Statement to the Court: Closing Arguments
by Betsy Barnum, February 2000

I sat under the four sacred oaks on Dec. 11 and refused to leave when ordered as an act of civil disobedience to challenge the authority of the state. I chose to disobey this order which I saw as being illegitimate and as permitting a grave injustice to take place. That grave injustice was the destruction of a grove of sacred oak trees—sacred both to the Mendota Mdewankanton Dakota people and sacred in and of themselves. Destroying these trees to build a highway is nothing short of desecration, a crime against the Dakota, against the spirits of the trees, against the land itself, and against the people of Minneapolis now and in future generations. This crime is so grievous that my defying of state authority pales in comparison.

There are many reasons why the Highway 55 reroute through Minnehaha Park should never be built, each one a crime. The Mendota Dakota people have treaty rights to use this area as their ancestors had always used it. They view that land as sacred, the center of creation, and the four oaks as a place of worship--in western terms, a church. Such a place should be inviolable. This alone is reason enough for people to stand between the trees and the chainsaws. But there’s more.

Horace Cleveland, one of the early planners of Minneapolis’ park system, aid of this area in 1888; "If we fail to secure these natural features and suffer them to be destroyed, no power on earth can restore them and instead of being the chief feature of attractive interest, they will simply become a scene of hideous desolation." We know that rerouting this highway will not only rob local residents of beautiful natural features and turn the area into a scene of hideous desolation, but will increase the number of vehicles and encourage sprawl. Minneapolis’ urban sprawl is already among the worst in the country, and air pollution from automobiles is beyond the limits set by the Environmental Protection Agency. To contribute to sprawl and air pollution while destroying parkland is surely a crime.

But perhaps the greatest crime is the assault on nature and on creatures that cannot escape or defend themselves. When trees are viewed not as living beings with an inherent right to exist, but as things that are in the way of the great projects envisioned by highway engineers, there has been a failure to see truly, a failure of compassion and a failure of values. The result is serious damage to the trees, to the spirit of the land and to people—those who love the trees, and those who carry out the heartless acts of destruction. These trees were older than anyone living today. They were quite possibly planted by Dakota people. They were bur oaks, one of the most noble of trees, adapted to withstand severe drought and prairie fire, host to a wide variety of species and wildlife. The four sacred oaks, destroyed so we can have more square yards of pavement, were among the last remnants of the once-widespread oak savanna.

Non-human beings do not have legal standing in any court in America. This is surely a travesty of justice. As long as the U.S. economy, government agencies and the legal system continue to deny that any beings other than humans have a right to live, there will be people standing up like me to speak for them and to resist, even to the point of law-breaking, the greater crime of failure to recognize the beauty, liveliness and inherent value of the natural world—a failure of love, which is a sad and dangerous crime.

I shall carry the spirit of those four trees with me forever.

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