Of Dogs and Men: race, symbolism, and an ill-fated dog park in South Minneapolis

When I first saw the fliers around my neighborhood for a proposed dog park in my local park, I immediately and unquestioningly signed up as a supporter.  I had just recently adopted a rescue dog and had been feeling guilty about the extra driving I was doing to take him to dog parks.

dogs and people at a dog park

Lake of the Isles dog park, Minneapolis. Photo by Tanya at petswelcome

I have long been a heavy user of this local park, which had been named for the slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. I walk with my two children to the playground and the pool multiple times a week in the summer and visit less frequently in the winter for sledding. My family has barbecues there and we attend events such as the annual park festival.  Certain parts of the park are busy during the summer, but is fairly large and has plenty of underused space.  The proposed dog park was to occupy a small fenced area along the freeway, behind some tennis domes. Perfect, I thought.  Better yet, there seemed to be a lot of local support for the proposal, including by city officials who seemed happy to have their faces attached to it.

Freedom Form No 2 Statue

Freedom Form No 2 sculpture at MLK park by Daniel Johnson. Photo credit Sheila Regan and Southwest Minneapolis Patch

I heard the first rumblings of trouble on my way to a public information meeting advertised by the Park Board at the park last summer. My kids were coming with me to play at the park during the meeting and some of their African American friends from the neighborhood joined us, all taking turns riding in and pulling a wagon along the way. “My grandma says that they are taking out the playground equipment and giving the whole park to dogs instead”, said one young boy. I was surprised, but thought the public information meeting would help clear up any misinformation that might be floating around.

But instead of gaining information when I walked into the meeting, I was given a red sticker and asked to use it to place a vote on a board – for or against a dog park. City officials were suddenly either nowhere to be found, or were acting curt and trying not make waves. There was no information presented other than some drawings on poster boards. I was able to gather from the whisperings in the room that some African American elders had begun to voice opposition to the dog park, a position which had taken supporters and city officials by surprise.

From that point on, I saw my neighborhood go through a public struggle over race and symbolism like I’ve not personally seen before in my part of Minneapolis, a city that like many in the US prefers to not discuss race and to think of racial conflict as a relic of the past. The media portrayed the issue as “White vs. African American” and the story was covered widely. Public meetings were punctuated with shouting and tears, and public officials would not take a stand either way – instead advocating for more and more moderated discussions. Sub committees and task forces on race and healing were formed faster than I could keep up with, yet publicly the drama continued to escalate.

On one side was mostly elder members of the African American community, some of whom did not live in the neighborhood but still held strong ties to the park. They argued that a dog park would disrespect the memory of Martin Luther King Jr, particularly since dogs were used as weapons against civil rights activists in the 1960s. They also spoke of historical discrimination in

Sculpture of Dog Attack, Kelly-Ingram Park

Sculpture at Kelly-Ingram park (Birmingham) of a Civil Rights Dog Attack. Photo by Chris Denbow

Minneapolis and of inequities still not addressed.  MLK park is clearly an important destination and symbol for many African Americans in Minneapolis, a remembered place of refuge in a segregated city, and naming the park after Martin Luther King Jr. had been an important victory back in the 1960s. Furthermore, they lamented the fact that the city had allowed the park and a memorial sculpture contained within it to fall into disrepair.

On the other side were the dog owners (mostly White) who said that they are already walking their dogs through the park anyway and that they only want a very small fenced in area to do it in instead. They argued that it would be a great community building place and a positive addition to an unused area of the park.  Other nearby parks had been ruled out as potential dog park locations in the past, and MLK park was centrally located and in a more demographically diverse part of the city. Most of the rest of the dog parks in the city are located in affluent communities in Minneapolis and this would serve a broader cross section of people.

As someone who writes and reads a lot about racism and nature, I found myself surprisingly unable to make a decision. I wondered if my own initial support of the dog park was selfish, and illustrative of the fact that no matter how much Tim Wise I read, I will instinctively wield my class and race privilege when faced with an issue that affects me personally. But I also believe very strongly that urban parks should be about broad usage by the immediate populace, not about preserving or memorializing. And yet.. I took very seriously arguments that such a park could bring pain to some of my neighbors. There is no denying that historical injustices leave enduring scars, and by no means can I or should I hope to understand the struggle of anyone else.

