and Coldwater Spring, were completely excluded.
Consequently the fact that the construction would destroy many of the states last remaining Burr Oak trees was not mentioned in the EIS. Less than one percent of these trees is left standing in the state, and there are precious few examples left in country. Such deliberate indifference to botanical resources is startling at a time when scientists all over the world are urging us to preserve the biosphere’s plant and animal diversity. Likewise, adverse effects that construction might have on Coldwater Spring are not discussed. Coldwater Spring is unique in that it is underground, remains at a constant temperature that keeps it from freezing, and is the last source of untreated clean drinking water in the city of Minneapolis. The spring emerges into a pool at Camp Coldwater, the historical site of the first white settlement in Minnesota. For the Mdewakanton Sioux, it is the dwelling place of the gods, and the path by which the gods travel to and from the world. Obviously, any interruption of the spring’s natural flow, would be a severe insult to Native American spirituality, and a considerable blow to local ecology.
Coldwater Spring emerges from the ground in Minneapolis and has been considered sacred by Indian people for centuries if not longer. Photo by Paul Udstrand
While many detrimental effects on the environment were ignored, the EIS is filled bizarre predictions regarding a variety of other impacts. The EIS predicts that the highway will increase property values, population, and neighborhood cohesion. Anyone taking the EIS seriously would conclude that highway construction is synonomous with neighborhood revitalization. Unfortunately such predictions run completely contrary to nearly 100 years of experience and data on highway construction and urban sprawl. Highways do not revitalize urban neighborhoods and regions. Highways erase neighborhoods, depopulate cities, disperse populations, and fragment communities. Highways do not turn neighborhoods into place’s people want to live, they turn them into places people drive through on their way to work. As for property values, one could argue that highway frontage might be an advantage for some commercial property. But living next to a noisy road or a sound wall certainly does not increase the value of ones home. The only predictions in the EIS that are credible or even relevant are the ones regarding traffic volume and air quality. The amount of traffic with its attending noise would increase almost threefold as a result of the new highway, and the air quality will deteriorate. An obvious boon to real-estate values and quality of life for those living nearby.
Strangely missing from the report however are any predictions regarding traffic congestion. That’s probably because the authors knew congestion would get worse. Reroute proponents claimed that driving time between downtown Minneapolis and the Airport would be reduced by two to ten minutes. This reduction was supposed to result from the increased speed limit and reduced number of stop lights. The prediction however fails to account for the increased traffic congestion that occurs when you funnel more vehicles into a small area at faster speeds. It’s sobering to read accounts of this phenomena from the turn of the century. As early as 1913 observers were noting that the more buildings, hills, and forests they leveled in order to widen existing streets and build new ones to accommodate automobiles, the worse traffic congestion got. Anyone who drives in a city of any size today is familiar with this truism. If you drive the route today your lucky if you get from downtown to the Airport in the same time as you would have before the “improvements”.
In the end, it’s clear that the primary function of the 1985 environmental impact study was to provide a rationale for building the highway, not evaluate the rationality of building it. The scope and focus of the study was restricted in such a way as to produce a desired outcome.
Another point of contention in Four Oaks area has been the possibility of the presence of archeological artifacts. MnDOT officials continually asserted that they already knew that there was nothing of archaeological significance in the area. All three state archaeologists I spoke to unequivocally stated that there were no artifacts of any significance at the site. They claimed that this had been established in previous studies that were allegedly on record at the Historical Society. The problem is there are no such records at the Historical Society, because no archeological studies had ever been done at this site. Ultimately, MnDOT had no actual data of any kind to verify their repeated public statements regarding the archaeological insignificance of the area.
Some of the documentation associated with the EIS actually contradicts the State position and raises serious questions about the company (BRW) that was eventually hired to search for artifacts. In the final draft of the EIS, BRW states that a 1983 memo from the Minnesota Historical Society, establishes that previous surveys have found no Native American artifacts in the area of the four oaks. This statement is completely inaccurate. If you go back and look at that December 2 memo you find that is says absolutely nothing about archaeological surveys, or artifacts. What it does say, is that there are no known sites of historic or archaeological importance in the proposed corridor. The author of the memo now admits that even this statement was incorrect. In fact the area contains the site of Camp Coldwater, the first European settlement in Minnesota. Nevertheless the Historical Society specifically required that MnDOT do archaeological site monitoring during construction, specifically because they didn’t know for sure whether or not the area contained artifacts.
