Press Release from ACLU of NE in collaboration with Niskíthe Prayer Camp | 8.2.22

LINCOLN, Neb. – Native community members in Lincoln are turning to a zoning appeal process in a new effort to resist a controversial housing development next to a large natural park and sacred ceremonial grounds.

Today, Indian Center, Inc. and representatives of the Niskíthe Prayer Camp filed an appeal with the City Board of Zoning Appeals, supported by Big Fire Law & Policy Group and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Nebraska.

The appeal asks the board to reverse earlier approval of the project. It argues that when city planning officials recommended approval of the project earlier this year, they disregarded guidance in the Lincoln-Lancaster County 2050 Comprehensive Plan, ignored environmental concerns of building next to Wilderness Park, and dismissed feedback on the site’s cultural and religious significance. Native community members have repeatedly said that the development will displace ceremonies at a nearby historic sweat lodge.

The appeal comes after months of outspoken opposition to the development from Native community leaders and environmental advocates. The filing requests a stay in all development proceedings while the appeal is ongoing.

The appeal will receive a public hearing followed by an appeals board decision. If the board rejects the appeal, the appealing groups could then take the issue to Lancaster County District Court.

Kevin Abourezk, Niskíthe Prayer Camp leader, journalist, and Indian Center vice chairman of the board, issued the following statement on today’s appeal:

“Today we are taking steps to protect our sacred ceremonial grounds and Wilderness Park from the reckless actions of Lincoln developers, city planning staff and elected leaders,” Abourezk said. “The planned Wilderness Crossing project would severely impact the peace and sanctity of these vital community resources and impede the ability of Lincoln residents to use these spaces for recreation, rehabilitation and prayer. This project would lead to untold environmental damage to surrounding lands and the forced relocation of our city’s oldest inipi, or Native American sweat lodge.”

Erin Poor, Niskíthe Prayer Camp organizer, co-founder Intertribal Medicine Collective and clinical mental health counselor-in-training, issued the following statement on today’s appeal:

“Though we took our tipis down from Snell Hill in May, our work to protect that land, Salt Creek, and our ceremonies has not stopped. We are humbled and energized by the partnership we’ve forged with Big Fire and the ACLU of Nebraska to continue to fight this development and demand respect for the land and Indigenous life ways. We understand the harm that this development will cause to the environment and the community, and we are far from done advocating for its cessation. We call upon the city officials to honor their commitment to responsible, ethical, conscientious city growth, as outlined in the comprehensive plan. We ask that they not sacrifice community safety, mental and spiritual well-being, and civic integrity to support this development that will do nothing to offer affordable housing in this city.”

Renee Sans Souci, Niskíthe Prayer Camp leader, spiritual practitioner, educator and cultural consultant, issued the following statement on today’s appeal:

“We stand in prayer for our Native way of life that has been under threat from the Wilderness Crossing Project. This planned development is a continuation of spiritual and cultural erasure, as well as degradation of the environment. We believe in walking with responsibility for the next seven generations. Therefore, our purpose is to enlighten the developers, the city leaders, and all involved that what is taking place, if they continue this onslaught, will inflict unimaginable harm upon our sacred ceremonial grounds and upon the sacred earth that surrounds this area, for generations to come. It is not too late to set things right on these matters pertaining to our future and Mother Earth. Cease this development!”

Nikki Ducheneaux, Big Fire Law & Policy Group LLP founding partner, issued the following statement on today’s appeal:

“In approving the Wilderness Crossing development project, the City of Lincoln has shown a callous indifference to the objections of the city’s Native American community. We must take a stand against city officials’ blatant disregard and disrespect of the Native community and of Native religions practices. This administrative appeal outlines how Mayor Gaylor Baird’s recent development approvals have violated her responsibility to fully conduct all administrative work and affairs of the city in a lawful and appropriate manner. As such, it is only the first step in our work to ensure that Lincoln’s Native American community is finally and truly heard.”

