The fight for visibility on Franklin Avenue

The underpass leading to the American Indian Corridor in Minneapolis on Saturday, Sept. 14, 2019. (Photo by Taylor Notah)

By Taylor Notah & Arielle Farve

MINNEAPOLIS – For Minneapolis local Elizabeth Day, a citizen of the Leech Lake Band Nation, Franklin Avenue is home.

“I grew up in the Twin City-area, so I consider myself as being urban Indian,” Day said. “Franklin Avenue is friendly. It’s family. It draws people here.”

Day works as a community engagement programs manager for the Native American Community Development Institute (NACDI) where her role is to address the needs of the community. Housed within the All My Relations Gallery, Day’s office is located in the heart of Minneapolis’ Indigenous cultural hub for the city’s nearly 78,556 urban Native population.

The avenue has a rich history where locals recognize it as the birthplace of the American Indian Movement. Today, nearly 50 Native-owned businesses and organizations line the avenue providing resources along the strip, according to Day.

(Video by Arielle Farve)

But while locals such as Day know of the avenue for its strong community and history of resilience, other Minneapolis locals may know of it only as the “the wall of forgotten Natives.” 

In late 2018, an estimated number of 300 people living in homeless encampments along the corridor garnered the attention of media outlets. Their coverage of the encampments highlighted the rampant drug use and Indigenous population living within the camps, which soon caught the attention of City of Minneapolis and local Native organizations such as Natives Against Heroin, They Help Each Other WiiDooKoDaaDiiWag, and Metropolitan Urban Indian Directors (MUID).

“MUID really joined forces and resources to come together to respond to the urgency of the camp,” Day said. “MUID and the community came together and responded to help our brothers and sisters who are unsheltered in a way that wasn’t done before or seen before.”

Their response: developing the Red Lake Navigation Center, which acted as a temporary shelter during the winter months.

But one year later, the coverage of Franklin Avenue has subsided and the Navigation Center closed, according to Day, resulting in the few tents remaining on the avenue to endure the winter months again.

Google Maps tour of Franklin Avenue in Minneapolis, Minnesota

“Now here we are, back again winter is coming soon and what are we going to do?” Day said. “Things that need to be addressed are really Native-specific housing, Native-specific shelters run by Native organizations and Native people.”

Capitalism prevents these specific needs from being addressed, according to AIM figure Alan Gross, Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe.

“If it wasn’t for these capitalists, these developers and all their rules, we’d have shelter,” he said. “Everybody still pretends they don’t notice, that their eyes don’t see it… The City Pages say, ‘The wall of forgotten Natives.’ How petty. What it should’ve said was ‘America the Brutal.’”

Tom LeBlanc (left) and Alan Gross share the avenue’s decades-long advocacy roots on the “Unholy Tour” on Saturday, Sept. 14, 2019. (Photo by Taylor Notah)

Gross, along with fellow AIM member Thomas LeBlanc, give tours of Franklin Avenue where they highlight to visitors its advocacy roots that are still taking place. 

“It took us 50 years to get (land acknowledgement),” LeBlanc, a citizen of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate, said. “The American Indian Movement originated here (and it) started basically to combat police brutality.”

As for the small number of tents still remaining today, Day said it signifies the close connections the avenue still provides to urban Natives.

“The reason that the encampments popped up is because it felt like home to people,” Day said. “I think the reason the camps are there is because of the reason we’re all here, and that there is a strong sense of community, camaraderie. We all look out for each other, we all know each other’s families.”

Moving forward, Day said she strives to continue utilizing her position to address the needs of the community members.

“The Bush Foundation approached our organization and said, ‘We have money, we want to help fund some programs, but we know that what’s been done in the past clearly didn’t work. How we’re funding it is not working, so tell us how we need to get engaged,’” she said. “So (NACDI) wrote a grant and they turned around a $200,000 grant in two weeks. It was just a great response that wasn’t completely seen before.”

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