‘I just want our Native people to … get their own place’
MINNEAPOLIS — One year after a community of several hundred Natives camped out in a tent city to raise awareness of the lack affordable housing in Minneapolis, new construction and other added programs are proof that gains are being made, albeit slowly.
In June of 2018, an encampment of mostly Native homeless people had erected tents and teepees along a highways’ sound-barrier wall at the intersection of Cedar and Hiawatha streets in South Minneapolis. After the encampment grew from a dozen people to hundreds over the span of four months from September-December 2018, the encampment, dubbed the “Wall of Forgotten Natives,” drew national attention.
Rather than resorting to such measures as police sweeps and arrests, the city of Minneapolis embraced the encampment, and with the help of volunteers, aid groups, and organizations such as Natives For Justice — an outreach effort that delivered food, medicine, medical care and provided limited housing assistance — the encampment became a community that at first thrived, but later could not maintain its existence.
When the camp disbanded in mid-December 2018 and over 70 tons of waste was removed, the city erected a "Navigation Center" nearby on land donated by the Red Lake Band of Chippewas. The center consisted of heated domed tents that housed at its peak 150 people.
The Navigation Center was a temporary solution that has since given way to the construction by Red Lake in a partnership with the city of a 110-unit, six-floor apartment complex that will target Native American renters hopefully by this fall. The first floor will house a culturally specific wellness clinic catering to the Native community, according to a news release from Loeffler Construction and Consulting.
It is undetermined how many of those units will be available to the estimated 200 unsheltered Natives in Minneapolis’ Hennepin County.
Troubling statistics - A difference in population versus percentile
According to a 2010 census count, there are an approximate 47,614 Native residents in the seven-county Minneapolis/St. Paul metro-area, which has a total population of 4,014,593, according to 2018 Census estimates, 14th largest in the U.S.
According to a 2018 survey, there are 1,227 Native homeless in Minnesota, compared to a total estimated homeless population among all races of 10,233 in the state, a 30-year high, according to the Wilder Research group in St. Paul.
Native Americans in represent 27 percent of the homeless population in the Hennepin County seat of Minneapolis, according to a recent point-in-time count, but make up just 1 percent of the overall population statewide. And although Hennepin County approved in November $1.1 million in new annual spending for emergency shelter beds, a $500,000 proposal for culturally specific shelter for Native Americans was denied.
Natives for Justice
"When the wall was up we had all the politicians out there promising this and that," said Natives for Justice leader Keiji "KJ" Narikawa. "But over a year later, we're basically in the same position. There were some good things that came out of all that, but we still have large numbers of homeless, up 10 percent from last year. After all the talk, the numbers didn't go down, they went up."
Narikawa and his group Natives for Justice have been continually campaigning and protesting for the Native American homeless population. Their efforts have included “reoccupying" the wall, and staging protests at the downtown city government center and at light-rail stations, where some Native homeless individuals spend cold winter days and nights riding trains and buses to avoid the cold.
In December, about 50 protesters re-entered the wall site through a gap in fencing put up by the city to blockade the area and erected a teepee. Police arrived in cruisers but did not intervene as news reporters and TV and radio crews returned.
Adam Fairbanks, White Earth, who is 36, serves as a consultant to tribes in the Twin Cities, runs a sober house for Indian men in Minneapolis called Anishinaabe Endaad, and is a leading figure in Natives for Justice says the planned protests have kept the issue alive.
"These protests this winter haven't gotten us a lot of funding but it's gotten us meetings with the city government and a lot of news coverage keeping the issue in the forefront of the general population," Fairbanks said. "It's letting them (politicians) know the issue is not solved as far as a demand for housing."
Narikawa often packs his car with food and winter clothing on frigid Minneapolis nights and travels to homeless encampments and sites, to assist Natives who are in distress, hungry or in need of clothing.
He often broadcasts these trips on Facebook Live, and will personally check on individuals and give rides to shelters if requested. He does much of this out-of-pocket financially.
"I'm learning the more administrative side of things, but mainly I'm a boots-on-the-ground frontliner," said Narikawa, 40, a Pacific Islander of Japanese-American and Hawaiian descent raised among Indians in south Minneapolis. "I'm trying to highlight that we have elderly out here in wheelchairs, and grandmas. We have youth, 17, 18, 19-years-old who are far gone on opioids or fentanyl. Back in the day, youth were on alcohol, crack or weed. Now it's not even heroin, it's fentanyl."
