Housing and Community Indigenous Issues Niskíthe Prayer Camp

A Visit to Niskíthe Prayer Camp

On Saturday May 7, a few friends and I and about 150 other people accepted the invitation from the Niskíthe Prayer Camp to join them for a Round Dance at 5:00 pm. When we arrived, we were greeted by the breathtaking sight of 7 tipis set up on a ridge of land where Manzitto Construction, the Lincoln Catholic Diocese, the Lincoln City Council, the Lincoln Planning Commission, and Mayor Leirion Gaylor-Baird want to build a massive development with 575 housing units, retail, and other assorted nonsense. Leaving out the fact that there is absolutely no infrastructure in that area to support such a monstrosity, we’re going to talk about why this cannot happen. If you want to know how to help, jump to the bottom. But one important thing you can do is educate yourself about the history of the camp and our Native neighbors’ experiences there, and that can start with reading through this post.

First, let’s talk about Saturday. On arrival, I saw a table with the Code of Conduct listed so you do not have to guess about how you should conduct yourself at camp. The “rules” are logical and easy – respect the land, do not litter, do not take pictures of sacred objects (they let you know what the sacred objects are so you do not have to guess), do not photograph or touch any people or objects without consent, listen when elders are speaking, and (the only difficult one for me) – no cussing. Don’t worry, if you slip (as I of course did), Renee Sans Souci let us know you can look to the sky and ask forgiveness from Creator.

At the entrance to the camp, you will be welcomed and cleansed with a sage smudge. Now if you’re like me, you haven’t left the house much in two years and socializing is a new and awkward thing. No worries. Everyone at the camp is so gracious and kind (and hilarious – Renee, I’m looking at you) and we are all in this together. After a prayer by Sue Bad Moccasin we were served a meal of our choice of Three Sisters Soup or Bison Stew, with the elders being served first, then everyone else getting in line to serve themselves. I was not expecting this but of course I should have. Pro tip: bring an offering if you can.

After our meal, Renee Sans Souci spoke about the decision to take peaceful direct action to bring attention to the city’s and church’s attempt to once again erase Native traditions and history. Renee is a powerful and well-respected activist who has worked to stop Line 3 and with Honor the Earth and Minnesota Interfaith Power and Light. Renee said, “… what is happening is that there has been a failure to protect our spirituality and a failure to understand. Our non-Native relatives in the government system as well as all of these other people that are part of the business system — they have no idea what they have done or how serious that is. Our freedom of religion is in danger. We have already faced that with our ways being outlawed from the 1890s until 1978. We couldn’t practice any of our spiritual ceremonies. This prayer camp has been established to demonstrate what we believe and how we practice.”

Singers at the Niskíthe Prayer Camp. Photo by Erin Poor

And that’s just it. Even liberals are saying this housing is needed, but those folks are completely ignoring the importance of these grounds to the Native peoples, once again trying to erase and remove the Indigenous people and their traditions and sacred spaces. I spoke briefly with Kevin Abrouzek and he told me that even the leader of the First Plymouth Church, which is supposedly a “progressive church” told Kevin that he did not believe a sweat lodge was a sacred space. What an absurd and shocking statement from a religious person, and a supposed ally! I mean, I am an atheist and I understand that a sweat lodge is a sacred space. Imagine if anyone questioned whether a Christian church was a sacred space. Imagine if the government outlawed Christian prayer (which would obviously never happen because our government is so close to being a Christofascist entity the two are almost indistinguishable). Can you imagine the uproar? Yet that is exactly what happened to the First Peoples – their land was stolen, their religious ceremonies were outlawed, their babies were stolen, their people were murdered — and this is all still happening to this day! Zachary Bear Heels was murdered by the Omaha Police Department in 2017, and the cops who murdered him all still have their jobs.

