I Can't Drive 55

A new book uncovers the real story of the aggrieved Indians, earth first!ers, idealists, frauds, anarchists, lost souls, and free spirits who fought against highway 55

But the activists found a sympathetic ear in Losure, who writes that she found herself drawn to the story "almost in spite of [her]self." What does she mean by that? "There were things about the protestors that could be off-putting," she says. "They were strident. They could be self-righteous." Over time, though, she was increasingly impressed by the sacrifices she saw people making, and she was able to look beyond their most obvious foibles. "As I covered it, I began thinking, here are people who are willing to devote their whole lives to trying to make the world better. You don't meet people like that often," she adds. "It got me thinking about idealism."

That's not to say her sympathies blinded her. In a handful of passages, Losure takes notice of her subjects' flaws, especially the tendency to strike poses. Near the end of the book, she depicts the scene as construction workers felled trees. "The crowd on the hill yelled 'Murderers!' but their voices sounded shrill," Losure writes. Next, she describes two activists as they "embraced dramatically for a television camera, their eyes cast tragically upward."


"Here are people who are willing to devote their whole lives to trying to make the world better": Highway 55 chronicler and radio reporter Mary Losure
Richard Fleischman
"Here are people who are willing to devote their whole lives to trying to make the world better": Highway 55 chronicler and radio reporter Mary Losure

Three years after the dismantling of the Free State, Losure also reveals facets of the story that were largely glossed over in the original reporting. In a longish but fascinating digression, she recounts the complicated genealogy and history of the Mendota Mdewakanton Dakota Community, the native group most closely linked to the fight against the highway.

Absent any formal recognition of tribal status from the federal government, most of the Mendotas had forgotten or rejected their Indian heritage. In the mid-Nineties, some 280 of the Mendotas banded together in an effort to enroll in the Shakopee Mdewakanton Dakota Community, where their rich cousins now operated Mystic Lake Casino. Rebuffed in that effort, the Mendotas set out to gain federal recognition for themselves. And while they started out chasing casino dollars--the Mendotas' charismatic leader, Bob Brown, frankly admits as much--Losure leaves little doubt that the quest to re-embrace their Indian identity became both passionate and genuine.

It was against this backdrop that Bob Brown learned of the highway project from local Earth First! organizer Bob Greenberg. After consulting with a Dakota elder from Prairie Island, Brown became convinced that the highway extension would despoil an area his ancestors regarded as sacred, including the historic Coldwater Spring and the four old oaks that lay at the center of the camp. The oaks, Brown and others believed, may have been planted as scaffolding trees, used for the Dakotas' above-ground death rites. The precise age of the trees was hotly disputed in the standoff--one of the myriad flashpoints in the tit-for-tat debate that raged between the Department of Transportation and the activists.

As it turned out, when the rings were counted, the trees were not old enough to have been used ceremonially. Losure reflects on the matter with characteristic sensitivity, writing, "Whether the religious beliefs of people in the mainstream would have stood up to the same scientific scrutiny was not an issue."

Of course, by the time the bulldozers finally felled the oaks and cleared the way for the highway, the shouting had been going on for a year and a half. By then it was easy to have lost sight of why it mattered what age the oaks were, let alone the more salient truth: that the Minnehaha Free State represented a seminal moment in the contemporary protest subculture, a fiery if sometimes goofy expression of discontent with...well, just about everything.

To most outsiders, the protest was an amorphous and baffling phenomenon. But it was also a phenomenon that would soon manifest itself again, and much more dramatically. As Losure points out, many Free State veterans moved on to Seattle, where they participated in the protest and melee at the World Trade Organization conference in 1999. Then, closer to home, many more showed up for the clashes at the International Society for Animal Genetics conference in downtown Minneapolis (so many, in fact, that ISAG came to be known as "Son of 55").

"This was like a little fable, a cautionary tale that illustrated policy issues in an interesting way," Losure says, then ventures, "I think the DoT is going to think a little harder about where it puts its highways."

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