Rose Godinez, ACLU of Nebraska senior legal and policy counsel, issued the following statement on today’s appeal:

“This entire process has been rooted in cultural, racial and religious erasure. City officials shrugged their shoulders as they approved a development that threatens Native community members’ ability and right to practice religious ceremonies as they have for decades at this location and for countless generations on this land. We are calling on the city to directly address the harm and find a solution.”

The Board of Zoning Appeals is required to conduct a hearing on this matter within 45 days of today’s filing. The hearing may coincide with the Board of Zoning Appeals’ regular monthly meeting on Friday, Aug. 26.

At least two appeals of the Wilderness Crossing project are now in motion. The owner of the land that houses the sweat lodge site joined today’s filing and has also filed a separate appeal to the District Court of Lancaster County that raises concerns related to annexation and land use.
“Kathleen Danker is proud to stand with and support the Native people involved in this matter, and supports the protection of sites which have been used for sacred rituals for decades,” said Ken Winston, attorney for Ms. Danker.



Statement: Our Next Steps | 5.16.22

Fourteen days ago under the cover of darkness, we raised seven tipis on Snell Hill and established the Niskithe Prayer Camp. With those lodges we stated unequivocally that we will not tolerate erasure in our city government, and we will not accept exclusion from conversations that impact our sacred ceremonial sites. With our camp, we declared we are still here, we are strong, we will remain.

In the two weeks since, we have held many ceremonies, praying for our community, for our Mother Earth, and for hearts to open. We engaged in near constant education, as we shared who we are, how we pray, and why we rise. We shared our story with hundreds of visitors at camp, and thousands more through social and news media. We advocated to city leaders for our ceremonial sites, for the land, and for our religious freedom. We shared our stories of ancestral resistance with the Bishop of the Lincoln Catholic Diocese. We gathered around rocks, fires, and drums. We sang. We endured terrific storms, near freezing temperatures, and blistering heat. We grieved and we laughed. We were given a glimpse into a more connected way of living. We listened to each other’s stories of heartache and rebirth and experienced profound moments of enduring kinship. In all things, we were Spirit led.

Today we have better, stronger relationships with our city leaders and our community. We have the beginnings of a plan toward more meaningful representation of Native voices in city government, and we have a commitment from the Mayor to continue to work with us to honor our culture and protect our ceremonies. Yet there is so much more work to do.

We will continue to strive for structural change in our city. We plan to engage in coalition building with faith leaders and environmentalists to strengthen our advocacy for the land and for the places in which we pray. We will deepen our understanding of our treaty rights, and pursue legal avenues to protect our sweat lodge and the sacred land on which it stands. We will seek the rematriation of land in this region to Indigenous stewardship. And we will continue to engage in direct actions so no one ever forgets: We are still here.

To do that work, Niskithe Prayer Camp must evolve and enter a new phase of its life, one that is more integrated into the fabric of our community. We will take down the tipis from Snell Hill beginning tomorrow. On Wednesday, to demonstrate our continued commitment to our work, we will lower the last tipi, the anchor of our camp, the lodge made by our brother Leo Yankton, known now by his spirit name Hoksila Luta. We will march in prayer with his tipi from Niskithe to City Hall, and then on to the Cathedral of the Risen Christ. At each stop we will invite the leaders inside to pray with us. Then we will return the tipi to the place Hoksila Luta called home while on this earth. We invite the public to join us on this walk and to commit to an ongoing relationship with us. We offer our commitment to you in return. As long as the grass shall grow and the water runs, the spirit of Niskithe Prayer Camp will endure.

To everyone who came to the camp and to all those who supported us, we thank you. We are overcome with gratitude. Your prayers and solidarity are deeply appreciated. As we evolve, we ask you to evolve with us. We need your solidarity and support now more than ever. We ask that you continue to walk with us, that you continue to see us, and that you continue to advocate for a better world for the generations to come.

