Wall of Forgotten Natives

Native American women residing in the Twin Cities sing traditional healing songs to residents living at The Wall of Forgotten Natives, an encampment near downtown Minneapolis where an estimated 200 mostly unsheltered Native Americans have been living since as early as last spring. (L-R) Irene Churchill, Unknown, Maria McCoy, Pam Gokey, Nelda Goodman, Bridget Saice, Unknown, Eileen Hudon PHOTOGRAPH: Heidi Inman

This story was commissioned by The Guardian and was published on Oct. 19, 2018. It’s been adapted here to reflect headlines, wording, grammatical and style-guide edits preferred among Indigenous Peoples, including the final image and caption layout. Segments featured in bold represent content that was either omitted by the editor or additions made by the journalist. Author’s notes can be found here.

Inside an encampment near downtown Minneapolis is a hand-painted sign made from a simple square of cardboard: “Just tents to you. A community to us!”

Residents call the camp “The Wall of Forgotten Natives” — what started out last spring as a few campers with sleeping bags has gradually grown to a tent city, three rows deep, on a quarter-mile-long grassy knoll beneath a soundwall in the heart of the city’s Native American community.

Small dome-tents draped with bright-blue tarps, a pair of tipis and a white canopy over a makeshift kitchen — these, together, represent the collective survival of an estimated 200 mostly Indigenous children, pregnant mothers, elders and others — many the offspring of first-generation urban Indians lured here by government plans more than half a century ago.

A Section-8 housing unit towers over a sprawling encampment in the heart of Minneapolis’ historic Native American district known as the Phillips Community. PHOTOGRAPH: Heidi Inman

With winter approaching, a small fire has steadily burned near a donation point draped with a banner belonging to Natives Against Heroin (NAH). The organization’s volunteers have become fierce caretakers to an often overlooked group afflicted with disproportionately high rates of homelessness, drug dependency and violence.

“People are fucking dying out here and we’re not going for it,” said Greg Franson, a recovering heroin addict with First Nations roots in Canada and one of the leaders of NAH. On this day, he manned a smartphone to broadcast a shaky Facebook live feed that showed residents and advocates ripping to shreds two tents belonging to alleged opioid dealers. At one point, the feed showed a man emerging from one of the dwellings, fleeing without a fight.

It was not unlike an act of traditional tribal banishment; members of NAH piled the alleged drug pushers’ bikes, chairs, rugs and mattresses on the side of the street.

NAH began cracking down on predatory drug dealing after Pam Rivera, a 51-year-old White Earth Ojibwe mother, fatally overdosed in her tent in late September. She was among the first to reside at the camp and the third to die there.

“There was like six, seven ODs the other day within four or five hours,” said Serena Morris, 34, a resident of The Wall.

A citizen of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, Morris arrived to the camp with her Blackfeet boyfriend after they were evicted (wrongly, they say) from a $650-a-month apartment rental last summer. When they pitched their tan-and-green dome tent in August, the encampment was swelling with people like them: unsheltered, Native American and users of heroin.

A drug needle to feed opioid addiction rests on a therapeutic chair outside a tent at The Wall. PHOTOGRAPH: Jenni Monet

Instead of dismantling the camp, police sent in “homeless liaisons” to understand the needs of those living there. Toilets, showers and a medical tent soon followed. Today, drug needles — either to feed opioid addictions or to curb them — are seen throughout the temporary community, in plain sight.

One of the highest Native American mortality rates of opioid-related overdoses is here in Minneapolis, Hennepin County, where the Indigenous population represents roughly 1% of the population, yet makes up 10% of all opioid-related fatalities.

That illegal drug use is unpoliced here has not been lost on residents like Morris, who said she has been working to curtail her own heroin addiction since moving to The Wall. Despite the danger, however, there is a sense that a simple tent paired with a spirit of Indigenous solidarity has provided some security absent from city streets or shelters.

“It’s amazing what a little stability will do … and encouragement and love,” said Cheryl, a resident who asked to withhold her surname.

The Lac Courte Oreilles woman said a series of “traumatic events” spurred her pattern of months-long homelessness, a circumstance that at times left her feeling terrified. She said she suffered PTSD but declined to elaborate further. At 52, Cheryl finds comfort from camping among others who, like her, have endured extreme life events.

Just then, a man dangling a recycled coffee can from a strand of twine approached her and offered an opportunity to smudge. Tucked inside the tin, a bundle of cedar, sage and sweetgrass gently smoldered; its purifying tonic wafted into the urban day.

Cheryl draped the smoke over her body, closed her eyes and grinned.

“This reminds me so much of being back home,” she said as freeway traffic whirred nearby.

The Wall of Forgotten Natives is named partly because of where it sits, along a towering sound barrier with housing projects on one side and gridlock on the other.

But the name also acknowledges the systemic erasure faced by the city’s Native Americans, despite Minneapolis holding one of the most vibrant and concentrated urban Indian communities in the country. One of the community’s oldest advocacy organizations, the American Indian Movement or AIM, is headquartered three blocks away.

