In Duluth, MN, the Gimaajii Mino-Bimaadizimin Native American cultural center has proved to be a powerfully transformative institution. From providing housing to formerly homeless families to a mosaic of cultural, social and educational offerings, the center, in a refurbished Y, fosters refuge and belonging, and bridges cultures within its walls and beyond.
Named after an Ojibwe phrase that translates as “we are, all of us together, beginning a good life” Gimaajii Mino-Bimaadizimin is a community center and 29 units of permanent supporting housing for Native American women and children in downtown Duluth, Minnesota. Many people make up that “we” in Gimaajii, a 50,000-square-foot historic YWCA building, now housing 32,000 square feet of permanent supportive housing, restored and repurposed by the American Indian Community Housing Organization (AICHO). AICHO’s commitment to cultural organizing includes culturally specific programming for residents and other community members. At Gimaajii, this programming happens not only formally in its two art galleries and rooftop garden; Native American culture also permeates every corner of Gimaajii in more sublte ways, from the music on the lobby’s speakers to the smell of sage that wafts through the building.
Residents live on Gimaajii’s upper floors, and on the lower levels AICHO operates the Gimaajii Gathering Place, which includes 13 office and community meeting spaces, a gymnasium, an art gallery, and the Dr. Robert Powless Cultural Center. In-house organizations at Gimaajii that are led by and/or serve Native Americans include AICHO, local tribal bands, the domestic abuse T.A. project Mending the Sacred Hoop, and the RICH Center (Research for Indigenous Community Health), a program of University of Minnesota Duluth’s College of Pharmacy. These organizations, residents, and artists who show their work in Gimaajii’s galleries benefit from co-location.
We relied on many perspectives to weave the story of Gimaajii’s impacts. We brought together eight Native American artists for a focus group and interviewed 17 people with various relationships with Gimaajii, including staff and board members, artists, and a resident, as well as staff from other housing and human services government agencies, local nonprofits that focus on homelessness and Native American health, and funders. We also toured the facilities. Although AICHO only opened Gimaajii’s doors in 2012, we heard and saw how Native American and non-Native American communities in Duluth and beyond have already benefitted in many substantial and life-changing ways.
A reflective report on LISC creative placemaking projects in four cities shows how community development intertwined with arts and culture can uplift neighborhoods, and bring excitement, income, pride and inspiration to the people involved.