Apparent showdown coming over Wilderness Park protest camp

By: - May 10, 2022 1:18 pm
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)

This report was  updated at 8:10 p.m. to include response from protest group

LINCOLN — A showdown may be ahead over a protest camp erected on the site of a planned housing development next to Lincoln’s Wilderness Park.

On Monday, protesters said they plan to stay on the site of the Wilderness Crossing development until they receive “tangible protections” for a nearby ceremonial Native American sweat lodge.

“We are still here. We are strong. And we will remain,” the prayer camp group stated in a press release Monday evening.

Plans moving ahead

But on Tuesday, a spokeswoman for the developers, Manzitto Construction, said the firm plans to move ahead with the project, after gaining all necessary approvals from the City of Lincoln and after making some concessions to the sweat lodge site.

 “We don’t plan to make any (more) changes,” said spokeswoman Amy Olson.

She added that Manzitto will take possession of the land in the next few weeks and that any “trespassers” would have to deal with the company.

Erin Poor, a spokeswoman for the protesters, said Tuesday night that the camp was staying put, after hearing from the construction firm that they will discuss options only after the camp departs.

“We’re going to stay exactly where we’re at until they come to us with an agreement,” Poor said. “They know what we’ve asked for.”

A group of tepees called the Niskíthe Prayer Camp was erected eight days ago on the site of the proposed development, which will be built across a gravel road from Lincoln’s largest city park, a strip of trees and trails that spans 1,472 acres along Salt Creek. 

Sweat lodge ceremonies

Also across the road from the development is a private enclave called The Fish Farm, which is surrounded on three sides by Wilderness Park. It has hosted sweat lodge ceremonies since the 1970s after being established, protesters say, by Chief Leonard Crow Dog, a Lakota spiritual leader.

The protesters, in their press release, said that while relationships have been initiated with elected officials at City Hall, “we have yet to receive any tangible protections for our sweat lodge or the Fish Farm property, nor a plan for meaningful representation of Native people in local government.”

Leirion Gaylor Baird
Lincoln Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird (Courtesy of the Lincoln Mayor’s Office)

Last week, Lincoln Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird approved the Manzitto Construction development, saying the developers had made adjustments to their plans, including setbacks and a buffer strip, that have been employed by other development near Wilderness Park.

Protesters have asked for a larger setback of at least 300 feet from the road, or the removal of the easternmost row of houses, or establishment of a park directly across the street from the sweat lodge site.

Protesters have also called for the establishment of a Native American Advisory Board, like one in Omaha, to provide input about developments in Lincoln and to avoid future conflicts. The protest camp also appealed Monday to the Catholic Diocese of Lincoln to intervene.

Olson, the Manzitto Construction spokeswoman, said that the company had complied with all requirements set by the city planning board and Lincoln City Council. She added that the firm had reached out to the owner of the Fish Camp but had never received a response. Olson said grading work on the site could begin this fall.

After holding a camp meeting Tuesday following a meeting with Manzitto officials, the camp decided to stay, according to Poor.

“The ball’s in their court,” she said.

On Monday, protesters had said that the “peaceful” protest was “an act of resistance in the face of erasure and exclusion, as a way to demand the dignity and freedoms promised to all Americans.”

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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.