The Minneapolis American Indian Center is closing at the start of this month in preparation for the first major renovation in its 47-year history.
Water dripping from the roof has become a steady stream over the past year. While a leaky roof demands quick attention, the call to renovate the building goes back to 2013.
That year, Mary LaGarde was hired as the center’s Interim Director, a role she now holds permanently.
LaGarde says listening sessions with design, urban planning and community experts helped staff and community acknowledge the center was underutilized.
“At that time, we didn’t have a cafe that was open. The art gallery hadn’t had a show in about seven years. The gym was not being used. We didn’t have community or staffing outside of our regular youth programming,” said LaGarde.
Those sessions helped the center’s leadership, staff, and board of directors to begin planning for the organization’s future.
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“It all boiled down to the building itself and more access to the building for the community,” said LaGarde.
A historical urban center
At its opening in 1975, the Minneapolis American Indian Center was among the first urban American Indian community centers in the nation.
The nonprofit organization has served a diverse urban Native community made up of people across the country. Job seekers found help in the form of a pair of work boots for a new job. Grieving families used the gym for funeral wakes. LaGarde estimates that the center serves approximately 5,000 people annually. The number doubles counting the pow-wow goers, the sporting events and those who’ve gathered for marches and rallies.
Rodney Ross lives next door to the center at Anishinabe Wakiagan. He remembers the center during the first years of its operation. Ross says he was a kid when his family moved to Little Earth of United Tribes, a half-mile away.
“Boxing matches and pow-wows, those were my favorites.” said Ross, who identifies as African American and Native American.
He’s looking forward to utilizing the new building, “I’m hoping the center builds something that will serve as a map of opportunity for families.”
How does the renovation reflect the community it serves?
Architect Sam Olbekson is leading the center’s redesign. President of the Minneapolis American Indian Center’s board of directors, Olbekson is a citizen of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe. He grew up in the neighborhood and participated in the center’s programming as a youth.
“I've experienced first-hand the important role the Minneapolis American Indian Center plays for the Native community,” the architect said. “From providing supportive services for my family to offering cultural classes and activities to me as a youth, I've seen the Indian Center serve as the heart of our community and the primary location for community-building events for as long as I can remember.”
Olbekson said the design of the center was once at the leading edge of facilities for Native American community centers. He said the building must change in order to continue to serve the community.
“We deserve a state-of-the-art facility at the leading edge of today's opportunities that reflects our resilience, pride and strength.”
Renderings of the new building showcase a new circular entrance along Franklin Avenue intended to serve as a ceremonial gathering space. The new plans also move the center’s café from the interior to the building’s front along Franklin Avenue.
The new building also includes expanded public meeting spaces, a revamped fitness center, an expanded art gallery and floor plans emphasizing the importance of youth and elders to the center’s programs.
“Culturally informed architecture and design is critical in creating a sense of identity and pride for Native American buildings,” says Olbekson, “This will be a facility that will feel like home to the Native American community and its physical expression will reflect the diverse tribal community members that we serve.”
Director Mary LaGarde says she is wrapping up a five-year $30 million fundraising campaign for the center’s renovation. Funding for the renovation has come from state, county and city governments, as well as local philanthropies.
Phase one of the center's renovation is scheduled to be completed by summer of 2025. The center will move much of its programming next door to the Many River East building for the next two years.
Correction: An earlier version misspelled Mary LaGarde’s name. The story above has been updated.