A few streets over is Little Earth, the only Section-8 housing project in the United States that gives preference to Native Americans; locals call it the “urban rez”. Little Earth was founded in 1973, in response to a city housing crisis, back then, with 212 units of shelter for Native families. Today, that emergency is still felt, but with little relief in sight.

Federal money obligated to Indigenous Peoples in the US has not followed their migration from reservations to cities. Only about 1% of spending by the Indian Health Service goes to urban Indian health programs, and the estimated $650m earmarked annually for Native American housing grants doesn’t extend off tribal trust lands.

“It’s unfortunate that they have to occupy these urban lands to demonstrate the fact that we don’t have access to affordable housing any more,” said Clyde Bellecourt.

A Native Lives Matter poster rests near a bull skull painted with a medicine wheel and stuffed with cedar on a Pendleton blanket to add to a healing point at The Wall. PHOTOGRAPH: Jenni Monet

One of the last living cofounders of the American Indian Movement, the White Earth elder likened the spontaneous gathering at The Wall to a form of passive protest: a reminder of an urban Indigenous struggle with roots that go generations deep. In fact, housing discrimination against Native Americans in Minneapolis was an issue central to AIM’s founding in 1968.

“Our people down there are gonna set an example that will affect Native people once again,” said Bellecourt.

Like opioid-related deaths, homelessness statistics are lopsided: 16% of Hennepin County’s unsheltered people are Native American.

Today, more Indigenous people live in cities than on reservations — roughly seven in 10, according to the census. The trend, which started during the second world war, accelerated after the Indian Relocation Act of 1956. Native Americans from Minnesota’s 11 reservations were encouraged to voluntarily leave their homelands and enter the urban workforce.

The Relocation Act was part of a larger government project to eliminate tribes and their sovereignty. Known as “termination”, this policy was influenced by another: assimilation, a form of cultural genocide on tribes and their citizens. But while Indigenous Peoples, and their cultures and traditions, are still here, the legacy of the attempted erasure is raw.

“We talk a lot about historical trauma,” said Sam Strong, whose Red Lake father, a cable repairman in Minneapolis, was a “relocation Indian”. “In this particular context, there’s a population of Natives down there at that Wall that don’t have faith in the system. The system hasn’t ever really worked for them.”

Strong, a community planner and Tribal Secretary with the Red Lake Nation, has stepped in to help facilitate a winter campsite — an acknowledgement of how vital it is to keep the community together.

“That’s why they’re congregating in the manner that they are. They want to be around people they can trust.”

In the 1990s, a wave of immigration coupled with “white flight” caused dramatic economic and demographic shifts in the greater Phillips Community where the city’s urban Native Americans have historically lived. Somali refugees and Latinos increased the non-white population by 17%, while 30% of white residents fled. The community became one of the fastest-growing impoverished areas in Minneapolis. Today, it’s the city’s second-poorest district.

By 2002, Native Americans responded by leaving too. A news dispatch from the tribal newspaper, the Circle, explained their exodus: lack of access to affordable living. Housing discrimination against Native Americans was also a known issue, according to a 2003 federal housing department study, with residents increasingly feeling the crunch of rising rents, low vacancy rates and looming gentrification.

At the same time, Fair Housing Act laws and rigorous eligibility requirements have intensified competition for affordable places to live, even those once designated for Native Americans.

A 2003 affordable housing project, Nibiwa Sibiin, an Ojibwe phrase meaning “Many Rivers”, was intended to keep Native Americans in the community. But today, the 50 mixed-income units situated along the city’s American Indian Cultural Corridor are rented to mostly new immigrants.

Serena Morris, a tribal citizen of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe (L) and her boyfriend, Joachim “Jay” McCarty, a tribal citizen of the Blackfeet Nation (R) arrived at The Wall in August after they were evicted from a $650 apartment rental this summer. PHOTOGRAPH: Heidi Inman

“It’s really hard to believe anybody any more,” said Morris. A purple strand of hair curled around her chestnut eye. She was still reeling from her recent apartment eviction.

Last summer, Morris and her boyfriend, Joachim McCarty, moved into a one-bedroom apartment about a 20-minute bus ride from the Phillips Community.

“We were so happy to get a place,” said McCarty. At 36 years old, it was his first apartment. His mother proudly fussed over furniture and future plans. The couple, unemployed but motivated by their new stability, set their sights on finding good jobs.

McCarty was a bit surprised the landlord let them move in at all. They hadn’t filed an application, a screening process that would have revealed McCarty’s prison past. But the couple was eager and they happily paid the first month’s rent and deposit, a total of $1,300, without question. Then, days after they had settled in, the landlord asked them to fill out rental applications.

“I told him right away about my felonies,” said McCarty, who knew that criminal histories, along with poor credit, past evictions and mounting application fees were among some of the most common barriers to accessing housing in Minneapolis. But what really stood in the way of securing shelter was the proof-of-income required to rent even the most affordable spaces — often double or triple the rental rate.

