The field. The fire. The fight.
Terry looks weary. "Stayed up most of the night. Working security again," he offers by way of explanation. He stretches his long legs and takes another swig of his late-morning coffee. To his allies here at the Four Oaks Spiritual Encampment, Terry--a 42-year-old North Dakota native, part Ojibwe, part Dakota--is known as Ten Bears. It's the handle he uses over the walkie-talkie when he keeps watch over the camp, looking for signs of police or interlopers or any other sort of trouble. Despite the general preference for so-called forest names here, Terry seems to be content to be called just Terry.
We are sitting in a pair of office chairs just outside the communal kitchen, a partially covered, open-air octagon cobbled together from scrap plywood and pallets. There is a fire smoldering in the cooking pit, which is ringed by prep tables, cabinets stuffed with dry goods, and a stack of plastic coolers marked "vegan only!". Unwashed dishes have been collected into a heap, awaiting the attention of a volunteer. The walls of the kitchen are inscribed with slogans: "If you don't stand for something, you'll fall for anything," "Earth First! Was Here," "Parks Not Pork." An information table sits nearby, covered with stacks of photocopied literature explaining the camp's crusade: to halt the rerouting of Hiawatha Avenue in south Minneapolis and put a stop to the massive new four-lane highway that is slated to run smack through the center of camp, through the middle of the stand of four old bur oaks that gave this camp its name.
It's been slow around camp for the last few days. No demonstrations. No arrests. I had first come here in mid-July expecting some measure of bacchanalian excess--the "no drugs or alcohol" sign posted at the camp's entrance notwithstanding. A good share of the campers who stay here regularly--as few as ten at times, up to thirty other nights--are young rebel types, with wild hair and shredded clothes and enough ox rings and studs to implode an airport metal detector. Surely, I thought, the recipe for a party. And yet, in the course of my visits to Four Oaks, I found camp life quite serene, very nearly dull after eight months running.
On this hot late-August day, a dozen or so people are milling around, not doing much in particular. As a small group of ragtag kids--late teens, early 20s--dig into a late brunch, Terry settles into his seat to while away the time. All of a sudden one of the kitchen loiterers, a guy--maybe 20, with a streak of magenta ina his hair, a nose ring, and a rakish smile--scrambles atop the old yellow school bus parked at the center of camp. His face is covered with a veil, revolutionary style. He begins to gyrate wildly, and bellow out some inchoate credo, which he punctuates with a fist in the air, a power-to-the-people salute. He's wearing a pair of Depends Adult Undergarments. (As it turns out, he later explains, adult diapers are one of the more useful weapons in the arsenal of these activists, kept on hand here in the event that someone needs to quickly "lock down" to a tree or a bulldozer.) As he wraps up his routine, takes a bow and hops off the roof, the audience guffaws at the high jinks appreciatively, then returns to the business of the day, which, apparently, consists of some more hanging out.
"You know," Terry says, looking on with an expression of amusement, "I think these Earth First! kids have great values. I tease 'em about being vegan and everything, but I respect them. They're easy to love. I'm glad they're here." In earlier conversations, Terry had spoken with conviction about the significance of this once obscure spit of forest and field, situated on the western bluff of the Mississippi River, a stone's throw to the south of Minnehaha Park and a hundred yards or so east of the existing Hiawatha Avenue corridor. His ruminations on the topic had invariably led back to carefully constructed arguments laying out the reasons the state's Department of Transportation ought to scuttle its plans to pave over the camp land--arguments that revolved around claims by the Mendota Mdewakanton Dakota Community (a tribe not formally recognized by the federal government) that this is a sacred site, a place of mystical importance.
