Protesters of Lincoln development ask judge to dismiss misdemeanor charges

Users of Native American sweat lodge maintain that you can’t obstruct a public roadway if it’s not accessible to the public

By: - September 11, 2023 5:00 am
Wilderness Park protest

Protests against the Wilderness Crossing development escalated in May 2022 with the erection of tipis on the site, just west of Lincoln’s Wilderness Park and across the road from a sweat lodge ceremonial site. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

LINCOLN — Four protesters charged with blocking construction equipment from a Lincoln housing development near a sweat lodge ceremonial site asked a judge Friday to dismiss charges against them.

One of the protesters’ main arguments: They contend they can’t be found guilty of obstructing a public roadway because the road had been closed off to public access at the time they were cited.

But a larger contention was that desecration of land near the “Fish Farm” sweat lodge — a high hill that had been used to leave prayer bundles in its trees — is part of a larger effort to disregard and disrespect Native American traditions and religion.

‘A pattern of displacement’

“It represents the ongoing American pattern of displacement of Native American people and ceremonies in the name of progress,” testified Erin Poor, one of the leaders of the protest in February.

Wilderness crossing
Erin Poor, one of the protesters of the Wilderness Crossing development, accepts a hug from a supporter following Friday’s trial. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

Poor and five others were arrested during protests that included a line of people linking arms to block construction equipment from progressing to the development site, just west of Lincoln’s Wilderness Park and just across a gravel road from a decades-old site for sweat lodge ceremonies called the “Fish Farm.”

The protesters were cited for obstruction of a public roadway, as well as failure to comply with an order of Lincoln police to let the construction equipment pass. The two misdemeanors are punishable by fines of up to $500 and the possibility of up to six months in jail.

The protest was the culmination of months of unsuccessful legal and political efforts to block the Wilderness Crossing development — a combination of single-family homes, townhomes, apartment units and commercial space — on farmland formerly owned by the Catholic Diocese of Lincoln.

Two protesters fined $50

Two of those charged agreed to plead no contest. Margaret Vrana and Monica Usasz, both of Lincoln, were fined $50 each.

Wilderness Crossing
Opponents of a proposed Lincoln housing development near the “Fish Farm,” a site for sweat lodge ceremonies, gather in a prayer circle following Friday’s trial in Lancaster County Court. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

But four others are contesting the charges. On Friday, Lancaster County Judge Timothy Phillips heard the final testimony in a trial for two of them, Poor and Wyatt Nelson, that had been continued from May.

Poor and Nelson, both of Lincoln, testified that the sweat lodge was an important spiritual site for them.

Nelson said the sharing of prayers and sweating from a steam bath in the lodge had helped him quit drugs and alcohol and led him to become a “healthy and successful man.”

He described it as a place of “healing, warmth and love.”

“Afterwards, in a spiritual sense, you feel like all of your burdens and negative thoughts have been released,” Nelson said.

‘Prayer bundles’ in trees

Across the road, where the Wilderness Crossing development is rising, was Snell Hill, one of the highest points in Lancaster County.

Nelson said it was also a place where Fish Farm visitors would place prayer bundles wrapped in red cloth in the trees.

Spiritual beings, he said, also lived on the hill and would participate in the sweat lodge ceremonies.

Wilderness Park
Protesters left this sign on Snell Hill, the site of the Wilderness Crossing housing development, during a protest earlier this year. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

Poor, a member of the Cherokee Tribe, testified that sweat lodge participants considered Snell Hill as “part of our ceremonial grounds.” One protester at Friday’s trial said the Fish Farm had been given informal permission to place the prayer bundles in trees on the hill.

Poor, when asked about a video showing her and other protesters linking arms to block construction equipment, said she felt they had no other option to stop the “desecration” of the Snell Hill area after legal and political efforts had failed.

Violated ‘ground rules’

Assistant Lincoln City Attorney Sydney Pfeifer said that police had laid down some “ground rules” for protesters on the day of the arrests and that the ground rules had been clearly violated when the road was blocked.

The attorney for the protesters, Spike Eickholt, said the city had failed to prove his clients had willfully violated the law.

Eickholt said police had erected barricades across First Street, where the protest was occurring, early on the morning when Poor and Nelson were cited.

That, the attorney argued, meant the street was no longer a public thoroughfare, and thus his clients could not be charged with blocking a public street. Eickholt said that also meant they could not be charged with disobeying a police order because it wasn’t a lawful order.

He asked the judge to dismiss the charges or, in the alternative, find his clients innocent.

After hearing about an hour of testimony Friday, Phillips took the requests under advisement. Earlier, he had taken under advisement a ruling on the charges faced by two other protesters, Louis Braatz and Delan Lonowski of Lincoln.

Construction on the Wilderness Crossing subdivision began shortly after the arrests of the protesters in February. Developers of the site, Manzitto Construction, have said they followed all city procedures in winning approval of the development and provided some buffer area between the new homes and the Fish Farm.

Meanwhile, a civil suit remains pending, challenging the refusal of a city appeals board to hear objections to the approval of the development.

Court records indicate that a possible out-of-court settlement is being discussed by the plaintiffs in that civil lawsuit, which include Poor and the Indian Center of Lincoln, and the defendants, the Lincoln Board of Zoning Appeals and the City of Lincoln.

Correction: This article has been revised to correct the pleas made by Margaret Vrana and Monica Usasz.

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Paul Hammel
Paul Hammel

Senior Reporter Paul Hammel has covered the Nebraska state government and the state for decades. Previously with the Omaha World-Herald, Lincoln Journal Star and Omaha Sun, he is a member of the Omaha Press Club's Hall of Fame. He grows hops, brews homemade beer, plays bass guitar and basically loves traveling and writing about the state. A native of Ralston, Nebraska, he is vice president of the John G. Neihardt Foundation.