WibthahoN. Pilamaya yelo. Wado.



Statement: Where we stand | 5.9.22
 
Today we begin the second week of our peaceful occupation of the land. Niskithe Prayer Camp started as an act of resistance in the face of erasure and exclusion, as a way to demand the dignity and freedoms promised to all Americans. By raising our tipis and establishing our camp, we said emphatically, “We are still here. We are strong. And we will remain.” We will continue to honor these intentions by remaining on the land and practicing our ceremonies here.

In the past week, we established relationships and initiated dialogues with elected officials at City Hall. Though some of these relationships show promise, 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. We did not come for a land acknowledgment. A promise for continued dialogue is not enough. The transformative justice work must begin and the structures of our government need to change.

Additionally, we are calling on Bishop James Conley and the Catholic Diocese of Lincoln to recognize their responsibility in this matter, that they have a central role to play in protecting our ceremonial site, and that they still have the power to take decisive moral action towards that end. We call on the Bishop and the Diocese to bring us to the table with the Manzitto brothers, to break or renegotiate their existing contract, and write a new one that does not amount to cultural genocide, one that will allow all parties to co-exist on this land. Contracts can be broken, and the financial consequences that the Diocese would incur is nothing compared to the debt they owe to Native peoples for centuries of persecution that has led to the loss of lives, languages, ceremony, and identity.

From our allies of the Christian faith we understand that Jesus has many teachings on matters such as this.

“And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the money changers, and the seats of them that sold doves, And said unto them, It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves.” (Matthew 21:12-13)

“Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” (Matthew 19:24)

“And the King will say, ‘I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters,[a] you were doing it to me!” (Matthew 25:40)

And so again we ask for respect, for engagement, for good faith dialogue, and to be brought to the table with the Manzitto Brothers to find a solution to this issue that will serve us all.

Until we receive protections for the sacred Inipi established by Chief Leonard Crow Dog, which sits on the land known as the Fish Farm and offers healing to so many in our community, we will remain on this land.

We ask our allies to continue to advocate on our behalf to city leaders that protections be put in place for our sweat lodge, and that efforts toward greater representation by Native Americans in our local government begin immediately. We also ask that their advocacy extends to the Catholic Diocese of Lincoln and Manzitto, requesting that they honor our request to be brought to the table, and for protections to be established.

We extend our deepest gratitude to our supporters and our allies. Thank you for supporting us, hearing us, and seeing us. We ask you to continue to stand with us as the struggle continues.

Wopila. WibthahoN. Wado.

Niskithe Prayer Camp


Statement of Purpose | 5.2.22

Hau Mitakuye Pi. Hello my relatives.

Today, we are here holding prayer space in a peaceful manner in an attempt to bring light to our cultural and spiritual practices.

We are here today so that those who attempted to erase our voice, erase our history, erase our identity will know that they will never win.

We are here because we won’t be forgotten. We are here because we won’t be pushed back into the history books. We are here because we won’t be erased. We will not accept the actions of the Manzitto Brothers, the Catholic Church, the City of Lincoln Planning Commission to decide the fate of sacred ceremonial land without any engagement of the Native community who worships there. And we will not silently accept the act of erasure and cultural genocide that occurred in the Lincoln City Council on April 25th, 2022.

For centuries, the Indigenous Peoples of many nations converged on this part of Lancaster County to gather the salt here in the Salt Creek Basin. The UMÓⁿHOⁿ (Omaha) called this land “Niskíthe,” or salt water. Their women used eagle feathers to collect the salt, which their people used to cure buffalo meat. To this day, this land remains a place of intertribal gatherings.

In the 1970s Chief Leonard Crow Dog, a revered Sicangu Lakota spiritual leader, established the sweat lodge that would become known as the Fish Farm. For generations, people of many nations have come here to hold their traditional ceremonies, to pray, and to heal. Thousands of Lincoln’s Native Community consider this lodge, this land, and these waters as their spiritual home, their sanctuary, and a life-sustaining place.

