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Eddie Chuculate

Special to Indian Country Today

MINNEAPOLIS — John P. Gwinn was shocked to see donations to rebuild Migizi Communications' building, which was destroyed by fire in rioting last week, reach more than three-quarters of a million dollars in about five days.

“It’s tragic but exciting,” said Gwinn, strategic projects director at the nonprofit, which educates and provides media arts training for Native youth in the Twin Cities.

“There’s a lot of people just now finding out about the organization, and the generosity has been incredible,” he said. 

“Hopefully with the insurance and all the donations, we can get a new building, replace supplies and hire even more staff."

Donations for Migizi to GiveMN, a nonprofit that fundraises and collects money for schools and nonprofits in Minneapolis, topped $581,000 from nearly 12,500 donors.

Volunteers at Migizi’s cleanup last weekend formed a human chain to help douse a still-smoldering fire at a neighboring structure with water from its flooded basement. (Migizi Facebook post)

Gwinn, 53, said social media posts from celebrities such as Lizzo, who began her recording career here, and actress Jessica Biel, a Minnesota native, may have helped fuel interest.

In addition, Migizi board member Kendrick Buffalo, Red Cliff Band Ojibwe, and marketing and communications staffer Jacob Vang started a GoFundMe site that has collected more than $88,300.

“That’s coming in steady,” said Buffalo, 37. “I get all the emails from that, so I know it’s been fairly constant. … I was out of town during the riots so this was my way of trying to help out.”

(Previous story: Fire during Minneapolis riots guts Native youth nonprofit)

A Facebook campaign began by Rhiana Yazzie ended this week with $154,000 raised. Yazzie posted on Facebook of bogus accounts and people contacting previous donors and asking for gift cards.

With the Facebook total, the estimated amount donated stood at $823,544 Thursday afternoon.

Vang said people wishing to donate should go to either the, GoFundMe or Migizi sites only.

Migizi may also be benefiting from the generosity of Minnesotans. The state was ranked as the nation's No. 1 most charitable in 2019 by WalletHub, which calculates volunteer rates and the percentage of the population who donate money.

The building, which Migizi had occupied for less than a year, was gutted by fire May 28-29 in demonstrations after the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police on Memorial Day.

The Migizi Communications building on Thursday before it was destroyed by fire in south Minneapolis. (Photo courtesy Melissa Olson)

Flames from a nearby U.S. Post Office and surrounding buildings including the 3rd Precinct police headquarters, which were deliberately torched, spread to Migizi’s roof under windy conditions. Buildings on either side were completely razed.

Although Migizi's walls are still standing, Gwinn said there was 2 feet of water in the basement, and some areas of the building are so unsafe that volunteers cleaning up aren’t allowed to enter.

Buffalo said insurance adjusters were at the site earlier this week and that Migizi had switched insurers earlier in May.

Volunteers cleaned up at Migizi on May 30 in Minneapolis. (Migizi Facebook post)

Hennepin County property records show the building was constructed in 1922 and was sold to Migizi in 2018 for $825,000.

The total package upon move-in was $1.6 million, according to reports, which was raised in a multiyear campaign.

The new building increased Migizi’s square footage to 7,400 from 3,400 at its old site.

“The bad thing is, our new building was constructed inside around our film and video needs and studios and solar training,” Gwinn said. “At our old building, we just had to make do.”

The gutted but cleaned up interior of the Migizi Communications building in Minneapolis shows charring on the beams. (Courtesy Kendrick Buffalo)

Lawyers have offered pro bono services in dealing with insurance and other matters, Buffalo said.

At least 360 buildings were vandalized or looted during the riots, with 66 destroyed, many in Migizi’s neighborhood along Lake Street, according to an analysis by the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Many others sustained extensive water or fire damage. Damage estimates could extend into hundreds of millions of dollars.

Student expresses sadness over destruction

One student Migizi employs and trains, Joseph Johnson, Ojibwe, never even had a chance to see the inside of the building.

Joseph Johnson (Courtesy Joseph Johnson)

The artist, a junior at South High School in Minneapolis, was hired to produce fliers and videos for Native-owned businesses and nonprofits. Migizi supplied him with an iPad for the work.

Since he works remotely and began his job before Migizi moved into the building, he had never set foot in the structure. But he was on hand with 300 others last weekend to help clean up.

“It’s pretty sad,” said Johnson, 17. “It’s messed up to see what everybody worked so hard for just burn to the ground.”

Design by student Joseph Johnson of Migizi Communications for the Minnesota Indigenous Business Alliance. (Courtesy Joseph Johnson)

Migizi is hosting a healing ceremony for the youth at 11 a.m. Friday in front of the building.

“Just to let them voice their concerns about all this unrest and to let them know that we’re not going anywhere,” Gwinn said. “We’re still going to be there for them and continue to work together.”

Twin Cities organizations have offered office space to continue its summer programs, Vang said.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, Migizi was already practicing distance learning, so that continues.

It still plans to employ 50 this summer, Gwinn said, in addition to First Person Productions film projects with clients, high-school preparation classes for eighth-graders and credit-recovery programs.

The building was the lone Native-owned structure lost in rioting. It was being protected by American Indian Movement members, but they had to retreat when it caught on fire.

(Previous story: Modern-day AIM makes its presence felt)

The police and fire department had vacated the area. Firefighters were trying to douse flames at nearby sites earlier, but left the scene when they were pelted with rocks by rioters who ran amok with no police presence.

AIM and other tribal community members, some who came from reservations in northern Minnesota, protected businesses and social agencies throughout the Twin Cities overnight during the week.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz quadrupled the National Guard presence Saturday and Sunday, enforcing a curfew, and quelled the rioting. Peaceful protests have continued.

“I couldn’t comprehend it (the building loss) at first,” said Vang, 24. “How something like this could happen to such a great organization. It’s very disheartening.”

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Eddie Chuculate, Creek/Cherokee, is a writer living in Minneapolis.

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