For many of those who stay here, the decision to come to Four Oaks represents a first foray into direct-action politics. "I'd never done anything like this," Terry says, echoing an oft-heard refrain around the grounds. Because I've found Terry an easy guy to talk to, less dogmatic and circumspect than many of the other campers, I press him to tell me about his life before he became Ten Bears, before he gave up his apartment in Mankato and his job as welder, and, in his words, "put everything else on hold" to live here. Besides, I was curious less about the political motivations of the campers--a topic examined at length in the course of the noisy yearlong campaign against the road--than the peculiarities of the camp itself, the life that people had carved for themselves on this spot.
Terry is blunt on the subject of his comrades. More than a few, he explains, are drawn here for practical reasons. "This is an absolute squatters' paradise," he tells me. "You go Uptown, you see kids sitting on the street. They don't know where their next meal is coming from, where they're gonna sleep. Nothing. They come here and they've got a stable environment. They know that they're not gonna get messed with, and all we ask is that they put forth a little honest effort."
He takes a drag on a smoke, and, in a smooth, slightly musical baritone, relates the details of his own coming to the cause, which he traces all the way back to a troubled childhood and his subsequent discovery of Dakota spirituality. He speaks carefully, occasionally nudging his wire-frame glasses or fiddling with his long, braided ponytail, which peeks out from under his baseball cap. When he was seven years old, Terry says, his mother moved from the Spirit Lake Indian Reservation in North Dakota to California. She didn't have much money, so she left him in the care of his grandfather. "There wasn't much of a home life. Then, after grandma died, granddad was grieving and abusing alcohol quite heavily. Social services came and took us off to the boarding school."
Terry was among the final generation of Indian kids to receive demerits for using their native, non-English language at the school. He appreciated the regular meals there, but the protocols at the school and the separation from family took their toll: "It made me a hell of an angry person when I grew up. I tried drowning it in drugs and alcohol, but I didn't succeed." As a young man, Terry bounced around from state to state--North Dakota to Utah to Colorado. In the rez town of Poplar, Montana, "I lost lots of buddies. They got stabbed at bars and shot at parties," Terry recalls, adding that he got in all sorts of trouble in those years. I ask him what kind. He pauses, then says, "the worst kind," and leaves it at that.
He rises and strides across camp to a wooded recess around the camp sweat lodge. It is a low oval structure, about ten feet in diameter, framed with willow poles and covered with thick layers of canvas and woolen blankets. "We got 26 people in here one time," Terry says as he steps over a desiccated buffalo skull and peels open the entrance flap. "Ever been in a sauna? Well, a sweat lodge probably gets twice as hot." When he was in his mid-20s, Terry took part in his first sweat, out in Frazier, Montana. "I wanted to work on some dreams," he says. "It probably saved my life."
Terry first learned about the reroute fight last September, when he attended a powwow held by the Mendota Mdewakanton. Over the course of the fall and winter, he got more involved in the protest movement, figuring, "I'm a Dakota and this is a Dakota cause." In February he quit his job building pontoons and moved up to Four Oaks, where he spent the remainder of the winter, spring, and this summer, working the graveyard security shift; already, with the first frost not far off, he and the other residents are beginning to ready themselves for another winter of discontent at camp.
Clad in his nose ring and favorite nipple-ring-revealing T-shirt, emblazoned with the legend "Smut," Anton--a 24-year-old itinerant carpenter and bricklayer--looks pretty hard-core. His manner, though, is disarmingly mild and unfailingly polite. As he wolfs down a Philly steak sandwich at the Bridgeman's restaurant on Hiawatha and 46th Street, Anton can see the future through the restaurant's windows. A fleet of idle bulldozers and enormous piles of earth, the product of the DoT's first month of work on its $80 million highway project, sit on the other side of the avenue. "They're gonna put the road through," Anton says with a shrug. "I've known that for a while."
Like many of his fellow campers, Anton isn't in the habit of using his full name--though not, he explains, due to any fear of the authorities. He says he got in a scrap with some skinheads at a local tavern not long ago, and would just as soon not give his assailants any clues as to his current whereabouts. Anton is a veteran of Camp Two Pines. He came to Four Oaks a few weeks back, after spending the better part of the spring and summer in North Carolina working on a framing crew. He says he had a nasty falling-out with an acquaintance there, a dispute that ended with the other man taking potshots at him with a gun. So he piled into his $400 Toyota pickup truck, and hightailed it back to Minnesota.