Whether intentional or not, BRW’s characterization of the Historical Societies position on this matter was not only incorrect, but completely misleading. BRW stated that a search for artifacts had already been conducted, and nothing had been found, this was simply not true. At best, this was just sloppy paraphrasing of the Historical Societies memo, at worst it was a deliberate attempt to minimize any possible archaeological significance in the area as early as 1983. This information would be trivial were it not for the fact that this company has been heavily involved in the highway planning since the beginning and has received millions of dollars worth of construction contracts. BRW wrote the EIS and performed 23 of the 32 studies commissioned in order to complete the EIS. They also served as the over-all project manager in charge of agency, public information, and project progress. When the controversy over the possible presence of artifacts erupted, it was BRW that got the contract to conduct an archeological study in order to settle the issue. This was an obvious conflict of interest because the company planned to apply for millions of dollars in future contracts that depended on the project going forward. A discovery of significant artifacts, whether they be from white settlers or Native Americans, had the potential to stop the project and force a dramatic redesign.
The hiring of BRW to conduct the search put the company in the position of having to contradict its own earlier (however spurious) declaration that there are no artifacts there, as well as jeopardizing its own financial interests. This raises obvious questions regarding conflict of interests, but none of the Sate officials I spoke with would acknowledge any such concerns. When I asked MnDOT archeologist how it came to be that BRW got hired to do the study they described an elaborate rotation system that supposedly farmed out state contracts based on bidding process. When I asked to see this process I eventually discovered that for all practical purposes it didn’t exist. There had been no competitive bids, and there had been no rotation, MnDOT just gave the contract to BRW. When MnDOT archeologists finally admitted that this was the case, they assured me that there was nothing illegal about BRW’s selection, and suggested that if I didn’t like it I should get the law changed. As it turned out, legal or not, I’m not the only one who had concerns about BRW’s conflict of interests. The Federal Government eventually threatened to withhold funding because of conflict of interests regarding BRW’s conduct on the light rail portion of the project.
In any event, BRW got it wrong. They failed to find artifacts that were in fact present on the site. One of the reasons they failed was that they simply didn’t dig deep enough. BRW was given instruction to dig small holes called “shovel tests” at fifty foot intervals along a specified path. They were supposed to dig down to some form of bedrock ( that would mean holes from three to thirteen feet deep). However, BRW’s records clearly show that all but four of BRW’s shovel tests were only about one and a half feet deep. When I asked about this at the historical society, they admitted that they had missed it when they reviewed BRW’s report. The historical society explained that BRW had apparently hit rubble that was buried in the area, and mistaken it for bedrock. It’s interesting to note that BRW’s failure to perform the shovel tests as directed didn’t stop them getting paid. The blame however cannot be placed on BRW’s shoulders alone, the Historical Societies design was clearly inadequate. According to Bruce White, an anthropologist who reviewed the shovel test data, they would have been lucky to hit anything with so few holes spaced so far apart anyways. Apparently the Society didn’t put much effort into the design because they didn’t believe anything significant could be found, they were wrong.
As road construction progressed, a number of artifacts were found, and work had to be stopped in order to do more thorough research. The Historical Society eventually declared that the artifacts discovered in the area were not significant because the area was not “intact”. This means that the artifacts were not found “as they fell” or were deposited at the time (1800s). The historical society has a point. The area had been the site of a huge building that been demolished. The artifacts themselves were strewn about and jumbled up. Relatively new items such as bicycle seats were found underneath older artifacts that dated back to Coldwater Camp. Nevertheless the discovery of the artifacts proved that BRW and MnDOT had been wrong all along. The area is the site of Camp Coldwater and the first white settlement in Minnesota, and therefore arguably is historically significant. Although the artifacts had been disturbed, we’ll never know what might have been found there. The requirement of “intact” sites is a subject of debate within the archaeological community, not everyone agrees that sites need to be “intact”. Not subject to debate is the fact that a large part of Camp Coldwater is now buried underneath Highway 55. This despite the fact that the MnDOT and the Historical Society had claimed for years that road would not even come within 400 feet of the settlement’s location.
