Media Contact

Sam Petto, Communications Director

January 4, 2024

Erin Poor and Kevin Abourezk speak at a Niskíthe solidarity rally in September of 2022. Abourezk's shirt reads "The fight is not over. We are still here."

Land acknowledgment: The land at the center of this dispute is ancestral and unceded territory of the Oto-Missouria, Pawnee, Arikara, Kansa, and UmoNhoN (Omaha) Peoples, among others who have been caretakers of the land for generations, and comprises the present-day service area of the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska.

LINCOLN, Neb. - The City of Lincoln will train city staff, support efforts to conserve green space, adopt a proclamation committing to the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), and help update city code as part of a new settlement agreement that is ending a legal dispute over a development being built across from Native American ceremonial grounds. Advocates say they are proud of the agreement’s terms, but add that more work remains to be done to ensure that Native residents’ concerns are heard in future city planning decisions.

This morning, Kevin Abourezk, Renée Sans Souci, Erin Poor and Kathleen Danker filed a motion to dismiss their lawsuit against the City of Lincoln in exchange for a series of city commitments outlined in a settlement agreement. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Nebraska and attorney Ken Winston litigated this case. Big Fire Law and Policy Group also represented the Lincolnites in an earlier lawsuit.

The agreement follows a back-and-forth legal dispute related to the Wilderness Crossing Development and its potential impact on adjacent land.

In the spring of 2022, Native advocates and allies founded Niskíthe Prayer Camp to protest city officials approving land for a large development that threatened to displace religious ceremonies at a nearby historic sweat lodge. When community members tried to appeal the zoning decision, the City of Lincoln sued them in an attempt to deny them access to the process. A judge dismissed that lawsuit. City officials followed the dismissal by informing advocates that they would not hear their appeal. Abourezk, Sans Souci, Poor and Danker filed a lawsuit in March to request a court order that would require the Board of Zoning Appeals to hear their appeal. This settlement agreement ends that lawsuit.

The agreement outlines five commitments from city officials, including hosting mandatory trainings for city directors and relevant staff, supporting advocates in their efforts to conserve green space near the development if they gain the title to property that is expected to be up for purchase in the future, appointing Poor to the committee responsible for selecting a firm to conduct an environmental impact analysis, providing suggested revisions to a draft city code change that would provide accommodations for ceremonial fires and events, and adopting a proclamation that commits to honoring the land and its Indigenous peoples and UNDRIP.

Niskíthe organizers say accomplishments extend beyond the settlement. More than 26,000 people signed a petition supporting their cause. In response to community concerns, Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird sent a letter to organizers committing to creating a subcommittee of the Mayor’s Multicultural Advisory Committee to advise her office on issues impacting Native residents and saying her administration would be making an intentional effort to add Native residents to city boards and commissions. 

Journalists covering this settlement are welcome to use the following statements from the plaintiffs and their attorneys. 

“While we’ll continue to seek accommodations for our sacred inipi across the road from the Wilderness Crossing development, it’s time to close this chapter of our struggle. We want to express our sincere gratitude to all of our supporters, those who have walked beside us, testified in support of our inipi and spoke on our behalf. We couldn’t ask for any more from our tireless allies. We will continue to work to remind our neighbors here in Lincoln that their Indigenous relatives are here, will remain here and will never surrender their rights and their culture.” - Kevin Abourezk, Niskíthe Prayer Camp co-leader and journalist

“The Niskíthe Prayer Camp began this work after the decision to approve the Wilderness Crossing development in 2022. Our focus was about educating The City of Lincoln about the true history of the original inhabitants of this land. We continually raised awareness of our Native traditions and spiritual beliefs, which are protected under the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978. Even though we faced much disappointment in this entire process, going forward, the hope we have is that the City of Lincoln will be honorable in their commitments for the well-being of future residents, Native and non-Native alike. Thank you to the ACLU of Nebraska for their courage and commitment to representing the Niskíthe Prayer Camp in this legal battle to defend Native rights. I, for one, am truly honored to stand with my relatives and the ACLU.” - Renée Sans Souci, Niskíthe Prayer Camp co-leader and organizer, educator and cultural consultant

“We are extremely grateful to our legal team at the ACLU of Nebraska for their steadfast commitment to supporting Indigenous rights. Without their knowledge, experience, resources and commitment to this effort, the accomplishments gained in this settlement would not have been possible. We are fortunate to have such wonderful people doing this vital work in our community. I feel good about the commitments made during the settlement process, but my disappointment with the City runs deep. The City of Lincoln leadership in the Mayor, the City Attorney’s Office, and other boards and councils had so many opportunities to correct their own past mistakes and address historical inequities. Instead they chose to abdicate responsibility and repeat those same mistakes. What is clear from this process is that there is much work yet to do to truly make this city a welcoming and inclusive place to live for everyone, and it is our work, the People, who will do that.” - Erin Poor, Niskíthe Prayer Camp organizer, co-founder of the Intertribal Medicine Collective and clinical mental health counselor-in-training

“It has been an honor to partner with members of the Niskíthe Prayer Camp in their negotiations with the city of Lincoln concerning issues raised by its approval of the building of a massive housing project adjacent to the sweat lodge ceremonial site located at the Fish Farm. The site has been in existence since 1978 when the federal government granted tribal people the right to resume practicing their religious ceremonies after prohibiting them for nearly 100 years. I want to thank Renée, Erin and Kevin for all of their hard work and persistence in this effort. I also want to thank Ken Winston for his steadfast and invaluable help as my lawyer in negotiations with the City concerning this lawsuit and related legal issues. My gratitude also goes out to Rose Godinez, Sam Petto and others from the ACLU of Nebraska for their aid and support.” - Kathleen Danker, plaintiff and professor emerita at South Dakota State University

“We have been honored to represent our clients. In the face of significant adversity, they refused to be ignored and they never backed down. They are courageous and resilient as they advocate for the land and their right to continue cherished cultural ceremonies. As a result, this hard-earned agreement will mitigate some of the harm of the Wilderness Crossing development. Moving forward, we hope this experience will help ensure that officials actively seek  and listen to feedback from underrepresented groups, including the Indigenous community, during future city planning decisions.” - Rose Godinez, ACLU of Nebraska Legal Director

“It has been an honor to represent Ms. Danker because of her willingness to stand with Indigenous pe0ple and support both protection of sacred ceremonial spaces and protection of the earth, which sustains us all. While there have been frustrations that Indigenous rights and interests were not recognized at various stages in this process, we celebrate the progress that this agreement has created, including policy changes that call for inclusion of Indigenous voices in future planning processes. We hope this agreement will also lead to development of a green space or buffer area  honoring Indigenous people between the development and the sacred ceremonial areas.” - Ken Winston, attorney representing Kathleen Danker


Special note: The plaintiffs and attorneys on this case extend their heartfelt condolences to Big Fire Law and Policy Group and all those who knew and loved attorney Nikki Ducheneaux, who was co-counsel on earlier litigation in this legal dispute and tragically passed away in July. Her recent posthumous nomination for Annual Lifetime Achievement in Indian Law award is well-deserved.