Then I did what I should have done right away – I tuned out the media and stopped listening to the politicians and started talking to my neighbors – anyone who would listen. I got to know some of the dog park supporters better and they were a much more diverse group than the media was portraying them to be. They had worked on the proposal for years and were passionate about the neighborhood and community building. I spoke with some of my African American neighbors about the issue and they were open with me about why they opposed the park and shared their thoughts on racism in the city. One neighbor encouraged my husband and I to continue supporting the dog park even though she opposed it – she thought as a dog owner I should naturally want a dog park and that I should advocate for it. I spoke with Latino neighbors who expressed frustration with the fact that they are often an ignored demographic despite their rising numbers in the area. And what I found remarkable is how pleasant and easy to have all these conversations were. I began to think that the biggest problem wasn’t with the difference in opinion, or even difficulty in talking about race, but in how the city and the media so often interfered with the very kind of conversations I was having. When groups for and against the park had tried to have informal meetings together, city officials (who are also mostly White) had intervened and insisted that it would be a bad idea. Neither did they seem to want to lead any discussions of race or racism themselves. They instead wanted scheduled and professionally moderated discussions that could only be about either race or the dog park, but not both. The major media outlets as always were more interested in drama, and the “Black vs. White” picture they painted glossed over a lot of the nuance of the issue. White discourse in public forums sometimes fell into the co-option of symbols and civil rights struggles as they tried to argue that “Martin Luther King would have wanted a dog park”, and a few radical members of the African American community went so far as to advocate violence against people or dogs and shouted to “leave our park alone”. But outside of the meetings and the media, I continued to see positive dialog happening.

As of late January, it appears that the Park Board has finally decided to officially take a stand against a dog park at Martin Luther King park, something that is almost a relief to even many who supported the park. By the time the snow has melted this spring, some of the hurt feelings between neighbors will probably be healed. But I will not easily forget the behavior of the elected officials and the way they scrambled and dithered over the issue as soon as the topic of race came up. And I hope that the hard work the dog park supporters put into developing the plan is acknowledged, and that an alternate dog park site is selected. And I hope that the hurt feelings of the opponents of the park is also acknowledged, and that the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr can be better honored in our city. And I hope that for a while people remember that our history is filled with pain and conflict, and that until we discuss and acknowledge our past it will erupt in unexpected places in our present.

The author's dog, Django

My dog, Django

Selected links:

Planned Minneapolis Dog Park Spurs MLK Name Spat.  January 17th, NPR.
Chad Hartman Talks to Civil Rights Activist Spike Moss.  January 20th, WCCO Radio.
Emotion, Anger and Song at Park Board Meeting on MLK Dog Area.  January 20th, Southwest Minneapolis Patch.

The High Cost of an “Affordable” Activity

I decided to do a rough financial analysis of the cost of cross-country skiing in Minneapolis, MN, since it is considered by many to be a relatively affordable and accessible outdoor activity.

First, the equipment.  If you shop second-hand you could probably get yourself a workable classic cross-country skiing set-up for under $100.   If you buy everything new, the cost for bindings, boots, skis and poles would start at about $250 and go up from there. Renting skis, boots and poles would be an alternative option if you didn’t want to purchase your own equipment, with a cost of around $8.00 per day for a basic rental set up.

This might not sound too expensive… yet.  But where are you going to ski?  There are options to blaze your own trail or follow “unofficial” ungroomed trails if you know where they are.  Depending on what kind of skis you have and your experience level using ungroomed trails or trailblazing might work out just fine.  But to get on the public groomed trails, you will need to pay fees.  In Minnesota to get onto the state ski trails (state parks, forests, and Grant-in-Aid trails) you will need to pay either $6 for a daily pass or $20 for an annual pass, and if you are driving to the trail either $5 for a daily vehicle pass or $20 for an annual pass.  Now, unfortunately, your state pass will not allow you onto certain county or city trails.  So, if you want to go to one of the Three Rivers Park district trails (Hennepin County), you will have to pay for a separate pass, which is either $4 a day or $50 for a season pass.  And Minneapolis (within Hennepin County) is separate yet from the county passes and requires an entirely different ski pass of either $8 a day or $45 a season.  In most places to ski in Minneapolis you will need to either pay a parking meter or buy an annual parking pass.  You are allowed to bring skis on the public busses, as long as the poles are attached to the skis or have plastic covers over the tips.  Most people choose to purchase only one annual pass from either the state, county or city and ski only on those trails, but even figuring out which pass you need at which location can be a bit daunting.