One could argue that while the site of the first white settlement in Minnesota is historically significant, the spiritual significance of the area to local Native Americans is more important. Four Burr Oaks within the area of Camp Coldwater formed a diamond with trees in, north, south, east, and west positions. Such arrangements would be considered spiritually significant by some Native American tribes, whether they were planted or naturally occurring. Accordingly, the Mdewakanton Band declared that the area around the trees is sacred, and that the trees themselves were also sacred. The band suggested that the trees may have been used as burial platforms and for spiritual ceremonies..
State officials initially discounted Mdewanketon claims on the basis that they were made to recently, as if new discoveries of religious significance are somehow unheard of in civilized cultures. It is true that the Mdewakanton only recently rediscovered the significance of this small area. However, that in no way diminishes the validity of the claim anymore than a recent discovery of another Dead Sea scroll would diminish its religious significance. Native Americans were the target of a deliberate and systematic attempt to erase their culture and heritage. It’s not surprising that some aspects of their heritage have been lost, and subsequently re-discovered.
Most North American Indians preserved their historical consciousness through oral tradition. The tendency to disregard the legitimacy of oral history merely reflects a European bias regarding conditions of validity. In fact there is no rational or scientific basis to conclude that written history is necessarily any more accurate than oral history. Cultures that rely on oral history develop specific social mechanisms and structures to preserve their histories. The stories are very carefully told, repeated, and retold by successive generations. There are numerous examples of the accuracy of such oral accounts of history. Nevertheless when Native Americans produced affidavits from elders who described the four oak’s area as being sacred, the media, the public, and MnDOT tended to reject such accounts out of hand because the band had no documentation or physical evidence to support the claims. Of course the inability and unwillingness of a Judeo-Christian society to understand how something like a tree could be sacred, provides a institutional bias against such claims as well.
When the trees finally came down, the rings were counted and it was found that the trees were 137 years old. This probably means that these trees were not actually used as burial platforms as the tribe had suggested. This fact does not refute the Band’s claims however. By 1830 the entire area had been clear-cut by the soldiers stationed at Fort Snelling. It’s possible that burial trees were cut down in that process, and later replanted by the Mdewanketon for future use. It’s important not to make too much of the actual age of the trees. The age of those trees does not establish the sacredness of the site. Be they twenty-five or five hundred and twenty five years old, the age of the trees has no bearing on whether or not the site was considered sacred for thousands of years prior to the arrival of Europeans on the site. The age of the trees also has little relevance when determining whether or not the site could be considered sacred today. This is the place where the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers converge, the entire area is the center of the Mdewanketon universe. Finally, the age of the trees has absolutely nothing to do with whether or not the area was used for burials. This last point is significant because MnDOT and Historical Society officials have repeatedly pointed to the age of the trees and the failure to find human remains on site as a refutation of Mdewanketon claims that the area was used as a burial site.
My father worked as a carpenter building houses in the area ( Not this exact site, but a mile or so north of Camp Coldwater) back in the 50’s and 60’s. Once while digging a foundation for a house, they came across some human remains. The foreman on the job told everyone to just keep working and no one ever notified any authorities because that would have caused a delay in construction. No one knows whose remains my father unearthed forty years ago, or how old they were, the point is that the failure to find Native American remains now, would not prove that they were never there in the first place. A lot of construction and subsequent demolition has taken place in this area over the past 100 years. Undocumented desecration and destruction of remains could very well have occurred on these sights.
Ultimately, state officials simply cannot refute Native American claims of sacredness because they have to no factual basis or religious authority to do so. Instead the state finds excuses to ignore the claims under the pretense of refutation. They put the burden of proof on the Mdewakanton, and focus on the narrow issue of the tree’s age, or presence of human remains. The oral testimony the band produces is rejected not because it’s unreliable, but because it doesn’t conform to European notions of evidence. The fact that the trees are young, and no remains are found is then used to discount claims of sacredness despite the fact that it proves nothing. This is the essence of institutionalized racism.
I must take a moment here to mention a particularly striking example of hypocrisy. In the beginning of the debate over the possible archaeological and spiritual significance of the area, MnDOT repeatedly referred to a memo from the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council stating they were not aware of any cultural significance of the area. The Indian Affairs Council eventually changed its position on that matter, and came to support archaeological study of the area as well as its cultural significance to the Mdewakanton. MnDOT’s reference to the Indian Affairs Council memo is revealing because it demonstrates their willingness to accept the validity of Native American oral history when it serves their purposes; but reject it out of hand when it conflicts with their plans.
