Protest camp rises at proposed site of housing development along Wilderness Park in Lincoln

Native Americans want ‘meaningful engagement’ before project moves ahead

By: - May 2, 2022 7:07 pm
Wilderness Park protest

A group of opponents to a housing development along Lincoln’s Wilderness Park set up a camp on May 2 in protest. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

LINCOLN — Overnight on Sunday night, a complex of six tepees was erected in southwest Lincoln to protest a housing development that opponents say will ruin a nearby site for Native American sweat lodge ceremonies and could harm the adjacent Wilderness Park.

A spokeswoman for the group said Monday that the “Niskíthe Peace Camp” will remain until protesters are granted “meaningful engagement” with city leaders over the housing project.

Wilderness Park protest
A “zoning action in progress” sign sits along First Street in Lincoln, where a housing development recently got the OK from the City Council. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

Last week, the Lincoln City Council voted 6-1 to approve a housing development called “Wilderness Crossing,” to be built on 75 acres of land between First Street and U.S. 77, just south of Pioneers Boulevard.

Felt ‘invisible’

Spokeswoman Erin Poor said Native Americans felt “invisible” as the council approved the housing development without fully considering the impact on a ceremonial site across a gravel road called “The Fish Farm,” which has hosted sweat lodge ceremonies since the 1970s.

 “We were not given a seat at the table. We were told it was too late,” Poor said. “We’re asking to be seen, recognized, and our ceremonies to be respected.”

Toward that end, Lincoln Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird plans to meet with representatives of the camp Tuesday morning.

Per the Lincoln City charter, the mayor has 10 days following action by the City Council to sign it into law, a spokeswoman said.

 There was no indication Monday what the mayor would do. But a spokeswoman for Manzitto Construction said Monday evening that the decision has already been made to OK the project.

“We just want to keep moving forward,” Amy Olson of Manzitto Construction.

Up to Catholic Diocese

Olson said that the company’s character has been defamed over the project and that it will be up to the Catholic Diocese of Lincoln, which still owns the land, to decide what to do about the protest camp.

Officials with the Diocese could not be reached Monday evening.

Four occupants of the camp could be seen Monday evening, navigating between the six teepees during a steady rain.

Controversy over the Wilderness Crossing project has been simmering in recent weeks. The project has drawn support for bringing additional housing to the growing Capital City, but it has also garnered opposition from those who feel it’s too close to Wilderness Park, a long strip of forested land along the Salt Creek that features trails for hiking, biking and horseback riding.

Manzitto’s plans include 162 single-family homes, 134 townhomes and 205 apartment units. About 30,000 square feet of commercial space is planned on the property, which is cropland owned by the Catholic Diocese.

Modifications

Developer Sam Manzitto Jr. has outlined to the Lincoln Journal-Star several modifications he has made to the development. Those include erecting a 6-foot-tall fence along the east side of the development that faces Wilderness Park, establishing a 10-foot outlot/buffer zone planted with native vegetation, and lighting restrictions being imposed on homes.

 But Poor and others involved in the protest said that the city doesn’t realize how damaging a huge housing development could be on the Fish Farm’s two sweat lodges, which now are surrounded by Wilderness Park on three sides, and the little-traveled, unpaved First Street on the fourth.

Renee Sans Souci, a member of the Omaha Tribe and a community leader, said the protesters are praying that Lincoln officials “have understanding in their hearts, minds, and spirits for what we are standing for, which is: respect for our ceremonies and our ways of life, as Native people.”

Niskíthe” is an Omaha word meaning “saltwater,” a reference to the nearby Salt Creek.

Poor said it’s possible the private owners of the Fish Farm will sell the land if the housing development goes forward.

She said the list of demands from the protesters includes a formal apology from the Lincoln City Council and creation of a Native American “engagement” board to ensure there is input from indigenous people before similar projects are approved in future.

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Paul Hammel
Paul Hammel

Senior Reporter Paul Hammel has covered the Nebraska Legislature and Nebraska state government for decades. He started his career reporting for the Omaha Sun and was named editor of the Papillion Times in 1982. He later worked as a sports enterprise reporter at the Lincoln Journal-Star. He joined the Omaha World-Herald in 1990, working as a legislative reporter, then roving state reporter and finally Lincoln bureau chief. Paul has won awards from organizations including Great Plains Journalism, the Associated Press and Suburban Newspapers of America. A native of Ralston, Nebraska, he is vice president of the John G. Neihardt Foundation and secretary of the Nebraska Hop Growers.

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