Stop the Re-route: Taking a Stand on Sacred Land

By Hannah Rivenburgh

In December of 1999, about a mile south of what is now called Minnehaha Falls in Minneapolis, the four oldest and most sacred Bur Oak trees standing in the Twin Cities region were felled. This was after years of community opposition to the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s HWY55 re-route, a project meant to shave a few minutes off the drive to the Mall of America and to the airport, and about a week before the court hearing of the case of the Dakota Nation vs. MNDOT over the four sacred oaks.”Stop the Re-Route: Taking a Stand on Sacred Land,” which was screened Tuesday April 21 in John B. Davis Lecture Hall as part of “EARTH WEEK 2009: Environment and Equality,” constructs the story of the powerful coalition of community opposition that manifested itself in a nearly two-year permanent encampment on a small but vitally important bit of land slated for development. This occupation, which came to be known as Minnehaha Free State, involved indigenous Dakota, Ojibwe, Ho Chunk, Sac and Fox people who desired the reclamation and restoration of Dakota sacred land to the Dakota Nation and who kept a sacred fire burning constantly through two winters; young EarthFirst! activists who were engaging in their first urban direct actions; one old woman who had lived on the block all her life and fought against the eminent domain laws which forced her out of her home; journalists and other media-makers; Arvol Looking Horse, the carrier of the Sacred White Buffalo Calf Pipe Bundle, who journeyed with others by horseback from South Dakota to support the encampment; many concerned Twin Cities folks; and a company of Japanese Taiko drummers who offered their blessing to the land.

“Stop the Re-Route” engages this very complicated struggle and a very complex and diverse coalition of thousands of people with much finesse, and for the most part exercises what East Indian feminist Uma Narayan, in “Working Together Across Difference,” calls methodological humility and methodological caution. One way the film accomplishes this is by creating narrative space for specific members of colonialized communities to speak for themselves and represent their own interests. The film is not narrated in voice-over at all; instead the story is constructed through the stories of those involved. In “Stop the Re-Route,” the filmmakers carefully edited an amazing variety of footage, interweaving a cohesive narrative from personal testimonies and allowing many to give voice to their struggle. However, I fear that some of what must have been an incredible diversity of political and cultural positions, and the constant negotiating of tactics, purpose, goals, and meaning which such multicultural coalitions entail, must have been lost in the creating of such a linear narrative. The concept of “ally” is used once in passing during an interview in the film, but the ally framework may have provided a more careful and sensitive structure to the film.

However, the focus on multicultural unity and coalition-building also is one of the strengths of the film. By focusing on the powerful united front which grew in opposition to MNDOT’s actions – a sign erected at the encampment proclaims “PEOPLE’S PARK+WOUNDED KNEE” – the film eloquently interprets the struggle against MNDOT. It also reveals the historical shittiness of MNDOT’s actions. One activist says, quite seriously, “MNDOT is the Pentagon of Minnesota” – referencing both their status of guaranteed funding, their lack of public accountability, and their violence, in both policies and projects, toward anyone who stands in their way of paving the land, particularly the historical and cultural legitimacy of the Dakota Nation and the expendable bodies of direct action protesters, both white and indigenous (in at least one case, the police “made sure to arrest every Native person”). “Stop the Re-Route” also captures footage of the hyper-hypocritical “Indian Awareness Day” at MNDOT, where young Native children are forced into the role of cultural ambassadors and uncomfortable-looking suited white men shuffle through a dance.

“Stop the Re-Route” opens with aerial shots of the contested land, accompanied unfortunately by the seemingly requisite soundtrack of un-embodied, apparently Native drumming and singing. This is where the methodological caution fails. Although there are shots later of actual Dakota people involved in the actual encampment actually singing and drumming-the songs are identified as songs for water and songs for peace – the un-embodied drum/sing soundtrack at the beginning and throughout the film relies on “warrior” connotations, invocations of a deep untrammeled past, and ultimately a colonialist nostalgia for what appears to be lost, ignoring the Indians who are firmly in the present.

Close to the end of “Stop the Re-Route,” MNDOT has basically delivered a moratorium on the campsite, and police and tree cutting crews stand at the ready. White allies in lockdown are cut out and arrested, as the Dakota people are permitted to carry out a final ceremony within the area inscribed by the four trees-albeit surrounded by cops. This dramatic scene of collective, sorrowful action in the face of oppression is intercut with images of the trees bitten into by chainsaws, of limbs falling. Chainsaws buzz in the background, and the huge, magnificent trees, representing 187 years of Dakota struggle and resiliency, come crashing down. Their massive limbs bounce, denied grace in their final moments. In one of the last images of “Stop the Re-Route,” a final tree-sitter high in the last oak screams at the workers in the cherry-picker as they cut limbs out from under him. Finally, he is silenced, clinging to a single bough before being pulled out of the tree.

“Stop the Re-Route: Taking a Stand on Sacred Land” documents a crucial part of contemporary Twin Cities/Minnesota history that all should be aware of. The filmmakers have graciously provided a copy of the film to the library.