Ask Phillips neighborhood resident Sam Eagle Hawk how it’s going for Native people in Minneapolis, and he puts it this way: It’s OK. But it used to be a lot better.
“Housing, jobs, gangs, liquor, drugs” are all things that have gotten worse, in his view, since he first moved to Minneapolis from Denver in the 1990s, said Eagle Hawk, a member of the Sioux nation. “Now there are also other things coming up like homelessness,” he said.
When he first arrived in Minneapolis, Eagle Hawk, 50, said he and his cousin had little trouble finding jobs and paying rent. But, recently, he’s been unable to keep work. And he sees other Native people struggling with drug addiction.
While life has been hard for everyone during the COVID-19 pandemic, Eagle Hawk said, the struggles are more pronounced in his Native community. And despite a 20-year-old agreement between Native community leaders and Minneapolis city officials to improve people’s lives, there’s more work to be done.
“We have some of the worst disparities in the city and the nation … whether it’s health, education, opioids — almost everything,” said Marisa Cummings, president and CEO of the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center, a nonprofit in Minneapolis that helps people with everything from domestic violence prevention and intervention, to sexual assault advocacy.
Nationally, disparities in areas of poverty and health have persisted not just since the 1990s, but since European colonizers arrived hundreds of years ago, according to a pair of studies published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information.
The Native American community in Minneapolis, in hopes of bettering the well-being of Native communities in the city, formed a partnership with City Hall back in 2003. It’s a unique relationship formalized through a Memorandum of Understanding, said Karen Moe, director of the city’s Neighborhood and Community Relations.
“Unique because, to our understanding, we are the only municipal-level government that has an MOU with the American Indian Community, not a single tribe,” Moe said.
The American Indian Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) is an evolving document that is periodically refreshed to continually address the needs of the city’s Native population. The latest update was approved this month.
A memo of understanding
Those involved in its creation wanted to “provide a deliberative space where we can advocate for one another, advocate collectively for our clients, and ensure that at critical points of decision making, whether it be policy or resource distribution, that our community is involved directly in those conversations or decisions,” said Joe Hobot, president and CEO of the American Indian OIC on Franklin Avenue.
Hobot, who is Lakota, is also the chair of the Metropolitan Urban Indian Directors, which is the formal name for the collection of Native American nonprofits that together brokered a relationship with the city, and hold monthly meetings.
Pacts and partnerships codified by a city can often be bogged down by “citified” or “colonized” terms and modus operandi, said Robert Lilligren, a member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe and a former Minneapolis City Council member. Lilligren was on the council when the city passed the first MOU.
“It’s a community-generated, established framework that amplifies the Native voice in the city,” said Lilligren, who was a former chair of Metropolitan Urban Indian Directors and is currently treasurer.
“The MOU is an example of the community knowing what the community needs and the community leading what we are doing,” said Louise Matson, executive director of Division of Indian Work, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit. Matson, a member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe, serves as vice chair of the Metropolitan Urban Indian Directors.
“We know what we need. The programs that we do work. The city acknowledges that. Come to us,” she said.
“And we’re all friendly so we get to hang out with our friends once a month,” Hobot added.
The Metropolitan Urban Indian Directors had been operating as a collective of local Native nonprofits for nearly 30 years, years before the MOU was finalized with the city. Jointly, the various nonprofits have more influence than when advocating for the Native community on their own.
“We’re not competing for resources,” Lilligren said. “It’s huge, it really reflects an interest among the Native organizations to indigenize the way that we work, to throw off this colonized yolk of scarcity where we are competing, where they throw a few resources into the center of the circle and watch us fight for them and do the colonizer’s work for them.”
With each update of the MOU, Native community leaders have become more assertive in expressing their needs. The notion of Native people standing up for themselves and taking the lead — as in taking resources directly from the city of Minneapolis and deciding what to do with them themselves — is revolutionary, Hobot said.
“Before the MOU, policymakers or the powers that be were very overtly prescriptive and trying to assume a saviorship — ‘We’ll parachute into your communities and we will come to save you. We know what’s best for you,’” Hobot said.
“At least within the city of Minneapolis, the [MOU] gives us some standing within the government that other urban Native communities don’t have,” Lilligren said.
The agreement is a municipal version of the relationship sovereign Native nations have with federal and state governments. At both of those levels, governments must “consult” with Native nations.
“How [Metropolitan Urban Indian Directors] evolved and how the MOU evolved is really innovative and unique to Indian country,” said Cummings, who is Omaha.
Though Native people in Minneapolis are not on sovereign land, they still represent sovereign nations and should be able to speak on behalf of their nations directly to the city government, Lilligren said.
“That was a solid argument that the rest of the city council bought,” Lilligren said of the original MOU.
There are 11 federally recognized tribal nations that border Minnesota. Minneapolis has attracted the largest urban population of Native people in the state. The Indigenous people who live in the Twin Cities come from 36 different sovereign states, according to 2021 data from the American Indian OIC, Hobot said.
“Those 11 tribes only represent a small portion of all the tribal diversity that’s here in the urban area. Where do all these people have a voice? Where do they have the ability to engage? While we are not avatars for the community, [Metropolitan Urban Indian Directors] speaks on behalf of our clients,” Hobot said.
