Mayor Jacob Frey and American Indian leaders made an impassioned plea for unity Sunday at a crowded public meeting, which was hastily called in response to complaints of harassment and intimidation of humanitarian aid workers at the large homeless camp in south Minneapolis.
The group of more than 200 people also discussed the specifics of camp residents’ impending move to a navigation center — three large heated tents to be assembled near the Franklin Avenue light-rail station. That relocation will begin Tuesday with a small group moving in.
Frey asked the group, which was combative at times, to commit to making the transition a success.
“What I don’t want is a showdown between our Native American brothers and sisters,” Frey told the crowd at the American Indian Center.
Minneapolis has the chance to set a national precedent for handling homelessness, something other cities haven’t been able to do, Frey said.
“What will make this the first successful approach in the nation is that this [camp] is on Natives’ land, and it has been an entire Native community coming together … saying they deserve better,” Frey said.
Leaders from four Indian reservations attended the meeting: Red Lake, Leech Lake, White Earth and Fond du Lac. They sat at a large, round table as the smell of burnt sage hung in the air.
Clyde Bellecourt, a founder of the American Indian Movement, shared decades of experience advocating for American Indian rights.
Now, as in the past, “The women and the children are the ones that suffer the most because we are divided and can’t get our act together,” Bellecourt said.
Discord permeated the gathering and emotions ran high, despite a few positive moments.
Several dozen members of Natives Against Heroin (NAH), the street outreach group recently accused of harassment and dividing camp residents, marched out of the meeting in apparent anger. NAH volunteers have been a visible force at the camp since its beginning, providing security and donations to residents while rescuing people who have overdosed.
Whenever discussions became too combative, a group of women raised their voices in prayer to calm the room.
Kevin DuPuis, chairman of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, called for more organization and collaboration among the many groups trying to assist residents of the tent city.
If they can’t get organized, “We will become our own worst enemy, like always,” he said. “We have the ability to choose our own destiny.”
A point of contention was whether Indians who are homeless should receive priority, being allowed to move into the large heated tents and receive other services before non-Indians.
Some argued that the ethnicity of those getting help wasn’t important.
Others, like White Earth Nation member Dawn LaRoque, said she hoped Indians would receive aid first. LaRoque also brought up safety at the navigation center, including whether people will still be able to use drugs there.
Frey said residents wouldn’t be tested for drugs upon admittance, but that they couldn’t do drugs on site.
A new idea emerged from discussions: creating a space where people could share disagreements in front of a neutral third party. Frey said it was an excellent idea.
Sam Strong, tribal secretary of the Red Lake Band of Chippewa, said the camp had already spurred change simply by forcing officials to address homelessness head-on.
“There’s hope in that facility that we have over there,” Strong said. “When has anybody ever done anything for homeless people?”