Making a Community

Native people who came to Duluth in the 20th century or who were already there formed their own community in the city. This is a community that has connections to reservations throughout Minnesota and other nearby states but also transcends tribal divisions and boundaries.

The most well-known business associated with the Native community in Duluth is the Fond du Luth Casino, opened by the Lake Superior Band of Chippewa in 1986 in downtown Duluth, in an area close to Chief Buffalo's Reservation created under the Treaty of 1854. Proceeds from the casino go to help the Fond du Lac tribe as well as other Indians in the Duluth area.

Over the years there have been many Native community events involving many Native organizations in the city. The Ni-Mi-Win Powwow began in 1984 at Spirit Mountain and was held in later years at Duluth's Bayfront Park. Among the organizations started by Native people in Duluth were churches and social service agencies designed to help people in their community to deal with the challenges of living in the city. In the 1960s, the Central Neighborhood Community Center, located at Third Avenue West and Second Street in the Central Hillside area of Duluth had a gymnasium and offered lunch and dinner for members of the community. School kids could play there after school and the building hosted many other activities.

Another organization serving the community was the American Indian Fellowship Association, which was located on First Street in the downtown area. AIFA offered many recreational activities including a gym, ping-pong tables, and pool tables. Babette Sandman's uncle Vic Budreau ran AIFA. It was located in an area where there were many people who were down and out and slept outdoors. No alcohol was served there but no person drinking was turned away. There were tables with red-checkered tablecloths. Food was available along with coffee and donuts. Sandman recalled that her uncle would sit and tell stories:

I remember exactly where it was on First Street. You had to go upstairs and right now it would be above a liquor store on First Street but it wasn't a liquor store then. It is on a corner. When you got upstairs there was a rack of free clothing if you needed it. You would see several round tables with red and white vinyl table cloths on each one. Each table had a canning jar with spoons in it. There was a constant pot of coffee and probably tea too. Sometimes there was something to eat. My Uncle had a desk but it seemed he barely sat behind it. People visited with each other. My sister and I loved our Uncle Vic.

When she went to AIFA Sandman visited frequently with an elder named Eugene Savage who was on the board of AIFA and was active in Alcoholics Anonymous. He was a good storyteller, telling many stories about survival as a Native person.

Sandman also recalled another Indian center called Duluth Indian Action or DIAC, located right below Thunderbird House, a halfway house for Native Americans with chemical dependencies. In the 1970s it was located at 217 North Fourth Street, in the former Highland Hotel.

These doors were open, you just came in, sat down, had a cup of coffee and talked . . . and there all down a row of offices, really comfortable and a coffee pot in each one. Of course you smoked back then and everything, so there was an ash tray, too. And you talked about . . . for me, I was talking about what I wanted to do with my life, and they were always good suggestions. DIAC was very, extremely comfortable.

At the time Sandman was a young single parent "trying to make it." She found DIAC to be a big help.

In 1989, the Center for American Indian Resources (CAIR) opened in Duluth at 211 West Fourth Street. CAIR provides social services and health care to members of the Fond du Lac Reservation as well as to enrolled members of federally recognized tribes and other Native Americans who qualify under the regulations of the Indian Health Service. CAIR’s staff includes full-time medical doctors and pharmacists. As of 2014, CAIR continues to provide services at the same location.

A number of Native bands have offices in Duluth. In 1992, the non-profit organization known as The Greater Duluth Grand Portage Enrollees Program was formed in Duluth. The group is made up of tribal volunteers who purchase and repair duplexes and rent them to Native Americans. The organization has been recognized nationally.

An important development for the Indian community in Duluth was the creation of the American Indian Community Housing Organization, which, in 2008, purchased the old YWCA Building, renovated it, and renamed it Gimaajii, from the Ojibwe phrase "Gimaaji Mino Bimaadiziyaan," meaning “Together we are beginning a good life." It included 29 units of permanent supportive housing for families and Duluth’s first Urban Indian Center. The units "target those individuals and families who are homeless or who are precariously housed and at or below 50% of the AMI." In addition, Trepanier Hall was built adjacent to the old YWCA and has provided a venue for community events, including art shows, providing Native artists with much-needed opportunities to display and sell their work.