Throughout the struggle to stop the reroute, the state waged a constant battle to discredit and alienate the opposition. Early on they established strategy of portraying the opposition as irrational, ill informed, and lacking of support from the community at large. The strategy was to render the opposition invisible.
MnDOT officials portrayed those who were opposed to the reroute as a small group of radicals that lacked any support from the community at large. Public statements from politicians and state officials constantly made reference to the tremendous amount of community involvement in the planning of the route, and the decision to build it. Opponents they said, had had their chance, and either missed it or simply didn’t like the results. Now it was time to move on and get the thing built.
As evidence of community involvement, MnDOT pointed to the existence of a Hiawatha Avenue Task Force, and the fact that a number of public meetings had taken place. The task force was set up by the city of Minneapolis between 1972 and 1978. Its mission was to examine the road options, make recommendations, and facilitate community awareness of the project. Public meeting were held at a variety of locations during the fifteen years of construction.
There are several problems with any assertion of community involvement centered on the task force. To begin with, the task force appears to have played a rather limited role in the highway plan. As I’ve already pointed out, their choices were limited to four road designs that had already been selected by a previous group of engineers and planners. This task force did not have the option of exploring other transportation options, or making suggestions of their own. Another problem with the task force, was the small number of neighborhood residents involved. Little record of the task force’s activities remain, but the one set of meeting minutes I could find listed 35 people in attendance, only six of those in attendance were resident task force members. Given the limited range of options and the minority status of resident members on the task force, it appears that the real purpose was to limit rather than encourage community input. The task force gave the project the appearance of having a large base of support, while simultaneously providing officials a mechanism with which to deflect charges of power brokering.
As further evidence of community involvement, MnDOT points out that a number of public meetings were held throughout the process. This is true enough, but the nature of such meetings tended to be “informational” rather than genuine invitations for community involvement. Furthermore, city and state officials employed less than honest methods of recording public comment at the events. When road planners couldn’t actually control the debate, they simply manipulated the recording of it to suit their purposes. For example, at one point along the route, there was considerable neighborhood opposition to a bridge that was to span a major thoroughfare. In 1993 a public meeting was held in local High School auditorium, 200 people attended and a vote was taken on whether or not to build the bridge. The bridge was quite a controversial issue, tensions were high, and tempers flared both for and against the construction. Frank Miller, a local resident who attended those meetings has found that MnDOT has no record of the vote, and no record of the of the considerable public protest against building the bridge. As reported in a local paper, the: “Southside Pride”, Miller found that MnDOT only records 21 people in attendance, and only has two people on record as having made comments. Apparently the court reporter that was in attendance was placed in a different room, thus rendering all the statements made in the auditorium officially “off the record”. In one fell swoop, MnDOT rendered 200 people invisible. Not bad for evenings work.
Of course State officials didn’t shy away from pointing out that anyone who opposed the construction could contact their elected officials. After all, don’t elected officials represent their constituents? Anyone who is suffering from this delusion should talk to Carol Kratz. Carol Kratz and her husband were the last home owners to leave the Minnehaha Free State. Years before, when they found out that their house was slated for demolition, they went to their local councilman who suggested they start a petition. After collecting 2000 signatures in opposition to the new route, their councilman responded: “Listen, you could get a million signatures and it wouldn’t make any difference at this point”. By the year 2000 that petition had over 10,000 signatures and state and local officials were still claiming that they hadn’t heard of any real objections to building the road. Frank Miller had a similar experience with his elected representative regarding the bridge debate. He filled out a ballet card that his local representative had mailed out only to find later that his vote was irrelevant because the decision to build the bridge had already been made. At least Frank got an apology for having been given the impression that his vote might actually count for something.
