Eddie Chuculate

Special to Indian Country Today

MINNEAPOLIS — A third night of rioting in protest of George Floyd's death claimed the home of a Native American nonprofit that provides media arts training to hundreds of youths a year, as a fire early Friday ripped through Migizi Communications.

If the building, a half-block from the Minneapolis Police Department’s 3rd Precinct, is deemed a total loss, damage could near $2 million, said Migizi Executive Director Kelly Drummer, Oglala Sioux. 

Drummer described what's left as “just a shell.”

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Supporters quickly rallied around the youth organization after the blaze, raising more than $100,000 in donations by Friday night.

Migizi provides training in media arts such as radio, film and social media. It is the home of First Person Productions and also provides training for “green” jobs, such as solar energy.

Around 400 youth a year receive job training at Migizi, which employs eight people, Drummer said.

Drummer, 46, said Migizi — “eagle” in Ojibwe — was the only minority-owned building on the block as other enterprises are leasing.

The 3rd Precinct in south Minneapolis has been the epicenter of rioters since protests began Tuesday. At first, it was defended by officers in riot gear, firing smoke grenades and rubber bullets, but staff abandoned the building late Thursday as rioters persisted and set the building ablaze.

Protesters also torched and ransacked a nearby U.S. Post Office, Drummer said, and drove off in stolen mail trucks.

The fire there, driven by wind, eventually reached the roof of the Migizi building, which was bought and renovated by the organization only last year.

For hours until the Minnesota National Guard arrived in the predawn Friday, looting, vandalism and arson proceeded unabated as neither police nor firefighters were present.

American Indian Movement members defended the Migizi building Thursday night into Friday but had to retreat when the structure ignited.

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

Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey ordered officers out of the precinct around 10 p.m. And without a police presence and amid hundreds of rioters, the fire department stood down.

“Brick and mortar are not as important as human life,” Frey said at a news conference Friday. “The symbolism of a building cannot outweigh the significance of life.”

The building at 3017 S. 27th Ave. still smoldered Friday afternoon.

“It’s heartbreaking and devastating,” said an obviously shaken Drummer, who watched the building smoke as firefighters, now defended by Guardsmen, sprayed the structure.

As she talked, the roof of the nearby Ghandi Mahal Indian restaurant collapsed.

Equipment destroyed, archive of interviews saved

Migizi also has a presence in the Minneapolis, St. Paul, Fridley, Hopkins and Farmington school districts, supporting over 250 Native students, Drummer said.

The building housed digital cameras, iPads, computers, sound equipment and recording studios, along with artwork and the solar panels used for job training, Drummer said.

An archive of radio broadcasts and interviews with prominent Native Americans dating to 1977, which was being digitized, was rescued, said Drummer, who received a call of support from U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar’s assistant Friday. Omar represents Minnesota’s 5th congressional district, which comprises all of Minneapolis.

“It’s horrible,” Drummer said, “but we’ll rebuild. It’s all we can do. Stay strong for our youth.”

(Related newscast: 'Everything in Minneapolis feels so very intense right now')

Rosy Simas, Seneca, is a Minneapolis artist with longtime ties to Migizi.

“We built this place for all people, and many communities were loved, educated and thrived at Migizi,” she posted on Facebook. “I’m heartbroken. … Countless Native and non-Native people worked there.”

A fundraiser on Facebook had raised more than $106,000 for Migizi by Friday night, with an advertised goal of $100,000. Potential donors were also directed to Migizi’s website.

Minneapolis American Indian Center boards up

Two miles to the north on Friday morning, volunteers and staff at the Minneapolis American Indian Center on Franklin Avenue boarded up their building with plywood with special screws that fasten into metal and concrete.

The center's director, Mary LaGarde, White Earth Nation, said she notified staff to retrieve valuables and important documents before the building was secured.

LaGarde grabbed artwork, documents, photos and personal items from her office and made sure electronics or other valuables weren’t visible from the street.

Volunteers and staff board up a corner of the Minneapolis American Indian Center on Friday morning. (Photo by Eddie Chuculate)

The two-story center — which houses the Gatherings Cafe, art galleries, a lunch room, industrial-size kitchen, a gym, offices and meeting spaces — was scheduled for a slow reopening next week amid the coronavirus pandemic, but LaGarde said it would now be shuttered through next week at least. It has been closed since mid-March.

LaGarde said she also feared for the Little Earth of United Tribes housing, the nation's first urban-Native complex.

She said Facebook posts indicated it would be targeted by arsonists Friday night. AIM and United Tribes residents are expected to patrol the area, she said.

Other Indian-owned businesses and centers along Franklin Avenue, known as the American Indian Cultural Corridor, were taking steps to secure their properties ahead of anticipated further looting.

The rear of the Minneapolis American Indian Center was being boarded up on Friday morning. (Photo by Eddie Chuculate)

Although those businesses along Franklin haven’t been targeted, a Dollar General store right across the street was broken into Thursday, said Joe Hobot, president of American Indian OIC in Minneapolis.

“We’re safe on Franklin right now,” said Hobot, Standing Rock Sioux.

AIM members planned to patrol that corridor as well.

Even though Officer Derek Chauvin was arrested and charged Friday with third-degree murder and manslaughter in Floyd’s death, protesters and rioters have said they want all four officers involved in the arrest charged.

The city of Minneapolis enacted an 8 p.m.-6 a.m. curfew for Friday and Saturday, and city police and sheriff’s deputies will be assisted by State Police and the National Guard to quell looting.

Liquor stores throughout the city, auto parts stores and pharmacies have been popular targets.

Floyd, 46, died Monday while being arrested by Chauvin, who pinned him with a knee wedged against his neck for over seven minutes while he gasped for air. An autopsy report released Friday said Floyd died from a combination of being restrained and underlying conditions of hypertension and heart disease.

The incident was filmed by a bystander and has sparked national protests. National civil rights leaders Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton visited Minneapolis Thursday and met with protesters and officials.

On Friday, the National Congress of American Indians denounced the "reprehensible conduct" that led to Floyd's death.

"This latest unjustifiable tragedy is a stark reminder that people of color face disproportionate rates of police brutality, a situation that merits a comprehensive national policy response," the group's CEO, Kevin Allis, said in a statement. "No one should be harmed or murdered simply because of the color of their skin."

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Eddie Chuculate, Creek/Cherokee, is a writer in Minneapolis. Contact: chuculate66@yahoo.com; Follow on Twitter: @eddie_chuculate