"I got here and I had ten dollars in my pocket and an empty tank of gas," he laughs. Anton is accustomed to the road. When he was 13, he says, he left home, owing to friction with his biker father and stepmother, and spent years bouncing around the country, traveling mostly for the sake of traveling, to satisfy his wanderlust. In the past he has camped in and around the woods at Minnehaha Park, and spent his days climbing on the sandstone rock formations and hacking around in the river gorge. He considers the planned rerouting of Hiawatha Avenue an insult to the park he knows by heart. But his original foray into the movement, he says, was born more of convenience than ideology: "The free food drew me in. But all along, I've done something in return. Otherwise it would be kind of rude, don't you think?"
Lunch done, we stroll back to Four Oaks, where a lithe 19-year-old woman named Megan rushes up to Anton and catches him in a hug. A high school dropout and environmental die-hard from Minnetonka, Megan has been part of the protest since last summer, when the anti-reroute campaign began making headlines. In late August a contingent of protesters set up the first camp--known as Camp Two Pines. They occupied a block of homes just north of Four Oaks, houses that the DoT had purchased and condemned, and ultimately razed to make way for the new highway.
On the face of it, Camp Two Pines and its successor (both of which are also referred to, particularly by Earth Firsters, as the Minnehaha Free State) were and are unprecedented. In the U.S., direct-action campaigns against new roads are rare to begin with; what few have occurred have generally been short-lived rural uprisings, anchored in environmentalist opposition to logging. This anti-55 camp has been tacked together square in the middle of the city, and serves as ground zero for a unusual coalition of activists, one that includes members of Earth First!, the American Indian Movement (AIM), the Mendotas, and an array of nonaffiliated dissidents. By all accounts it has become the longest-running urban occupation in Minnesota history.
It's no secret that the campers take some pride in the fact that the occupation has lasted for more than a year, and that along the way it has attracted such a diverse group of adherents. One of the encampment's most respected leaders, Marshall Lough--a 29-year-old veteran activist who cut his teeth on the Indian treaty rights struggles in northern Wisconsin a decade ago--offers a typical opinion: "I haven't seen any sort of resistance movement in this country that's this multifaceted. We're stuck in a time of single-issue politics, identity politics. But this is the linking of different struggles," he says. "I'm gonna say this honestly, not for PR spin: I've been involved in a lot of different projects, and, you know, I've experienced less turbulence here than in any other campaign."
In part, Marshall says, the cohesion in the group is a direct result of the law-enforcement tactics they have faced. Last December the squatters were evicted from Camp Two Pines du ring the largest police raid in Minnesota history. More than 600 officers stormed the occupied houses in a predawn raid, arresting 38 protesters, some of whom were locked-down in basements. The action produced complaints about police brutality, particularly in connection with the use of pepper spray and tear gas.
Megan was arrested during the raid and ended up being one of just three activists who were ultimately convicted of trespassing. She says she offered a guilty plea to put the matter behind her. (Although the anti-reroute crowd has been unsuccessful in a host of civil suits brought to halt the project, protesters point with pride to their ample success in criminal courts; most recently, a Hennepin County District Court judge dismissed charges against two protesters, saying that the failure of police to provide medical relief after pepper-spraying them constituted "outrageous conduct.")
People here are united by, among other things, their high disdain for the state authority and its many agencies; the raid only confirmed their suspicions. After another wave of very public protests this past July, when protesters got themselves arrested by marching onto Highway 55 and stopping traffic, the talk was of "war zones" and "cultural genocide" and "ethnic cleansing"--even the occasional "it's a good day to die" utterance.