The landlord was less concerned about McCarty’s past crimes. He wanted verification that the couple could pay the rent. The social security income McCarty listed, $763 a month, wasn’t enough. It needed to be twice that amount.

They had five days to move out. The landlord threatened to call the cops. The couple say they never got any of the $1,300 back.

At The Wall, McCarty and Morris mulled over the ordeal in their minds. They felt swindled.

Morris said she remembered the cockroaches and mice most from the few days she lived at the apartment. McCarty recalled that many of his neighbors struggled to understand English. Both suspected that the landlord had a history of preying on people like them — financially and socially vulnerable adults.

Morris’s first-born child, a son, died from a respiratory infection in 2001.
Social workers blamed her for his death. And they reminded her of this when they took her next baby and the one after that. She delivered seven children but lost custody of every one.

Over the course of this steady loss, Morris said that what she wished for most out of life was to die. “I used to pray every day not to wake up,” she said. “All I wanted to do was use,” referring to a heroin habit she said she adopted as a way to self-medicate her pain.

The words “Native Pride” are inked on the hands of Joachim “Jay” McCarty, a tribal citizen of the Blackfeet Nation who has been in and out of prison seven times, mostly for theft. PHOTOGRAPH: Jenni Monet

McCarty’s struggle was similar. He’d been drowning out his chronic depression with alcohol and, when that nearly killed him, drugs. A native of Minneapolis, he grew up without his father but lived with a man who beat his mother. Babysitters molested him, he said, and by the time he was a teenager, he started “acting out”, skipping school and stealing. At nearly 40, he has been in and out of prison seven times, mostly for theft. His latest release was last year, one day after Christmas.

“I got that home because I’m trying to be the dad that I never had,” he said referring to the apartment that he lost and the son he fathered with Morris three years ago. His voice cracked as he held back tears.

The couple named their baby boy, who now lives with McCarty’s mother, Joachim Jr.

“I told my mother ‘don’t be sad that I’m out here’,” said McCarty. “I told her that we’re all sticking together to see this through.”

In late August, the mayor of Minneapolis, Jacob Frey, called a press conference at the American Indian Center, just steps away from The Wall.

“We are on Native Dakota land, stolen Dakota land,” said Frey, striking a conscious and compassionate tone that has since defined the overall response to the camp.

That a tent city in Minneapolis has become visual irony to the impact cyclical immigration and removal has had on America’s Indigenous Peoples, a demographic who are literally homeless on their own homelands, has not entirely been lost on civic leaders. But understanding how best to respond to the problems unique to the urban Indigenous experience hasn’t been a straight path.

A coalition of tribal, city, county and state actors have been treating The Wall as an emergency. But to those close to this housing and heroin crisis — to be sure, a trauma crisis — the situation has been in emergency mode for some time.

As director of the Red Lake Nation Planning and Economic Development department, Sam Strong had been drafting a plan to address these problems since well before the first tents popped up last spring.

In 2016, he convinced his cash-strapped tribe to take a leap of faith and buy some property in the Phillips Community — an old, shuttered hardware store which they plan to demolish to make way for an affordable housing and traditional healing center.

Sam Strong, a community planner and Tribal Secretary of the Red Lake Nation, at the site of a proposed winterized campsite in south Minneapolis. PHOTOGRAPH: Heidi Inman

At their own expense, Red Lake will raze the buildings they own at the site within the next few weeks to support a smattering of winterized dwellings (tiny trailers have been discussed) that will service roughly 200 people by December. The temporary housing solution, approved by the city council, is expected to cost Minneapolis taxpayers an estimated $1.5m excluding any additional expenses to provide services at the site.

What happens next is anyone’s guess.

“The fact that this is Native-driven really is so important,” Mayor Frey told me. “I can’t claim to have the experience and background of a Native person and so to follow their lead, I’m hopeful will bear fruit.”

For a time, the local press had misconstrued remarks made by Mayor Frey, incorrectly suggesting he had promised to move residents of The Wall to temporary housing by 30 September. When it became clear this deadline would not be met, campers saw it for what they had always known: government promises made, government promises unkept.

But Pam Rivera had held out hope.

A humble alter for Pam Rivera, a tribal citizen of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe who died at The Wall, Sept. 30, from a heroin overdose. PHOTOGRAPH: Jenni Monet

“I’m trying to get ready and packed,” she told me on a chilly night a week or so before the presumed deadline. “I think it’s gonna happen. I hope it does because the cold is coming.”

On 30 September, Rivera ended up departing The Wall, but perhaps not as she intended.

“I miss you already, Pam,” read the words scrawled in thick black ink on the concrete edifice where she lived. They are framed around a rendering of a large, puffy heart. A candle and a vase of flowers completes the humble altar.

The memorial, like every detail about The Wall itself, is living force to the Indigenous legacy.

Photographer Heidi Inman and documentary film-maker Courtney Cochran contributed to this report. Support for this article comes from The O’Brien Fellowship in Public Service Journalism.



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