Don’t know how to ski?  Most of the people I know learned to ski either from their parents or from other friends, but lessons or classes are certainly  an option.  They start at $20 and up for a single, group lesson, or you could even enroll in a college level course on skiing.  Oh, and while you can theoretically wear your typical winter gear and clothing (light layers) many people purchase technical clothes for layering.  1950s Woman Skiier

Why am I giving a dollar by dollar breakdown of the cost of one single outdoor activity?  Well, first, I think it is easy for people to gloss over the fact that many so-called “inexpensive” activities are tied much more to class privilege than people want to admit.  Additionally, activities like these are only getting more expensive in an era of shrinking government. When local governments are facing budget deficits they often raise fees.  This is certainly the case with outdoor activities like skiing, camping, softball leagues, etc., where fees have gone way up in recent years while taxes have remained flat or have fallen.  I’d like to see government agencies be more transparent about their fees and acknowledge the effect that the rising costs have.

We need to think about the barriers of entry into outdoor activities when we tell people that they need to get outside and get active.  There is the high start-up cost of equipment, the rising cost of fees and permits, the cost of free time that many working class families simply don’t have.  And then there are social and cultural barriers to activities … camping catalogs that only show white, athletic models in their action photographs.

Book Review: “To Love the Wind and the Rain”: African Americans and Environmental History

Glave, Dianne, and Mark Stoll eds.  To Love the Wind and the Rain: African Americans and Environmental History.  U of Pittsburgh P.  2006.  Print.

Too often environmental histories leave out the experience of African Americans, or oversimplify their experience.  It is easy to assert, as some environmental writers have, that African Americans have a difficult relationship with the environment due to the fact that they were forced to work on the land and prohibited from owning it through the era of slavery and beyond.  However, as the collection of essays in To Love the Wind and the Rain illustrate, it is much more complex than that.  To African Americans, nature could represent pain and forced labor, but it could also represent opportunities for escape and resistance.

The popular conception of the importance of private land ownership is something which is a defining characteristic of the United States.  Recreational use of land is another mark of status in our culture.  The chapter “Slave Hunting and Fishing in the Antebellum South” provides an excellent illustration of the complex relationship enslaved African Americans had with the environment.  Southern slave owners would use recreational land use as a way to separate themselves out from persons who were enslaved, and as a way to assert dominion over them.  They would shoot an animal, and leave their slaves to clean it and carry it back to the house, which was grueling work.  Yet the slaves would learn a lot about nature while being on the hunt, and would use this knowledge to challenge that very control.  They may take the knowledge they learned in order to secretly procure food for their own families, or to fashion means of escape and resistance.

Another chapter in the collection “African Americans, Outdoor Recreation, and the 1919 Chicago Race Riot” tells the story of the riots and shows how they were kindled in part from the unequal and segregated access to urban green space and recreation.  Nature, and access to nature, is often presented as a backdrop to social and racial conflicts, rather than a bigger part of the overall structure of racial oppression and inequality.

The stories told in To Love the Wind and the Rain are important ones, and ones that policy makers, urban planners, and environmentalists need to hear.  Environmentalists and public planners often give lip service to being inclusive and in wanting to increase the participation of persons of color into environmental arenas.  Yet a long history of unequal access to land has yet to be acknowledged.

Race, class, and the myth of overpopulation

Population density by Anders Sandberg. Data from the G-Econ project gecon.yale.edu/

If you press someone on what concerns they have about overpopulation, they might express vague environmental worries or they might answer something like this: “the good people aren’t having enough children” or “the only people who are having a lot of children are the ones who can’t afford them”.  In some circles, there might be references to humans “breeding ourselves stupider.”  Many people who say these types of comments would deny having race or class motivations behind these statements, but what exactly do they mean?  And where have the ideas come from?

Predictions of population catastrophe

In 1798 Thomas Malthus promoted the idea that human population would rise to the point where agricultural production would not be able to support us, and this would lead to a population collapse.  Many critics of his work argue that it has been used to uphold the status quo or to justify colonialist aggression.  When colonized people died of disease or starvation they were blamed for mismanaging their resources using Malthusian calculations.  In recent years a variety of writers from different political backgrounds have continued to warn of population catastrophe, such as in the 1968 book Population Bomb by Paul Erlich.  We have been warned that overpopulation will lead to environmental destruction, starvation, and disease.

Blaming overpopulation takes attention away from the real problems

It isn’t the number of people on earth that is causing environmental destruction; after all, it is but a tiny fraction of the world’s population that is consuming most of its resources and creating most of the waste.  In situations where there is disease or hunger due to overcrowding, the root problem is more likely to governmental or societal issues of unequal distribution and social injustice.