Natives for Justice had an organizational meeting in late February to apply for nonprofit 501.c3 status at the Church of Gichitwaa Kateri in Minneapolis, pastored by Shawn Phillips.
Phillips, also a member of the Natives for Justice movement, is a self-described non-Native "elder" who has been part of the Minneapolis Native community since 1988. He helps with facilities and meeting space and is spearheading an effort to collect the stories of Natives who may have been mistreated by police, especially in light of a recent Supreme Court decision that in effect makes it illegal to ticket or eject homeless people from public places like bridges, buses or sidewalks when there aren't shelter beds available.
"We want to arrange a series of listening sessions to get their stories how the Natives have been treated, whoever has kicked them out (of a public setting), taken their stuff, or been arrested, to develop a case not necessarily against somebody, but a case for the homeless Natives and their rights."
Phillips thinks nonprofit status for the group may improve its chances to get funding since it would qualify for tax-deductible donations, but as a nonprofit the group would be precluded from any political campaigning.
"There's some talk about maybe getting a status like AIM (American Indian Movement, which began in Minneapolis in 1968), because we have other issues in addition to unsheltered Natives like incarceration, discrimination, being allowed to practice ceremonies and speak the language in hospitals, jails and other public places, and other health and education discrepancies in a dominant society."
Narikawa echoed Phillips' stance on the public spaces issue.
"We've had police kick the people out of different areas, tell them to pack up their tents and go to the Greenway (a 5.7-mile trail running east-west in the city)," Narikawa said. "And they get there and set up and other officers kick them out of there.”
Turning her life around
Melissa Bringsthem, 42, Lakota/Ojibwe, is considered by many of her peers to be a success story emerging from the Wall of Forgotten Natives. After the death of her fiance she said she would go to the wall to drink and be among friends and family, while drowning her sorrows.
Bringsthem said as relief workers came by one day with offers to get people into housing, she accepted and landed a place at American House apartments in St. Paul — a cooperative project involving Red Lake and the Beacon Interfaith Housing Collaborative.
She quit drinking, went back to college at Minneapolis Community and Technical College and at Augsburg University in Minneapolis where she takes Ojibwe language courses. She's due to graduate next year with an associate's in business management and had a 4.0 grade-point average last semester.
"I drank for 15 years and my body was just tired," said Bringsthem. "I quit on Oct. 31, 2018. Since I've sobered up I started going to a lot of Native programs, doing a lot of beadwork, going to sweat lodges, drum groups, making ribbon skirts, moccasins ... just staying real busy."
She also does outreach with Natives for Justice, joining Narikawa on street runs delivering propane cans for Natives to keep their tents warm, and delivering blankets, tents, socks, sweaters and harm-reduction and hygiene kits. She also helps serve hot homemade food each Saturday at 1 p.m. near E. 25th Street and Bloomington Avenue in Minneapolis.
"I just want our Native people to have a chance to get their own place, not just somewhere to sleep where you have to get up in the morning and leave," she said. "They need to at least get their own apartments."
She credits the wall with helping her get out of the addiction rut.
"I'm doing the best I can, still healing. Since I've gotten sober I've been helping family members more. All I can do is stay strong, stay in school, go to ceremonies and stay positive."
‘We just want basic human rights’
"We just want basic human rights for the people," Narikawa says. "When it comes to homelessness, addiction and abuse Native Americans are always at the top of the list (statistically), but last on the plate when it comes to a government budget.
"And now that I'm more involved I see some of the stuff going on with government money and it makes you wonder. Minneapolis police give out vouchers to get your taillight fixed instead of tickets, but how much money is wasted on that? Come on, man, fix your tail light. $200,000 to hang some piece of aluminum art piece off the side of a building? It's a ridiculous amount of money when we have relatives dying on the street in the winter."
Still, Narikawa issues a call for culturally specific housing.
"Our cry is still for a culturally specific homeless shelter and housing," he said. "We need a one-stop-shop where Natives can come to a culturally specific place to get medical care, housing and get off the streets. Natives don't feel comfortable and won't go to, say, a Somali-centric type shelter, and they wouldn't feel comfortable going to one of ours. As it is now, Natives are homeless in their own land."
Eddie Chuculate, Creek/Cherokee, is a writer based in Minneapolis. @eddie_chuculate; firstname.lastname@example.org