Widening the circle

  • Article by: ALLIE SHAH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 16, 2011 - 10:05 PM

Clashes between American Indians and Somalis living in the heart of Minneapolis' Indian country have given rise to a group seeking peace between neighbors.

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During a Kickoff Parade of Nations and Celebration walk from Little Earth to the American Indian Center along Franklin Avenue, founding Friendship Committee member Terri Yellowhammer, center, walked with Somali members Amina Saleh, right, and Aisha Mohamed along the route.

Photo: David Joles, Star Tribune

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The drum beat loudly as paradegoers in Minneapolis sized up the unlikely trio marching.

Three women -- two Somali and one American Indian -- walked arm in arm.

This small, bold act was designed to send a message to the American Indians and Somalis living near Franklin Avenue: We can and should be friends.

It's along this stretch of pavement, in one of the city's poorest neighborhoods, where a people who have been on this land the longest regularly bump up against a people who have only recently arrived.

Now, ambassadors from both communities are striving to move from animosity to friendship. Calling themselves the Native American Somali Friendship Committee (NAFSC), they meet monthly to speak frankly about the latest clashes and find common ground.

Group members say they've been through a transformation themselves since they started up last year.

"I was one of the top ones saying, 'I can't stand these people. They park in our parking lots. They stop in the middle of the road and talk to each other,'" said Mike Forcia, a committee member who runs the Wolves' Den cafe at the American Indian Center on Franklin. "Getting to know these people on a personal level has really changed that."

Suddenly neighbors

Old and new federal policies created the collision of cultures along Franklin Avenue.

During the 1950s and 1960s, the federal government relocated many American Indians from reservations to cities.

"The idea was to assimilate us. Get us off the reservation," said Terri Yellowhammer, an attorney and Friendship Committee member.

Thousands of Indians moved to Minneapolis. Most settled in the East Phillips neighborhood, making it home to one of the largest concentrations of urban Indians in the country.

Franklin Avenue became known as "Indian country," and to this day, the street holds a special place in American Indian history. Civil rights activists met there in the 1960s and 1970s and founded the American Indian Movement.

The first housing project in the nation to give preference to American Indians was built near Franklin.

Today, the avenue is seeing a renaissance, having just been designated the "American Indian Cultural Corridor," with banners hanging from streetlights and new Indian-owned art spaces and businesses opening.

Wade Keezer, another Friendship Committee member, remembers when the first wave of Somali refugees started appearing on south Minneapolis streets in the early 1990s, the women covered head to toe in flowing fabrics.

"I thought they were some new type of Catholic nun," he said.

The federal government chose Minnesota as a resettlement site for the thousands escaping Somalia's bloody civil war. Many came to the East Phillips neighborhood where rent was cheap.

Soon, Somali-owned businesses started opening, and the grumbling began.

Some Indians started calling the Aldi's grocery store on Franklin "Ali's," because it attracted Somali shoppers.

In some Somali circles, where alcohol is taboo, Indians were viewed as drunks.

"A lot of people really started noticing when they started opening halal markets and getting into the subsidized housing," Keezer said. "A lot of Indian people couldn't get into there because they couldn't pass the background checks. People started saying, 'How do they get all this property and how do they get the push?'"

Somali immigrants had an edge over Indians applying for housing because, as newcomers, they had a clean slate.

Oil and water

Tensions reached a boiling point in the summer of 2009 when an American Indian woman reported that she had been beaten and robbed on Franklin by three Somali teenagers.

The hateful comments about Somalis that Keezer overheard told him it was time to do something. He fired off an e-mail reflecting on what was happening, sparking a community conversation.

It was the start of monthly gatherings that alternate between the American Indian Center and the Brian Coyle Center, which is frequented by Somalis.

"People come and tell their real stories," said Amina Saleh of the Family Partnership.

Yellowhammer was one of the founding members.

"The message I got from the Somalis I met with fairly early on was, 'This does not reflect our values. These attacks on your people -- this is not who we are,'" she said.

The Somalis talked of youth who were growing up as orphans, unschooled and unconnected to Somali culture.

That resonated with Forcia, Yellowhammer and Keezer, who saw similar problems among American Indian youth.

"We have the same dynamics, but instead of finding common ground, we were just oil and water all the time," Forcia said.

The group's work has attracted outside attention. Last year, NASFC finished second out of 223 entries for a $25,000 grant from the InCommons program.

NASFC members also have been consulted to ease tensions between American Indian and Somali kids on school buses. Residents from Eden Prairie and Rochester have asked about NASFC's work, hoping to apply it to their own communities.

New friends

Before she got involved with the group, Saleh didn't have any Indian friends.

"Now I have Mike. I have Wade. I have Terri," she said.

"We can talk about incidents, and those need to be talked about," Keezer said. "We've gotten to a level of comfort where we can be honest about things."

Getting there took perseverance.

When Khadra Abdi went to her first meeting, she just listened, but even that was difficult.

"I left the meeting and said to Amina, 'Did you hear what that guy Mike said? He said we don't know how to drive! What does that mean?'" she asked.

In those first months, Abdi and Saleh wondered how much honesty people could take. But they kept coming back, and Abdi started seeing things differently.

"Before, if I saw a Native walking on the same side of the street, I was going to the other side of the street," she said. "All I know is they don't want me. I'd rather not deal with it."

She began to understand why her behavior might offend some Indians. Now, when she sees a Native American coming her way, she looks up and says hello.

"Before, I really didn't care," Abdi said. "But now, I care. This is my little theory: I'm going to be friendly to this person so maybe, they will be friendly to another Somali person. I don't know if it's going to work, but I try it every day."

Allie Shah • 612-673-4488

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  • Founding member Wade Keezer, left, laughed with Khadra Abdi at a recent meeting of the Native American Somali Friendship Committee in the Brian Coyle Center.

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