When environmentalists focus on overpopulation as a root cause of environmental problems, it shifts the blame from wealthy consumers, governments, and corporations and puts the blame on the poor and on communities of color.  Furthermore, it helps reinforce the false divide between humans and the environment generally by implying that our very existence is detrimental to the environment.

Women should be given true choice over reproductive issues, including choosing to have more children.  Women should be provided with opportunities for education and support for either birth or contraception if desired.  Pressuring or coercing women into sterilization or birth control is a terrible and ineffective way to solve societal and environmental problems, and women of color have more often been the victims and targets of sterilization programs.

Racism and population concerns on the Right

The Christian Right has recently been using certain types of environmental rhetoric when advocating for “native born” Christians to have more babies in response to what they perceive is the overpopulation of “others”.  In the film Demographic Winter (trailer) the filmmakers interview various “experts” who are sounding alarm bells over the “troubling drop in birthrate” and the “degradation of the family”.  However, it is soon clear that they are not talking about a drop in all births, but in births in “western societies”, “developed countries” and specific native-born races within those geographic places.  One commentator laments that “It is entirely possible that the French will disappear, that there will be not native born French that come from the traditional French population.”  Another commentator mentions the teachings of Malthus and Darwin and then says, “Certain kinds of human beings are on the way to extinction.”

In a 2006 edition of Fox News’ The Big Story, John Gibson urged viewers to “do your duty. Make more babies.” He referenced an article claiming half of all children under the age of five in the United States are minorities.  Gibson said in response: “By far, the greatest number are Hispanic. You know what that means? Twenty-five years and the majority of the population is Hispanic”.

John Gibson and the Demographic Winter filmmakers seem to be flipping the overpopulation idea around backwards and are instead concerned about under population.  But in reality they are just as concerned about overpopulation as environmentalists on the left… they are just more blatantly concerned about populations of persons of color and non-western cultures in particular.

For more reasons to question overpopulation, read the excellent piece “10 Reasons to Rethink Overpopulation” written By The Population and Development Program at Hampshire College.

Effigy Mound Monument

National Park Service. Aerial View of Sny Magill Mound Group.

Recently it came to light that there was federal mismanagement at Effigy Mounds National Monument in Iowa, and structures were built on a sacred site that had been entrusted to the National Park Service.  Former park superintendent Phyllis Ewing was transferred to a different position and has apologized, and the structures have been removed.

It is truly frustrating that even with legislation like NAGPRA in place this type of mismanagement is still occurring.  It is emblematic of a long history of racial injustice carried out by federal agencies like the NPS and of placing the needs of tourists and recreational visitors to the site over others.  While the NPS has tried to remedy it through reassignment of staff, I have not seen them issue a formal apology or acknowledgment of this as connected to a bigger problem.  The official NPS website for Effigy Mounds National Monument mentions that there is a new supervisor at the monument but gives no explanation why, nor do they seem to be holding any public meetings to explain what happened.  When the NPS is not more proactive in explaining to the public why building structures on sacred sites is wrong, it leaves the door open for people to state that it is “no big deal” that structures were built on the site.

Even more frustrating is the fact that there is land all over the nation that was illegally taken from Indians and has not been restored.  Much of this land is now national park or national forest land, and one of the reasons the land won’t be restored to Indians is the paternalistic attitude that the federal government can take care of the land better.  Time and time again, however, the federal government has mismanaged these resources.

The incident at Effigy Mounds Monument is the type of incident that looks small when taken as a isolated event.  I’d like to see it used as an opportunity for the park service to open a dialog about their mission when it comes to protecting sacred spaces.  The Monument supervisor should hold a dialog with the public at large and with the 12 affiliated tribes about what went wrong and about working out a better practice of shared management and open communication.

Book Review: Recovering The Sacred by Winona LaDuke

In her book Recovering The Sacred: The Power Of Naming And Claiming LaDuke gives a damning account of current and past injustices committed against the indigenous tribes of North America. She uses a combination of personal testimony and interviews mixed with historical research and government records to make the case that racism and stealing is still occurring, but in new forms such as biopiracy and historical revisionism. She writes with a lot of passion – at times her anger is clearly evident, but in other sections she uses humor and reveals a hope for the future and in reconciliation.

This is an important book for anyone to read – many contemporary issues are highlighted that should be receiving more notice.  Too often people think of Native people in the past tense, and think that government injustices carried out against them are a troubling but long gone aspect of our history.