The Niskíthe Prayer Camp has invited the Mayor and others to sit in their healing circle and learn about their traditions and why this specific area is so important to them, but it has all fallen of deaf ears. They simply do not care about the spirituality and traditions of Native people. Our supposedly progressive Mayor went full white lady lib and had the absolute gall to make a land acknowledgment before signing into being the project that would destroy the sanctity of the only two sweat lodges in Lincoln. Anyone who says this development will bring affordable housing to the area has not done their homework. All the other mixed use buildings that have gone up in the last few years are still sitting half empty because nobody can afford to live in them. But honestly that is not even the point. Let’s talk about Leonard Crow Dog and the Oyate Lodge.

Leonard Crow Dog, who passed away on June 6, 2021, was a revered spiritual leader and fierce activist for Native autonomy. He took part in The Trail of Broken Treaties in 1972, which included the occupation of Bureau of Indian Affairs headquarters in Washington. He was part of and arrested after the 71-day occupation at Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation in 1973. And he was instrumental in getting the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978 passed. “The American Indian Religious Freedom Act (AIRFA) became law on August 11, 1978 to “protect and preserve for American Indians their inherent right of freedom to believe, express, and exercise the traditional religions of the American Indian, Eskimo, Aleut, and Native Hawaiians, including but not limited to access to sites, use and possession of sacred objects, and the freedom to worship through ceremonials and traditional rites.”” (citation here). After that law was passed, Leonard Crow Dog established the Oyate Lodge – the very lodge this development will be encroaching on. It is believed this lodge – the lodge being threatened by this development – was the very first lodge built after the passing of that law. Might as well build a Sam’s Club in the square outside the Sistine Chapel.

So – this is not about affordable housing. This is about continuing to erase and tear down Native peoples and their traditions.

After Renee Sans Souci spoke, Kevin Abourezk spoke about moving to Nebraska in 1999 and being unsure if he would be able to hold on to his Indigenous identity and practices, but when he was invited into the sweat lodge by Myron Long Soldier (who also passed away last year) and the steam hit his face, he knew he would had found another home. “It is more than just a sweat lodge. That place has memories. Every one of us who has sweat in there with Myron, who sweat in there with Leo Yankton, who sweat in there with Betty and Ken Bordeaux. It’s more than just a hut where we pray. Every time we walk into that space, we are with those people again. Every time we sit down around that pit there with the rocks in the middle we are sitting beside those people again and they are with us once again and we get to remember them and we get to hold onto them and that warmth when it hits us it feels like a warm hug from that person.”

Rebekka Schlichting leads a round dance, also known as the friendship dance. Photo by Erin Poor

The area where the lodge is built is also a place of convergence where indigenous peoples from all over would meet to collect salt from Salt Creek and take it home to cure their buffalo meat. This development could easily be built elsewhere. Our Native neighbors cannot move their history and their memories.

Kevin also talked about decolonizing your mind – “I would encourage and motivate each of you to find some way in your own life to decolonize. Find some way in your own life to find that same kind of freedom, because it’s everything. If we don’t have that in this life, if everything we are doing is about trying to make some rich person richer, why are we here? What are we doing? What kind of life is that?”

I encourage you to listen to the speeches from Saturday in full – you can do that here.

After the speeches, Rebecca Schlichting accompanied by Nicholas Baxter on drum led a round dance, also known as the friendship dance. We were unsure if we were supposed to join in, so many of us visitors did not, but after the dance Rebecca let us know it is the friendship dance and we are welcome to join, so heads up for your next visit – join the round dance when invited!

So, what can we do to help? First – educate yourself. Know why this is so important. Visit the camp and listen to what Kevin, Renee, and others are saying. Order Leonard Crow Dog’s book and read it (I ordered mine today). Visit the prayer camp with an open mind and open heart. Contact the Lincoln Planning Commission, Manzitto Construction, the Lincoln Catholic Diocese, the Lincoln City Council, and the Mayor and let them know not only that you are opposed, but WHY you are opposed to this development.

You can also donate to support this fight at Cashapp: Niskithe Prayer Camp, Venmo: @NiskithePrayerCamp, or Paypal: Niskithe Prayer Camp.

As Kevin said, “We are ready to stand up and fight this fight. But we need help. We need your help, and I hope that you’ll stand up beside us. Because there’s a lot of work to do and there are only a few of us to do it. But I know with all of your help … great change happens when just a small group of people like this decides to stand up and take action.”