Dozens of adults and children circle around a buffalo hide in a south Minneapolis gym, waiting for a tobacco ceremony to fill the space with sacred sage smoke and Ojibwe song.
But first, a public service announcement about how to use Narcan — a drug that counteracts heroin overdoses. “Let me know if you’re interested in that training,” Jolene Jones tells the room at Little Earth of United Tribes.
These are crucial times at Little Earth, a 43-year-old housing project that has long been the heart of the Twin Cities’ urban American Indian population. A heroin epidemic, coupled with persistent gun violence, has spurred efforts large and small to restore peace there.
Residents hold several seats on the neighborhood board for the first time, advocating for safety resources and youth arts funding. A new group led by a former criminal is helping addicts find treatment. The resident governance body is more organized than it’s been in years. There have been anti-violence marches and efforts to form block clubs.
“Nobody else can do it for us. We have to do it ourselves,” said Jones, a resident of four decades. “Too many times people have come in here to try to save us and nothing works out.”
Little Earth is, by some estimates, the most concentrated urban American Indian population in the United States. And it is the only Section 8 housing project in the country that gives preference to Native Americans. It was built in 1973 at the urging of activists demanding better housing for the city’s growing number of Indian residents, years after the federal government relocated many from reservations to neighborhoods like Phillips.
The recent improvement efforts still need wider tenant involvement to flourish. So some were shaken by the news that Little Earth’s president, Robert Lilligren, a former City Council member who nurtured many residents into leadership roles, would be leaving in April.
His departure comes just as a team of academics — fueled by a federal grant — get to work on a resident-guided study of how to cure Little Earth’s crime problems. “We need to involve families in very difficult discussions here,” Lilligren told a residents association meeting this winter.
The statistics show Little Earth is a unique place with significant challenges. About 655 people — more than half of them children — are officially listed on leases of the 212 apartment units, but the actual population hovers between 1,200 and 1,500. Almost all the households at the 9.4-acre housing complex earn less than $10,000 a year.
Opioids claimed eight lives at Little Earth last year, plus another two so far in 2016. There are, by some accounts, two overdoses a week. And there is gun violence: One Little Earth street, Ogema Place, has seen more shootings in the last 10 years than any other street segment in the city, according to police. Domestic violence and sex trafficking are also problems.
But residents like Margarita Ortega, a 26-year-old single mother who has lived there her entire life, are determined to change things. She is vice president of the local neighborhood board, the East Phillips Improvement Coalition, where Little Earth resident involvement was largely nonexistent until last year.
Her most recent battle has been to install security cameras at a nearby park and a speed bump on 18th Avenue to deter drive-by shootings, which occur between the park and a day care center. Ortega said there have been shootings in the afternoon when children are present.
“I don’t feel safe,” she said. “I’m here with two daughters. So believe me, it’s scary.”
It wasn’t always like this. Ortega and others recall a time when Little Earth was a more tight-knit place. “It was family,” she said. “I want to create it again. But I need more people to help me create it.”
Shawna Dillon is trying, too. Dillon, also a young mother and neighborhood board member, helps lead the Community Building Team, a group of residents formed last year as a vehicle to encourage resident leadership — with a focus on safety issues.
Dillon recently began hosting kid-friendly free soup lunches in the gym. “I basically am doing it to build a stronger community,” Dillon said.
After one lunch in January, a small group marched through the complex with signs and a megaphone, yelling, “Stop the violence, take back the projects!” The first such march happened last fall, with police officers, after a spike in shootings shook the community.
“Not too many people come out, but they know we’re out here marching,” said Patricia Hanks, a resident whose adult daughter was hit by a stray bullet this fall.
While violence has long been a problem at Little Earth, heroin deaths and overdoses are a newer phenomenon. Rich Latterner, a chemical health counselor who assesses addicts at Little Earth seeking treatment, said the powerful addiction impacts families quickly as drug users spend paychecks or pawn household items to get another fix.
“I had never seen people steal family artifacts or maybe a bead work that their grandpa and grandma had done and passed on. Because those are really important to family,” Latterner said. “But now I see that happening.”
Neighbors are determined to stop the drug problems, too. Resident Renay Parkhurst, who signed up to be a safety leader in a new block club-like program at the complex, told those gathered at a recent Community Building Team meeting how she confronted an upstairs neighbor suspected of dealing methamphetamine.
“People know about you and you better stop it,” she recalled telling him. “There’s a new sheriff in town.”
A new group, Natives Against Heroin, invites addicts and others to open up at weekly “talking circles” at Little Earth, offers help finding treatment, and has broader goals to intervene in gang retaliation and other violence.
James Cross, an ex-convict who leads the group, also hopes to open a halfway house emphasizing Native-specific traditions — sweat lodge prayer, fishing, harvesting wild rice — to reconnect addicts with their heritage. And he wants to start regular patrols of Little Earth.
“We want to patrol, make a response team,” Cross said. “We’ll have support people, we’ll have our opwaagans [sacred pipes], we’ll have our medicines.”
‘A louder voice’
Lilligren, a member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe, is stepping down after about a year and a half as president of Little Earth. He said he enjoys working with residents, but “there are parts of [the job] that are not that good of a fit.”
Inspector Michael Sullivan, who leads the Third Precinct that polices the area, said there has been a surge of reform activities at Little Earth. “I give a lot of that credit to Robert,” Sullivan said.
Alongside planning for Little Earth’s biggest annual event, the Mother’s Day powwow, the search for Lilligren’s replacement has been a big priority in recent months.
“We need somebody else who can take this drug addiction, gang violence head on,” said resident Jean Howard. Gangs repeatedly solicited her son when he was a preteen, she said, and threatened to kill him for not joining. But she is optimistic about the future.
“I think it’s going to change for the better,” Howard said, “because of the people standing up and showing the people that they’re not going to take this anymore.”