An example of this is the chapter “Wild Rice, maps, genes, and patents”.  LaDuke describes how the Anishinaabeg of Minnesota harvest rice as a way of life, as a food source, and as a source of income.  Even when they ceded land, they retained the legal right to harvest on it.  An 1837 treaty specified that they woud keep “the privilege of hunting, fishing, and gathering the wild rice upon the lands, the rivers and the lakes included in the territory ceded.”

Beginning in the 1950s, researchers at the University of Minnesota have slowly cut into the ability of the Anishinaabeg to make a living off wild rice harvesting.  First through hybridizing rice and selling strains that could be farmed on California rice paddys.  Even though this rice only partially resembled true wild rice, it was marketed as such and became a source of profit for both the University and large corporations like Uncle Ben’s.  Even worse, the University in 2000 took out a patent on wild rice, and developed a sterile version of it.  There is now evidence that the sterile variety has contaminated wild rice stands and threatens the future of the wild rice crop in Minnesota.

Who has a right to claim ownership of a plant?  Can a scientist claim that they have no ethical obligations because what they are doing is “only science”?  As LaDuke illustrates in this and many of the chapters of this book, when it comes to issues of Native rights, it can be a matter of profit vs. people.

The trouble with “Leave no Trace”

As someone who spends a lot of time camping in the backcountry, I feel like I need to start this post with a disclaimer: whenever I leave a campsite, I pick up all trash I find, including the tiniest of microtrash, and I carefully consider my impact.  I almost never make a campfire.  I also understand that the phrase “Leave No Trace” (LNT) is supposed to be powerful as a slogan in its simplicity.

At the same time, I believe the message that the popular environmental slogan conveys is impossible to achieve, and worse, it plays into the idea that the only real “wilderness” is that which is free of humans and any human impact.

It sets people up to fail. To truly “leave no trace” in the wilderness would be impossible.  Even the Center for Outdoor Ethics (the organization that administers the LNT educational program) acknowledges this by referring to their mission as “to assist outdoor enthusiasts with their decisions about how to reduce their impacts…”  (emphasis mine)  Having a campfire (and burning fallen wood) leaves a trace.  Eating berries leaves a trace.  Almost all ways to dispose of human waste in the backcountry involves leaving a trace.  Bringing a dog into the woods leaves a trace.  Fishing leaves a trace.  Certainly there are wilderness areas so sensitive and/or so over-visited that perhaps not a single berry should be eaten.  However, the notion that the “ideal” to aim for is a wilderness free of impact, free of fishing and fires is elitist.  It favors people who bring along expensive pre-packaged meals of factory-farmed food to cook on tiny, expensive backpacking stoves.  It makes it easy to judge people and helps play into the idea that camping involves specialized knowledge and skills, and lists of rules to follow.

It puts too much emphasis on the more cosmetic issues of wilderness protection, and not on broader problems like social justice and global warming. I’ve heard international travelers speak of how “the locals” in the country they visited did not properly respect their land and littered upon it.  Yet absent from the discussion was the impact of the traveler’s own airplane trip over to that country, the gas used to fuel their rental car, the manufacturing processes involved in outfitting them in their modern backpacking gear.  This type of condescension makes it easier to justify displacing people from their land in other countries in order to “protect it” from them for our benefit without thinking of the social impact that such land preservation can have.

It helps erase our history.  We like to hold onto the idea of a time before settlers when the land was “virgin”, and truly free of all of our “trace leaving”.  But the implication that Indigenous people did not have any impact on the land erases their history and robs them of agency.  Many of the areas of land that struck European settlers as examples of the “pastoral ideal” had in fact been previously farmed, burned, hunted, and lived upon by Native people prior to European arrival.  There is a vast history of violence and dispossession in the formation of our national parks and wilderness areas, something we see little evidence or acknowledgment of today.  Perhaps we should have left more evidence of the human occupation in our parks… that of Native people, that of other settlers, and that of the conflicts between them, so that we could better understand our own history.  We often pick and choose what type of impact we find acceptable, what history we want to remember.  For example, we venerate the ancient pictographs in Voyageurs National Park but frown on modern-day Ojibwe people who are exercising their right to fish within wilderness areas (see State of Minnesota v. Mille Lacs Band of Chippewa Indians).

Perhaps I’m pointing too much misdirected energy at a phrase designed and used with good intentions, after all, surely there are real problems linked to careless campers.  However, as William Cronon pointed out in “The Trouble with Wilderness”, there is real danger in oversimplifying, of venerating only the most “edenic” of natural places, of believing that certain environments are worthy of protection, and believing that there are “right” and “wrong” ways to interact with the wilderness.