Three white tipis standing on the Nebraska plains
After the Lincoln City Council and Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird initially approved the development, the Niskithe Prayer Camp set up tipis in protest of the Wilderness Crossing development. The tipis were up for the 16 days that proceeded the moment the ownership of the land changed hands. Photo courtesy of the Niskithe Prayer Camp.

Native Americans in Lincoln and their supporters are continuing their fight against the Wilderness Crossing development set to be built near Wilderness Park. 

The legal team for the Niskithe Prayer Camp, which formed to protest the city’s support for Wilderness Crossing, is deciding how to respond to the latest legal development and hopes to take action soon, said Rose Godinez, senior legal and policy counsel for ACLU Nebraska. 

Additionally, University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor Lory Dance created a petition to support the Niskithe Prayer Camp that has garnered more than 7,000 signatures. 

The prayer camp opposes the housing development because it will be built near land that is sacred to them and will keep them from practicing important cultural traditions.

Niskithe’s legal team is now focused on how to respond to a recent lawsuit filed by the city. After the city council and Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird approved the development in April and May, respectively, Niskithe’s attorneys filed a zoning appeal, saying  that the development would take away their native land. 

A hearing for the appeal was set for Oct. 7, but the city then filed suit in September to block it from being held, stating the Board of Zoning Appeals does not have the power to veto the development’s approval. 

“The Board of Zoning Appeals is an unelected board and does not have the jurisdiction to veto a decision made by the mayor or city council,” City Attorney Yohance L. Christie said in a statement to the Nebraska News Service. “The courtroom is the proper forum for this type of request. The city has moved their request to the proper forum where the parties can be heard.”

Godinez said the legal team will continue to pursue the appeal and look for other litigation strategies until their clients’ voices are heard. Big Fire Law & Policy Group of Omaha also is working alongside Godinez as co-counsel. 

“We have the position that our client filed an appeal, rightly so, before the correct forum, and deserves to be heard,” Godinez said. “This litigation really is just aiming to silence dissent, essentially.”

In the meantime, Renee Sans Souci, a co-leader of the camp and speaker who educates people about Native culture, plans to continue teaching about Native history in order to gain more community support.

Sans Souci said Native people have been fighting for their home ever since Christopher Columbus claimed he found new land, even though it was already occupied. She said throughout the country and state, tribal members are trying to maintain their languages, culture and spiritual beliefs, but that becomes more difficult as they lose their homelands.

In April, several Native American community members testified in public hearings against the development and told the city it would impact their First Amendment rights to exercise their religious beliefs at a nearby historic sweat lodge.

“We’re living like everybody else trying, you know, working and trying to pay our bills and trying to just live, and live with dignity,” Sans Souci said. “But, oftentimes when we’re having to battle for our dignity and just to be heard, that is so demeaning.”

In her approval of the development, Gaylor Baird offered a land acknowledgment — a formal statement recognizing indigenous people as the traditional stewards of the land. However, the camp’s news release said that land acknowledgment was hollow and performative if not accompanied by action that empowers, honors and respects indigenous people. 

The development, located near Wilderness Park at U.S. Highway 77 and Pioneers Boulevard, is set to have 162 houses, 134 townhouses and 205 apartments. Sans Souci said the developer will destroy a beautiful area and flatten gorgeous hills.

“They would say it’s construction, but I’m saying destruction,” she said. 

The land nearby is called the Fish Farm, the homeland of the Otoe-Missouria people. Sans Souci, who is of the Omaha tribe, said the land contains a portion of Salt Creek, which is where the Omaha people would go to get their salt. 

“This land has been historically native land,” she said. “Most of the land that’s here in Nebraska was, you know, either the tribes were forcibly removed down to Oklahoma in order to open it up for homesteading, or the land was forcibly ceded and then removed.”

The Fish Farm has had a sacred sweat lodge since the late 1970s. Sans Souci said many Native people in Lincoln have gone to the lodge throughout the years for healing and to get sober.

“We don’t have the kind of support systems that, say, like a church has, or other denominations,” she said. “We’re not given the same level of respect or support. We’re essentially seen as non-entities, which is not the case because, like I said, we’ve been here for thousands of years.”

The land holds cultural and religious significance to the Niskithe group. If the development were to move forward, Godinez said they would lose access to those sacred grounds. 

“I think they would even lose a sense of community in the city of Lincoln when they’re being denied the right to assert their religious beliefs and the right to the appellate process and the right to be able to assert their voice and power in decisions about developments,” she said. 

According to Godinez, the development does not abide by the city’s comprehensive plan, which includes a statement that officials should consult with community members, particularly those who will be impacted, before moving forward with a development. It also states that the city should look into the potential environmental concerns regarding a development. Godinez said neither of those things have taken place.

City Council member Jane Raybould, who cast the only opposing vote, said that although she is pro-development, she believes the plans do not offer enough protection for wildlife and the natural habitat, according to KFOR.

Godinez said the applications for the development project have already been filed, and there is nothing stopping the developer, Manzitto, the development company, to begin work on the Wilderness Crossing development. 

A spokesman for Manzitto said the company had no comment. 

Despite the challenges stacked against the prayer camp, Sans Souci said members will not back down because it is their home and culture they are fighting for.

“We’ve got 500 plus years of battling. You think we’re just gonna disappear? No,” she said. “You might wish that, but no. This is our home.”