Dan Ninham
Special to Indian Country Today

MINNEAPOLIS, Minnesota — Meander through the entrance to the Powwow Grounds coffee shop and past the office of the Native American Community Development Institute to find the All My Relations Art Gallery.

It’s located on the “Ave” — Franklin Avenue — in the heart of Minneapolis’ urban Indigenous community.

Inside the gallery, Courtney Cochran moves easily among painted boards lined up along the walls, as blank boards sit atop of tables waiting to be finished. She’ll soon be joined by more than a half-dozen community members to finish out another piece of art.

The boards will eventually form a temporary art installation spelling out the letters, “Never Homeless Before 1492,” at the site of “The Wall of Forgotten Natives,” a former homeless encampment that drew national attention to Minneapolis and the nation’s housing problems in 2018.

Cochran, Anishinaabekwe, the lead artist on the project, wants to re-focus attention on the issues of homelessness in Indigenous communities.

“Native people are homeless on their own land, stolen land,” Cochran told Indian Country Today. “I picked ‘Never Homeless Before 1492’ because it says it all — that these problems started in 1492, and we can still feel and see the impacts of colonization. Native homelessness started with removal and continued through allotment and land theft.

“The end goal has always been to take the land, displace and erase our people, always.”

An art installation spelling out "Never Homeless Before 1492" is set to go up in the fall 2021 at the site of a former Indigenous homeless camp known as "The Wall of the Forgotten Natives" in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The artwork, made up of individual panels painted by a cross-section of the local community, acknowledges the experiences of those impacted by the housing crisis in 2018 which led to ‘The Wall’ and focuses attention on homelessness within Indigenous communities. (Photo courtesy of Courtney Cochran)

Spelling out the issues

Cochran, 31, is an artist, filmmaker and community organizer based in Minneapolis. She was born and raised in Duluth, Minnesota, and has tribal family ties from Nett Lake and Red Lake.

She is working on the project with Angela Two Stars, Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate, director of All My Relations Arts Gallery. The project was organized through a partnership between the Minnesota Department of Transportation and the Native American Community Development Institute, which operates the All My Relations gallery.

The installation will be constructed using nearly two dozen 4x4-foot corrugated plastic panels that will spell out, letter by letter, “Never Homeless Before 1492.”

The panels will be attached to the chain-link fence encircling the former encampment using metal zip ties and lightweight beads, with tobacco ties and ribbon ties on the outer parts of the fence.

The installation is expected to remain up for two to three years, she said.

Organizers are now are awaiting approval of the panels from the Minnesota governor’s office before beginning the installation.

Courtney Cochran, Anishinaabekwe, is the lead artist for an art installation set to go up in the fall of 2021 at the former site of an Indigenous homeless encampment called "The Wall of Forgotten Natives." The installation features blocks of paintings that spell out "Never Homeless Before 1492." (Photo by Dan Ninham for Indian Country Today)

“The design process started long before the actual fabrication of the panels,” Cochran said. “The design has evolved with every conversation within local homeless encampments, local MUID (Metropolitan Urban Indian Directors) meetings and lots of community input, and continued to evolve during community painting days.

“As a result, the panels serve as a tool of responding to what's going on, what the community needs and wants to see improve while centering our voices, resilience, resistance, hope and healing.”

Cochran also will be releasing a short documentary film in conjunction with the installation, telling stories of residents staying at the wall.

“I hope that this film adds another layer by going further into conversations around the topic of Indigenous Peoples homeless on their own homelands,” Cochran said.

Two Stars said the work provides an important voice in the community.

“Courtney Cochran has used her efforts in community engagement and relationship building with those most vulnerable to give voice to individuals who are directly affected by this issue,” Two Stars said.

“She has created a thoughtful and meaningful work of art.”

Blueprint for development

Formed in 2007, the Native American Community Development Institute envisioned the American Indian Cultural Corridor along Franklin Avenue as a way to unite an area that had been struggling.

A 2009 report conducted for the institute by professors Lee Munnich and Kris Nelson at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs analyzed the potential impact.

“A Cultural Corridor represents an opportunity for Native Americans to recreate Franklin into a community destination and source of pride,” according to the report. “In so doing, Native Americans will build assets and create wealth while celebrating their heritage and sharing their identity with other cultural groups.”

Muralist Thomasina Topbear, Santee Dakota and Oglala Lakota, helps paint an panelt for art installation, "Never Homeless Before 1492," that is set to be installed in fall 2021 at the site of a former Indigenous homeless encampment known as "The Wall of Forgotten Natives" in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The installation is being coordinated by artist Courtney Cochran. (Photo courtesy of Courtney Cochran)

A second report, the American Indian Community Blueprint, laid out a bold vision for the Twin Cities. Released in 2010, the blueprint analyzed conditions on Franklin Avenue and outlined strategies for developing the area.