Last week, the Lincoln City Council approved several ordinances that put that lodge and the sacred land on which it stands, in danger. A megadevelopment proposed by the development company Manzitto, and condoned by the Lincoln Catholic Diocese, were formally greenlit by the Lincoln Planning Commission and the Lincoln City Council directly across the street from the Fish Farm sweat lodge and Oyate Lodge. The natural and agricultural environment that currently surrounds these lodges will be developed into a densely packed urban residential area, disrupting and displacing the ceremonies at the Fish Farm.

It will cause irreparable harm to the land, water, and non-human relatives; and to the mental, physical, and spiritual well-being of the people who pray there. Though there was a huge community outpouring of support for the Native Community and the Fish Farm sweat lodge, the City council failed to even mention the word Sweat Lodge or Ceremony when deciding the fate of that land. They failed to acknowledge the Native Elders and community members present at the meeting, and they passed a series of devastating ordinances without formal, meaningful engagement with the Native Community. They pointed to the need to provide more housing for the people of Lincoln, which we understand deeply and respect, but not at any cost. Not if the price is cultural Genocide. And especially when the proposed development will not offer any affordable housing whatsoever.

We rise because we have been guided by Spirit to rise. We rise to acknowledge that the genocidal acts of the 19th century that violently removed Indigenous peoples from their homelands and criminalized Native ceremonies, have not stopped, they have simply evolved. We rise to honor our Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives because settler colonial land development has always been synonymous with violence and murder. We rise with the spirit of the Land Back movement within us, because we know that if land were rematriated to Native stewardship, the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous people would end, mass extinction of our non-human relatives would end, biodiversity would be protected, and ecological balance would be restored. We rise to advocate for the rights of Nature, and for the right of Salt Creek to exist unharmed by degradation and pollution caused by rushed, urban development.

There are still ways to mitigate the harmful impact this development will have on Wilderness Park and our sacred purification lodge, or inipi.

We the people and community of Niskíthe Prayer Camp formally submit the following asks:

We ask
  • to be seen.
  • for respect.
  • for our city leaders to acknowledge our existence. 
  • for the land, our ceremonies, and our religious rights to be protected.  
We ask
  • for the Mayor to veto the City Council’s decisions related to the lands in proximity to the sweat lodges known as the Fish Farm and Oyate Lodge. 
  • for the City Council to be held accountable for their actions by:

    • Apologizing for their failure to acknowledge the concerns of the local Native American community at the City Council meeting on April 25th, 2022; 
    • agreeing to engage in a process of transformative and restorative justice with members of the Native community and their allies. 
    • Reading into the public record that the City Council perpetuated Indigenous erasure, knowingly approved policy that would desecrate sacred ceremonial grounds and facilitate the displacement of the only two sweat lodges within the city of Lincoln, which thereby perpetuated the legacy of cultural genocide against Indigenous Peoples.
We Ask
  • for structural change to occur across all city of Lincoln offices so this never happens again. This should include but not be limited to

    • The creation of an Native Advisory Committee for the City of Lincoln, chosen by the Lincoln Native American Community to include Elders, youth, and adults, which would be required by municipal code to be engaged with for any issues that impact the Native Community.
    • The appointment of members of the Native Advisory Committee to specific departments, such as the Planning Commission, and involved in such efforts as comprehensive planning for the city. 
  • For the Catholic Church to apologize for and acknowledge the harm they committed by excluding Native people from conversations about land use and sale. 
  • For the Catholic Church to reconsider the contract with the Manzitto and meaningfully engage with the Native Community to identify a better solution. 
  • For the developer, Manzitto, to withdraw from the sales contract. 
  • For Manzitto to invite the Niskithe Prayer Camp leaders to a meeting to discuss solutions to the issues caused by their proposed development. 
  • For all development companies in this community to commit to good-faith engagement with the Native Community when a development has the potential to disrupt the cultural, spiritual, mental, and physical wellbeing of Native Americans in Lincoln.
  • For the County Board of Commissioners to enact policy that protects and mandates special religious protections for Indigenous ceremonial sites. 
  • For changes to the City of Lincoln governing documents that mandate special religious protections for Indigenous ceremonial sites. 

