Reported ArticleHousing

Tribal-Sponsored Development Offers Housing and More in Minneapolis

A hub for health care, social services, and community, the Mino-Bimaadiziwin apartments meet the unique needs of urban Native Americans while enriching the surrounding community.

Photo by Flickr user J. Stephen Conn, CC BY-NC 2.0 Deed

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On an unseasonably warm September afternoon in Minneapolis’s Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, a handful of children snacked at a toddler-sized table as sun streamed through the windows of their daycare. Down the hall from the juice box extravaganza, six women busily sent bands of patterned cloth and colorful satin through thudding sewing machines. They were making traditional ribbon skirts, representative of womanhood in some Native American communities.

Blending tradition and modernity is at the heart of the Mino-Bimaadiziwin Apartments, owned and operated by the Red Lake Nation, an Ojibwe tribe. Completed in 2021, the affordable housing complex is one of the first tribal-sponsored housing developments in a major U.S. city, according to architect Sam Olbekson, who worked on the project. All units are affordable to residents earning under 30, 50, or 60 percent of the Area Median Income.

A member of the White Earth Nation Ojibwe tribe, 63-year-old Stefi Villebrun lost her home to arson in 2014, and tears up at the memory. She lived with her daughter until she became one of the first residents of Mino-B, as she calls it, when it opened.

“If you’re homeless, when you first move in, they give you a welcome package that has everything: cleaning supplies, dishes, pots and pans, a queen-sized air mattress,” Villebrun says. She and her 10-year-old poodle, Gizmo, live in a subsidized one-bedroom apartment where she finally feels safe.

Mino-Bimaadiziwin consists of 110 affordable housing units that range in size from studios to three-bedrooms. The first floor is reserved for the community spaces, like a workout room and an industrial kitchen, to encourage shared experiences. It’s also home to the new Red Lake Nation embassy, a wellness clinic, and a social services hub. While the housing, child care center, and community classes are open to all, the clinic and social services are reserved for the Twin Cities’ Indigenous population.

The first inklings of what would become Mino-Bimaadiziwin—an Ojibwe term that roughly refers to living a good life of values that honor yourself, your neighbors, and your community for generations—began in 2015. Red Lake Nation leadership conducted focus groups and surveyed its urban residents to home in on their unmet needs.

“Housing and health care were number one and two,” explains Sam Strong, Red Lake’s tribal secretary. “The biggest barriers to keeping people in housing are supportive mental health and chemical dependency services, which are in the building. It all works together and is based on how to holistically heal people.” Strong and company also heard that a lack of child care often kept members from accessing existing services, so that’s in the building, too.

To determine the location, “we did a geographic search of our tribal members and identified the neighborhood as having the highest concentration of Red Lakers,” Strong says. Across Minnesota, according to a 2018 count, American Indians make up 1 percent of the adult population, but a disproportionately high 12 percent of the adult homeless population. Mino-B was ultimately erected across the street from where a large, majority Native American homeless encampment once formed before the state cleared it with just 24 hours’ notice in 2023.

Figuring out what and where Mino-B needed to be was the easy part. When it came to implementation, “the challenges were profound,” Strong says. It took collaborating with the city, hiring a development consultant and an architect, and finding 19 different funding sources from grants to tax credits to bring the complex to life, Strong says.

Each one of the funders, from the city to local foundations, had different criteria and application periods. “We had to present to a lot of these organizations, so I went there personally and presented our passion for helping our people and some of the history behind it,” Strong says, “like the American Indian Urban Relocation era and the Termination Era when the federal government dumped our people in cities to die basically.”

They eventually secured the funding they needed, and construction started. Then George Floyd was murdered. The building’s wooden frame was all that had been completed when civil unrest erupted. “Our security left us. There was no security that wanted to work in Minneapolis during the race riots, so we put our own security together,” Strong says.

With round-the-clock shifts, the improvised security team kept the building from burning and ultimately on track for construction.

Sam Olbekson—an Ojibwe architect and founder and CEO of Full Circle Indigenous Planning + Design—brought Mino-Bimaadiziwin to life alongside Cuningham Group Architecture and Red Lake Nation. Their goal was to design the best complex for not just housing, but affordable, community-centric living both within Mino-B and the larger American Indian Cultural Corridor it flanks.

“One of the questions we’ve been asking ourselves as Native communities is how do we design intentionally to create a great environment for our children to grow up in, one that’s inspiring, culturally relevant, and that meets our unique needs as an urban indigenous community,” Olbekson says. “Multifamily mixed-use development is one of the key pieces of that.” He adds that Mino-B aligns with the goals of the corridor, which are, in part, to create a neighborhood that has all the amenities—including health care, jobs, recreation, and shopping—in a very walkable and transit-oriented area.

“The idea [for Mino-Bimaadiziwin] was to elevate housing in the Native community, to try a different model, because the models of housing that existed weren’t working,” Olbekson says. There were single-family homes and there was homelessness. And there was very little in between.

He wanted to ensure the design honored Ojibwe traditions and fostered a sense of home away from home without resorting to cliche representations. The six-story, V-shaped building points northwest toward the Red Lake Reservation some 270 miles north. Inside, knotty cedar planks serve as warm, textured paneling accents. Each community space is dedicated to one of the animals that represent Ojibwe clans. In place of obvious illustrations of bears or turtles, residents find color palettes and subtle forms that reference the animals’ shapes as contemporary references to these cultural traditions.

“It’s about reflecting the contemporary identity of the people we’re serving, and part of that contemporary identity is cultural revitalization: How do we take our values and our way of life and live in that manner within a contemporary urban setting?” Olbekson says.

For Kellie Chaboyea, a 55-year-old resident and Red Lake member who had been living out of her van, even during frigid Minnesota winters, Mino-B’s medicine garden is an apt example.

As she walks through the garden, Chaboyea carefully notes the medicinal properties of each of the four plants that fill the circular medicine garden: sage, tobacco, flat cedar, and sweetgrass. Then, she pauses to share advice that her grandmother gave her, which seems to take on another layer of meaning inside Mino-B.

“Don’t ever think that you can only ever use modern or traditional medicine,” she recalls her grandmother saying. “We’re lucky to be born in this modern day with the modern medicines we have and also our traditional medicines. You let them work together.”

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