Then, in June of 2018, a group of mostly Indigenous homeless people began pitching tents and erecting tepees along Franklin and Hiawatha streets, creating an encampment at a sound barrier that had been built to block noise from a nearby highway.

The camp eventually swelled to include hundreds of people, and the area was dubbed, “The Wall of Forgotten Natives.” It was the largest homeless encampment in Minnesota history, officials said, and local organizations and nonprofits provided food, medicine and health care.

By December 2018, however, with Minnesota’s harsh winter settling in, officials moved in to dismantle the area and try to find more permanent housing for the residents. Some were moved to temporary housing, and others were moved to a “Navigation Center” with heated, domed tents.

The site of the former encampment was closed off with a chain-link fence that soon will hold the community artwork.

“Our people and people who are facing the effects of homelessness are not the problem,” Cochran said. “The encampments at The Wall and parks have been cleared but that doesn't mean the problem is gone or has been solved.

“The problem is colonization.”

Taking brush in hand

More than a few individuals and groups have participated as painters in the art project.

Phoebe Young, a Saginaw Chippewa descendant who served as the 2021 summer youth programs coordinator at the Dream of Wild Health, brought a youth group on a summer field trip to contribute to the project.

The Garden Warriors group included youths ages 13-18, who were asked to create a panel around the letter “O.”

Youth members of the nonprofit Dream of Wild Health's summer youth programs painted a panel on food sovereignty for an art installation on Indigeneous homelessness set to go up in the fall of 2021. The installation, which will spell out "Never Homeless Before 1492," is being coordinated by artist Courtney Cochran. It will be installed at the site of a former homeless encampment known as "The Wall of Forgotten Natives," in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo courtesy of Courtney Cochran)

“Our panel focused on food sovereignty,” Young said. “After discussing as a group what food sovereignty meant to them, they chose to paint a turtle around our panel letter which represents Turtle Island, with each of the four sacred medicines held in one of the turtle's claws.”

In the center of the letter, which features the turtle’s back, is a globe split by a medicine wheel. The panel also includes a border of the Three Sisters — corn, squash and beans — with tobacco ties in the four corners. A blue background represents water and its importance to food, she said.

“As our youth talked more about food sovereignty and what it meant to each of them, they wanted to make sure that every part of food sovereignty, including the plants, medicines, earth, water, prayers, and traditions, were represented in this panel,” Young said.

Lisa Kaste, an enrolled member of the White Earth Nation, is a program supervisor at Avivo Villages, a nonprofit social services program that also operates a tiny-home community.

Kaste helped members of the homeless community contribute to the project.

“I knew Courtney had this panel project going on, so I hit her up to see if she would be interested in having local homeless folks from shelters and encampments participate,” Kaste said.

“She loved the idea and came to a local shelter for three days and the residents contributed to a panel. She also visited an encampment off of Franklin Avenue in Minneapolis and folks there also brought a panel to life with their art.

“Since this is being hung at the former place we know as ‘The Wall,’ I felt it was important the homeless were heard by their art,” she said. “The art is their voice.”

Looking ahead

Cochran wants the art installation to stir discussions in the community about family, responsibilities and justice.

“I think all the time is a good time to focus on our unsheltered relatives until everyone has a roof over their head,” she said. “But now more than ever, eyes are on Minneapolis. We need to continue the momentum of standing against injustice, standing up for our communities, ourselves and raising awareness, which is what I hope to do with this project.”

Cochran and her art have been heavily influenced by her grandmother, Arlene Cochran, who raised her.

“Although she was not artistically talented and would say, ‘I cannot draw a stick figure to save my life,’ her life and strength was a true inspiration to me,” Cochran said on her webpage at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. “I would not be the woman, artist, and mother I am today if it was not for her selfless decision to raise me.”

She hopes her work will educate non-Native communities while offering a forum for discussion.

A series of art panels that will spell out "Never Homeless Before 1492" are set to be installed in fall 2021 in Minneapolis, Minnesota to draw attention to homelessness in the Indigenous community. The panels will go up at the former site of an Indigenous homeless encampment known as "The Wall of Forgotten Natives," which drew national attention to the issue. (Photo courtesy of Courtney Cochran)

“This project holds space for tough conversations without re-traumatizing or triggering our community with the imagery,” she said. “I want this installation to also hold space for solutions, joy and healing … to showcase and honor our beautiful and resilient community and those who have been doing this important work in the community.

“This project is much bigger than myself as an artist,” she said. “It's about building community together and us being able to control our own narrative and voice.”

For more info

For more information about the installation and the upcoming documentary, visit the Native American Community Development Institute’s Facebook page and follow Courtney Cochran’s personal art page, Skoden Studio, on Facebook and Instagram

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