But there are other pressing reasons this group has managed to hold tight, here on the edge of the city, on the margins. In conversations with various campers I was often told that taking up residence in camp signaled a sort of monumental personal moment, a point of no return in their freewheeling lives--that relocating to this patch of contested ground meant staking their fates, finally, to this collective last stand.
That stand, Megan allows and Anton seconds, will likely see a bittersweet finale come spring, when the DoT will get started on the stretch of construction that will cleave the camp.
It's a late afternoon and camp has been dead in the heat, but now people are starting to drift back in. A man by the name of Antonio arrives from his day job at a go-cart track in Shakopee. A friend from camp had helped find him the work, Antonio explains--just in time, as he was flat broke. I'd spoken with Antonio on a few occasions. Unlike most of the young people at camp, Antonio doesn't don the garb of the nonconformist. In fact each time I ran into him, he was dressed in black running pants, tennis shoes, baseball cap, and no shirt. At 25, Antonio can still pass for a teenager. He has a short, compact body, and a bit of a tough-guy swagger.
Earlier, he told me he liked to fish, so, armed with two dozen worms, we decide to make the trek from camp to his preferred fishing hole. We follow the winding trails to the confluence of Minnehaha Creek and the Mississippi, down the sandstone bluffs and out onto a jut of beach. Antonio says that he comes down here often, sometimes to fish, sometimes just to hang out. Because of the camp prohibition against alcohol and drugs, it's the most convenient place to drink a six-pack in peace.
But today Antonio is less interested in partying than seeing what he might be able to pull from the waters. He has been visiting the spot off and on since he arrived at camp in early August--which, as it happened, was the very day that some of the Earth First! contingent made news by locking-down at the state capitol. "When I got here, the camp was empty and so I asked Bear"--the de facto head of security, a 60-year-old AIM street-patrol veteran--"where everybody was and he says, 'over at the capitol,'" Antonio recalls. "I went right over there. I was wearing a silk shirt and polyester pants and then I see all these people. They looked like they'd been livin' in nature."
Antonio is puzzled by the hygienic practices of some of his fellow campers, and, on more than one occasion, has wondered aloud whether they were "chicken shit" to take a shower. The complaint is a common one, particularly among older folks in the movement. I ask him whether he was arrested at the capitol that day, whether he'd taken part in the action. "Hell, no," he responds with a note of braggadocio. "Those sonuvabitches couldn't catch me if they tried."
With that, we set about fishing. At the first strike, Antonio appears calm. "I got one, I got one," he whispers, and he cranks away on the little $19.95 Zebco special, donated to the camp by a well-wisher. (Fishing rods are hardly the only communal property at camp; there are shared bikes and food and tools as well.) Antonio lands the fish and studies it with a baffled expression: "I think it's a sucker." The fish flops around on the sand. Antonio pins it down with his foot and extracts the hook and the worm, then tosses it back into the current. "Sometimes, at camp, people will say, 'How'd you like it if someone put a hook in your mouth?' Well, I just tell 'em I like to fish," he adds.
As afternoon fades into dusk, Antonio snags a few more--red horse suckers and carp mostly, and between bites sketches out a thumbnail autobiography: He has been traveling around the country since he was 11, getting by however he could--working as a carnie, a door-to-door magazine salesman, a general laborer. He says his dad now lives in a 23-room mansion in San Diego, that he made a fortune selling drugs. His old man even smuggles across the Great Lakes via low-flying planes that drop their illicit cargo onto waiting boats, Antonio says disapprovingly. It would be one thing if it were just pot, but he shouldn't be getting kids hooked on harder stuff. It could ruin their lives.
And then Antonio says that he himself is part Indian, though he hastens to add that his heritage has little to do with his gusto for the movement. "I believe in equal rights for everyone. And I never believed in too many Indian ways," he remarks. "But I still believe what is sacred is sacred. So I came here to help out. I'm a little person, but I can make a difference, too."