Gains so far from the MOU, and room for improvement
In times of crisis — which Cummings described as so trenchant and everlasting that she likened Native life to operating in a “warzone” — but also in moments of less hectic advocacy, the MOU has brought the Native community a voice that they have not hesitated to use.
That voice was instrumental when the city, in 2015, agreed to switch Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day, a charge led by the Metropolitan Urban Indian Directors.
During the 2018 gubernatorial election, candidates met with the coalition’s leaders and clients “strictly to listen,” Hobot said.
When George Floyd’s murder prompted conversations on the issue of how people of color interact with Minneapolis police, city officials asked the Metropolitan Urban Indian Directors how to make things better.
The MOU with the city also provides “identity affirmation,” Cummings said. “We’re invisible everywhere. People, even when they see us, they don’t know what we are,” she said.
Lilligren said the group’s credibility became “very apparent” during the Wall of Forgotten Natives, a homeless encampment that swelled in the Hiawatha neighborhood during the summer of 2018.
“We have a voice,” Lilligren said.
The city relied on the Metropolitan Urban Indian Directors for the best way to provide resources for the unhoused at the encampment, and, later, at an encampment on a median near the intersection of Franklin Avenue and Cedar Avenue. The Metropolitan Urban Indian Directors made a deal with Minneapolis and Hennepin County officials to give Cummings and the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center resources to bring 30 women in the encampment to a hotel and provide wrap-around services, like inpatient treatment and housing services.
“I don’t think we should have to do that. In my own personal opinion, it is not the community orgs’ responsibility or obligation to do work the city or county should be doing to come up with solutions for the unsheltered population,” Cummings said.
“It shouldn’t be our job. We are filling in where the public sector is failing,” Lilligren said.
Another problem Cummings and Matson said they want to address is the trend in which city and other government agencies provide grants for culturally specific initiatives but don’t give the money to culturally specific groups. Instead, the money goes to large nonprofits who, in turn, attempt to partner with one of the Metropolitan Urban Indian Directors organizations and have them do the culturally specific work.
“Give it to us,” said Matson, who added that she and other leaders are pressing this issue more often with government officials. “We’re asking questions like, ‘Is your board majority Native? Is your staff majority Native? Are you representing the community you serve?’”
The group is no longer tolerating dismissive responses from agencies dolling out grants that amount to — Why can’t the casinos take care of all your problems?
“We get that all the time,” Matson said.
“Don’t get me started,” Cummings added.
If a member of the Metropolitan Urban Indian Directors gets a response to a grant application that “doesn’t pass the smell test,” Hobot said, they share it with each other and look for patterns in a funding processes that leave Native organizations out and need to be addressed.
The 2003 memo between the city and the Metropolitan Urban Indian Directors has had updates in 2007, 2011, and now in 2022. It’s revitalized every five years.
At each interval, leaders say, the Native community has been “feeling ourselves,” as Hobot put it, more and more, in being bold about their needs. And, with each iteration, says the group, the city has been receptive and essentially “rubber stamped” their desires.
“I like the ability to reflect, to sit together, think together, grow together,” Cummings said of the refresh process.
A notable shift came in 2011 when the city and the Metropolitan Urban Indian Directors agreed that there was a discrepancy in that city officials were paid to do MOU work, but the group’s representatives, who were “leading this work,” were not, said Moe.
The city committed $48,000 annually so the Metropolitan Urban Indian Directors could add a part-time staffer and provide money directly to individual Native organizations that carry out programs initiated by the group and the city.
One of the most significant changes in the 2022 refresh is the addition of subcommittees that will be made up of both Metropolitan Urban Indian Directors members and representatives from the city.
Their purpose is to have more “regular reporting,” Matson said, for Native communities, an addition created specifically in response to Native community members asking the Metropolitan Urban Indian Directors “What have you been up to?”
There will be subcommittees for education, employment and economic development, family preservation and well-being, housing, health and wellness, and public safety.
Hobot said he is encouraged by the creation of the education subcommittee, saying that, when it comes to education, “the house is on fire,” and that there is a long way to go for shrinking disparities in high school and college graduation for Native people.
“Although this is a receive-and-file, this action in and of itself is quite momentous to go along with the 2003 memorandum that had previously been signed,” Mayor Jacob Frey said during a Policy and Government Oversight Committee meeting this month. “I’m really proud to speak in favor of this MOU because it symbolizes the renewed commitment that we have with our Native community here in Minneapolis.”
Frey also mentioned the importance of the ongoing relationship for bettering the lives of future generations.
The Metropolitan Urban Indian Directors leadership emphasized this as well, remarking on the passing of local Native leaders like Marlene Faye Whiterabbit Helgemo and Clyde Bellecourt, and how the group has started initiatives to foster leadership among Native youth who they hope will take their place as leaders.
This agreement between Minneapolis and its Native community will soon no longer be a singularly unique initiative — Hobot traveled to Albuquerque to consult on the creation of a similar agreement there.
Back in Minneapolis, the agreement with the city inspired a memorandum of understanding between the Metropolitan Urban Indian Directors and the Minneapolis School District, which was ratified in 2006. Conversations have also begun with the city of St. Paul.