In-Depth Feature: Controversy over proposed development in Lincoln

The Indian Center, Inc. and the Nitskithe Prayer camp are pursuing legal action against the City of Lincoln over the planned Wilderness Crossing project. The most recent protests over the development were held in February, before a court appeal was filed in March. The project includes more than 400 houses and apartments planned to be built adjacent to land on which two sweat lodges, structures within which Native American ceremonies are held, exist.

One of the lawyers involved in the case, the ACLU’s Rose Godinez, said that one of the issues they believe the development will create is disruptive sounds. She says that this issue would have been addressed earlier if the City policy had been followed more closely.

“In the comprehensive plan that the City Council adopted, they’re supposed to consult with the populations that are most affected by developments like this one,” Godinez said. “And that did not happen in this case. And then when Indigenous community members did go and voice their concerns, they were ignored.” 

Godinez explained that this was a spiritual site for these people, and the ACLU’s website states that, by extension, the development violates the right for Native people to practice their religion.

“This would cause unnecessary traffic and noise that would interfere with our clients’ ability to use the sweat lodge to practice their ceremonies,” Godinez said. “Many indigenous community members would set up their prayers there, and the entire land, if you look at the history of it, really was a place where several tribes came together to rest and to use the salt basin and just enjoy the land together.”

Co-leader of the prayer camp Renee Sans Souci said that Indigenous leaders were able to draw attention to the subject in May last year by setting up tipis on the land of the proposed development. Protesters stayed in the tipis for 16 days before marching to Lincoln City Hall. 

“At night, we would look at the stars,” Sans Souci said.  “I mean, there were so many things that were just like, wow, they’re gonna destroy this place. This was, you know, where our ancestors had camped out when they were there to harvest salt from Salt Creek. So there were a lot of memories, like we knew our ancestors had camped out in that safe place where we were.” 

According to the American Addiction centers, Native Americans have higher rates of alcoholism than any other racial group in the United States. Sans Souci explained the importance of the ceremony of the sweat lodge in addressing this issue.

“That sweat lodge has also helped our people, you know, native people in the community, to become sober,” Sans Souci said. “So they found their sobriety and healing through that particular sweat lodge.” 

Before those involved with the sweat lodge were notified of the proposed development, Lincoln City councilwoman Sändra Washington was aware of the proceedings and working to minimize the damage of the development on the neighboring Wilderness Park. She wasn’t aware of the sweat lodges, but worked with the developers to insure more environmentally safe land for the city park.

Washington said that one of her concerns was mitigating water quality, especially along a row of houses which would directly back up against the park.

However, she said that she was able to arrange for a “swale in the backyard of those houses that would catch any herbicide or pesticide runoff and direct it away from the park.”

Once she’d heard the issues presented by the Native groups, Washington said that she was sure to keep them in mind throughout her negotiations process, including attempting to resolve the issue and make everyone happy.

“I said, ‘What if the group was able to purchase all of the lots, I think there were 16 or 17 lots that are as far to the east in the development as he had drawn them,’” Washington said. “I said ‘What if they were to purchase those and you were basically made whole? That whatever you pay for those acres that created those lots, they would pay you.’ And he sort of [shrugged], and his business partner said, ‘Absolutely not.’” 

Despite efforts to revise the project, the approval process made it to the city council and passed without any changes. Native American community members went to this meeting and spoke against the development.

“Council person Raybould and myself are the only two who voted to amend,” Washington said. “I think we put forth three amendments. All of them failed, and the project went forward.”

Washington compared this process to another in which a development was proposed about a mile and a half from Nine Mile Prairie. This land, full of public paths, is owned by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. The development was not approved by the Lincoln City Council. However, Washington said that the citizen backlash came at an earlier point in that process.

“It’s a beautiful area, absolutely gorgeous,” Washington said. “But people are up in arms about that and stopped council from taking a position to allow the potential for development that far away from the Nine Mile. And that was not afforded Wilderness Park, and certainly wasn’t afforded because of the sweat lodge.” 

Washington also expressed understanding for the value of property rights, explaining that her family was forced to move after losing their land and that loss deeply affected her father. 

“I also know that if you own a piece of property, and this is your thing, you should be able to have a large amount of say about what happens on property, regardless of where you sit on any issue,” Washington said. “So there is the conundrum of trying to balance my personal feelings, my personal perspective and what’s allowed by our laws, and what’s good for the most people.” 

While the tipis on the hill were set up, Sans Souci said that they held a celebration of various parts of their culture, including singing and a puppet show. She said that many who came for the event seemed surprised by the artistry of what they found.

“We’re all artists, we have all these gifts,” Sans Souci said. “We decided that that was one way we were going to continue to put that out to the world.” 

She also explained that the camp attracted many visitors during its time set up. She said that these visitors were curious and came to learn about Native American culture and spirituality.

Sans Souci said that recent events seem to build on a long history that the United States has with disenfranchising Native Americans.

“You have no idea the kind of oppression that we deal with,” Sans Souci said. “I let people know, this is a huge movement, I mean, in the way that we’re protecting something, we’re protecting what’s important to us, a sacred site, our spirituality, our belief system.”

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