At the end of the night's fishing, Antonio asks for a lift up to the nearby Holiday gas station. The Holiday serves as Four Oaks' unofficial commissary, as well as one of its bathroom facilities. Antonio is on a different sort of errand. Earlier in the day he'd dropped off a coffee tin there, seeking donations for the camp. When we get to the Holiday, he stands by the register and chats up the attendant. As customers make their way through the line, Antonio--still shirtless, despite the chill in the air--offers his pitch. "We're trying to save the park," he tells a harried middle-aged businessman. "I know you wanna help out." The man rolls his eyes, stuffs his change in his wallet. "Not tonight." Antonio works a few more customers, collects the kitty, and we head back to the parking lot, where he bumps into another longtime camper, a woman who goes by the name Tarzana. She wears a penciled-on mustache, very Wayne Newton. The two exchange pleasantries, discuss the possibility of meeting up to party later, and then we hop into the car. On the way back to camp, Antonio counts the haul from the tin. Pretty meager--six bucks and change.
A sizable contingent of regulars has departed for a five-day sun dance in Pipestone. A few kids are huddled around the kitchen fire. Megan sits outside the kitchen, talking with Swanee, a bearded, snowy-haired social worker who doesn't stay at camp but is responsible for the construction of its most notable landmark: the Star Lodge, the official camp hotel. A minor masterpiece of folk architecture, the Star Lodge was constructed last winter. It is made chiefly of pallets and tarps, stands three stories high, is heated by a wood-burning stove, and sleeps 18. In profile, the Star Lodge very nearly resembles the Pro Football Hall of Fame, perhaps as drawn by Dr. Seuss. Despite its admirable appearance, the structure has lately succumbed to mildew; some campers are adamant in their refusal to set foot in the place. Anton, the vagabond carpenter, says he spent a single night there and found it "unbelievably nasty."
When Antonio carries in the coffee tin, Swanee stops him. "What's that?" he asks. Antonio explains how it occurred to him that donations from the Holiday might help defray camp expenses. Swanee smiles sweetly, but instructs Antonio to be certain that he is accompanied by a fellow camper whenever he retrieves the money. "You don't want to have any questions about money. You've got to protect yourself," he instructs.
It's a little after 11:00, with a yellow moon hanging over the river bluff, when a white Chevy Blazer appears in the driveway at the far end of camp. Its headlights shine across the fields. "It's them again," Antonio cautions. "They were here before, four-wheeling." Days earlier the vehicle had been spotted cruising over the lumpy, wood-chipped field marked by a hand-painted sign that reads "Prairie restoration area. Keep off." Antonio is up in a flash, set to repel the intruders. His friend James--a middle-aged Indian man from south Minneapolis--hustles over to his pickup truck and flicks on his headlights. The Blazer retreats, and for a few minutes camp is calm.
Then the truck reappears. James jumps back in his vehicle, slams down the accelerator. The tires squeal and a chase is on. Antonio dashes over the hill, looking for rocks. The two trucks disappear down a long dirt drive. Megan shakes her head. "What are they going to do if they catch them, anyway?" she asks, of no one in particular.
After a spell James returns to camp. He says he caught up to the intruders and boxed them in, but there were cops around. So he didn't do anything but glower. Antonio, meanwhile, thinks they might come back to play again. He gathers up a few pieces of scrap lumber and a handful of nails and commences the construction of a MacGyver-like trap, pounding the nails through the wood. "I hope they come back--see how they like four flat tires," he says as he heads off, sticks in hand, ready to lay the trap.
Megan looks on. She sighs. "Testosterone." Antonio returns to the kitchen, and squats to fix a pan of fried potatoes. The grease catches fire. He gets it under control, eats the burnt mess, and trots off to the old school bus to sleep. Terry stays up, keeping watch. James dozes off in his truck. Megan retires to her pup tent in the woods. The white Blazer never comes back. The threat is gone, and there is quiet at camp, for now.
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