We plan to prayerfully occupy this land until we have been meaningfully engaged by city officials, the Catholic Diocese, and Manzitto. We humbly make ourselves available to them and ask that they call us 402-370-5770, or email us at niskitheprayercamp@gmail.com to begin to engage with us in good faith.

We believe that our spiritual values, and guidance from Creator will help us stay focused in prayer as we occupy this land, and as we strive to protect our ceremonies and Mother Earth, who sustains us, for the generations to come.

We are here. We will remain. We are strong.

WibthahoN. Pilamayaye. Pilamaya yelo. Wado.




Our Statement in Response to the Mayor’s Decision | 5.5.22

On Wednesday, May 4, 2022, Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird issued a statement signaling she will sign the legislation to approve the Wilderness Crossing development. We are disappointed that the mayor decided to support this project rather than protect the spiritual and environmental integrity of this land.

In her statement, Mayor Gaylor Baird offered a land acknowledgment. While acknowledging the original stewards of this land is important, it is hollow and performative if it is not accompanied by action that empowers, honors, and respects Indigenous Peoples. By signing legislation that threatens the viability of two ceremonial sites, we do not feel honored or respected by the city and its leaders.

Furthermore, we disagree that the existing modifications to the design of Wilderness Crossing represent a responsiveness of the developer to Native people’s concerns. Responsiveness to our concerns would have meant we were actually brought to the table and engaged with over the 5-year lifespan of this development, which we were not. Responsiveness would have required asking the Native American community direct questions about accommodations to protect the sweat lodge, and that did not happen.

Responsiveness requires an invitation to speak and a commitment to listen. We did not receive that from the developers, or the city for that matter. But if we had, we would have asked them to incorporate into the development’s design a minimum 300-foot setback from the road or the removal of the easternmost row of houses, or barring those compromises, at the very least a park constructed directly across the street from the sweat lodge. The developers may yet decide to be responsive to our requests, and for that we pray and remain hopeful. However, in our eyes, their interactions with us thus far cannot be called responsive, nor considerate, nor respectful.

Though the mayor’s decision is deeply painful to so many of us, what heartens us and gives us hope, is the relationships we have begun building with her, her advisor T.J. McDowell Jr., and her staff. We have secured her commitment to ongoing dialogue and she has ensured us that she will work with us to put in place legal protections for sweat lodges and other sacred sites. In our ongoing dialogues, we will advocate that Kathleen Danker’s land, also known as the Fish Farm, be given protections and that the current land uses there, specifically the sweat lodge, be allowed to continue unimpeded. We will also advocate for a Native American city cabinet. We envision a cohort of Tribal peoples who will work together on issues impacting Native Peoples in the city, and place Native Americans at tables where vital planning conversations occur.

We understand that an advocacy group established by the City only has as much power as the City allows it to have. Our relatives on the City of Omaha’s Native American Advisory Council, for example, have relayed to us that their mayor has not granted them the access to city leadership they originally promised. So we will seek better models and mechanisms through which we can achieve true, meaningful representation across the city government here in Lincoln.

The changes we seek are transformative and systemic. We seek changes that will not revert back after this administration is gone, but will last for the next seven generations and beyond.

While we are disappointed the mayor did not veto the legislation impacting the area of the Fish Farm and the historic sweat lodge there, we have many avenues through which we will continue to seek protections for this site and our ceremonies. We will continue to stand up for our ways of life, for the land and waters, and for the many people whose lives have been transformed or saved by the ceremony, prayers, and power of the sweat lodge.

We are all related. Mitákuye Oyásʼiŋ.

Niskíthe Prayer Camp


Our Statements