Mpls. mayor marks new partnership with Red Lake Nation on trip to reservation

Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey with the Red Lake Tribal Council.
Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey visits the Red Lake Tribal Council to say thank you for their help in addressing homelessness in Minneapolis on Tuesday.
Max Nesterak | MPR News

If you are a member of a Native American tribe, it's more likely that you live in a city than on a reservation. Despite that, it's rare for city governments to partner directly with tribes, who typically work with the federal government.

That's changing — at least between the city of Minneapolis and the Red Lake Nation. This week, the mayor of Minneapolis drove 4 1/2 hours north to visit the Red Lake Tribal Council.

"I believe this is the first time a mayor from the Twin Cities come visit the tribal council," said Red Lake Tribal Chair Darrell Seki Sr. "It's unique, and it's a good relationship."

Red Lake and the city of Minneapolis began working together last summer to respond to the largest homeless encampment in Minnesota in recent history. At one point, around 200 people were camped along Franklin and Hiawatha avenues. Most were Native Americans, and many were enrolled members of the Red Lake Band.

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Red Lake is facing its own homelessness problem on the reservation, but it took unprecedented action in the city. It contracted with health care providers to treat people in the encampment, and social workers to get people into housing and treatment for chemical dependency. And it did so for everyone living there — not just its own tribal members.

The Red Lake Nation also offered the city of Minneapolis land it owns near the site of the former encampment to build an emergency shelter called a "navigation center."

The "navigation center," an experimental homeless encampment.
The "navigation center," an experimental homeless encampment along Franklin and Hiawatha avenues in December.
Max Nesterak | MPR News 2018

"Red Lake stepped up in a big way with the navigation center. The city and the Red Lake Nation have been tremendous partners and friends, and the very least I could do was to come up here and see their way of life, their land, and to say 'Miigwech,' thank you," Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey said.

Minneapolis and Red Lake hope to transition the nearly 150 people currently living at the navigation center to other housing by the end of May.

This fall, Red Lake aims to break ground on the navigation center site for a 110-unit affordable housing complex, which will have a health center and a Red Lake embassy on the first floor. Sam Strong,the tribal secretary for the Red Lake Nation, said having a good relationship with city leaders is crucial for both governments.

"We have thousands of band members who live in Minneapolis, and sadly, a lot of our band members are faced with a lot of social ill. So, it's important that the local leaders understand their constituents and have relationships with people who can come to the table with solutions," Strong said.

Native Americans began moving to cities in large numbers in the 1950s and '60s to seek greater economic opportunities. This migration was spurred, in part, by a federal program aimed at assimilating Native Americans into white, mainstream society by providing some assistance to relocate from reservations to cities across the country. Today, nearly 7 out of every 10 Native Americans live in or near cities.

Still, it's unusual for tribal and city governments to work directly together, according to David Beck, a professor at the University of Montana who focuses on urban American Indian history.

"For the most part, the relationship between reservation communities and cities has been pretty minimal in terms of the official city governments," Beck said.

Before Mayor Frey left, he received a model teepee and a T-shirt from the revered girls' high school basketball team, which plays in the state tournament in Minneapolis this week. He says he'll wear it with pride.