Local media hasn’t exactly delivered a stellar example of coverage regarding this controversy. They have either wittingly or unwittingly supported MnDOT’s efforts to marginalize the opposition by portraying it either as a conflict between the state and Native Americans, or between the State and radical environmentalists. One local paper’s coverage has been particularly representative of MnDOT’sagenda. MnDOT’s press packet for operation Cold Snap consisted primarily of several of Minneapolis Star-Tribune articles, copied and unedited. The Star-Tribune had done such a good job of presenting MnDOT’s position MnDOT spokespeople didn’t even have to write any material themselves. The result was a surreal media exercise; on the day of “Operation Cold Snap” the press’s own reporting was handed back to them, in the form of a press packet. In other instances, articles with titles such as “Science vs. Spirituality” challenged the validity of Native American claims on the basis that they don’t resemble rational European historical claims. The message to the predominantly white community reading the newspapers, and watching the television reports was clear: this isn’t your problem, you have nothing in common with these people, move along. Unfortunately the campaign to alienate the Mdewakanton by portraying them as irrational Indians has been quite successful because sadly, racism works. The effort to portray other activists as unemployed “tree huggers” was likewise largely successful.
The drive to build the highway 55 re-route was not based on rational assessments of transportation needs, or community interest. The project was not rational, necessary, or supported by the community. The logic was flawed, and many of the “facts” that were been used to discredit opposition were inaccurate or fabricated. People can disagree whether a road should be built, but who would argue that a road should be built the way this one was?
In the end, the Hiawatha re-route conflict is about power, and the illegitimate exercise of state power. This road was built simply because MnDOT said it would be. The danger for power is always that its illegitimacy will be exposed. Although most of the media didn’t cover it, the State’s deceptions and misinformation were exposed here in Minneapolis. When that happens it can create an opening for different conceptions of legitimacy.
If you accept the legitimacy of Native American claims, you validate their oral history. Essentially then, the four oaks area becomes sacred because Native Americans say it’s sacred. Imagine for moment if the power to declare legitimacy were transferred to the people who actually live in a community. Imagine a neighborhood saying: “this road will not be built- because we say it won’t”.
In the last 30 years the power of highway officials to force expensive and unpopular highways through people’s neighborhoods has eroded significantly. The highway 55 opposition is a reflection of that declining power. Like so many other policy decisions made in this nation’s history, transportation planning has been driven by irrational motives and financial interests. The profit motives of powerful corporations and individuals have taken precedent over the transportation needs of communities. The American people, driven by consumer mentalities that value personal choice over the need for sustainable public policy, have enabled the power brokers who design and create these monstrosities.
Resistance is not futile. After the houses and the Burr Oaks came down, and after acres of parkland and part of Camp Coldwater were paved over, the fight focused Coldwater Spring itself. The fight for the spring followed a predictable path. MnDOT had claimed for years that it knew the project wouldn’t effect the spring, and portrayed the opposition as irrational promoters of political correctness standing in the way of progress. Like the archeological and environmental claims before them, MnDOT’s hydrological studies and data turned out to be non-existent or unreliable. Meanwhile the state tried and failed to get the area transferred to a water district that it knew would not interfere while it pressed on with construction. Of course the local media largely ignored the whole issue after the trees came down and the large police actions ended.
The fight to save the trees, green space, and Camp Coldwater delayed construction and bought time for activists. That time was used to get legislators to pass a law prohibiting any local, state, or federal agency, or anyone acting on behalf these agencies, from doing anything that would interfere with the flow of Coldwater Spring. Eventually a lawsuit forced MnDOT to stop construction and conduct a reliable hydrological study. Contrary to MnDOT’s claims (and much to everyone’s surprise I’m sure), the test showed not only that the flow to Coldwater Spring would probably be cut off by the construction, but that it had already been diminished. That was it. After years of demonstrations, petitions, arrests, and political maneuvering, construction stopped. With 99% of the reroute completed, Minneapolis is left with a hundred million dollar dead end.
The fight continues, MnDOT’s current strategy is to get the law repealed but failing that, they will either have to spend millions of additional dollars or completely redesign the last leg of the project. In the meantime, a half finished highway bridge provides silent testament to a community that would not surrender, and a state that would not listen.
Since this article was written the bridge over Hwy 62 has been completed without any further effect on Coldwater Spring, thus bringing the long saga of the Hiawatha Reroute to end. The promised decreases in travel times and congestion within the reroute and elsewhere never materialized. Things got worse when an adjacent light rail line went into operation. Although troublesome stop light timing has been adjusted it still takes longer now to get from downtown Minneapolis to the airport via Hiawatha Avenue. Ironically the big success story of the Hwy 55 reroute has been the public transportation that runs along side it. The light rail line attracted three times as many passengers as were predicted, and all along Hiawatha and transit officials have had to increase the number of trains and their frequency in order to accommodate the additional passengers.