North Star Journey

Renovated Minneapolis American Indian Center reflects urban Indigenous identity

Two women in a receiving line embrace
Mary LaGarde and Minneapolis American Indian Center staff greet guests after a preview ceremony at the newly rebuilt Minneapolis American Indian Center on Thursday.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

The Minneapolis American Indian Center's two-year renovation is now complete. The redesign reflects both a sense of belonging and history and showcases ways the Minneapolis Indigenous community embraces its future. 

The happy chatter of excited visitors filled a large rotunda inside the center as executive director Mary LaGarde walked through the crowd to greet guests at a soft opening held last Thursday. 

A crowd listens to a woman speak at a podium
Hundreds of people listen to executive director Mary LaGarde welcome guests to the grand re-opening of the Minneapolis American Indian Center on Wednesday.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

“It’s just really exciting for all of us — for community and just for everyone who has been involved in the project all along,” said LaGarde. 

The center’s renovation cost $32.5 million and is the result of a decade-long process to bring people back into the center. 

Located on East Franklin Avenue in south Minneapolis, the center provides social services to the urban Native community and has served as a central gathering place — a place for boxing matches, basketball tournaments, powwows, conferences and more. 

Guests gather in a rotunda
Guests socialize during a preview event for the new Minneapolis American Indian Center.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Over the years, the building showed signs of aging. Water dripping through the roof had become a steady stream inside the center the year before renovation. 

Through a series of community listening sessions, LaGarde and her staff acknowledged the center was underutilized and needed repairs, so they began planning the organization’s future.

At the soft opening, elected leaders, civic leaders and community supporters applauded Mary LaGarde for her work in securing the necessary funding for the renovation. The center’s board of directors and staff honored LaGarde with a star quilt for her dedication and leadership.  

Art lines the walls of a gymnasium
Murals line the walls of the Frances Fairbanks Memorial Gymnasium.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan was among the elected leaders who honored LaGarde’s work. 

“This long-awaited grand opening sets the bar where it should rightfully and always be, because we are worthy and deserving of capital investments,” said Flanagan.  

The expansion added 20,000 square feet to the building, for a total of over 66,000 square feet. The organization also expects the building to support 10,000 visitors a year, according to a fact sheet released by a spokesperson for the center.

A woman and her daughter peer into a glass display case
Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan and her daughter Siobhan, 11, peer into a display case inside Charlie Stately’s Woodland Crafts Gift Shop.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

The heart of the community 

Architect Sam Olbekson said he was a 4-year-old kid living in the neighborhood when he attended the center’s first grand opening in 1975. 

Today, Olbekson serves as chair of the organization’s board of directors. As an architect working in collaboration with several partners, he helped to redesign the building to reflect the community’s cultural identity. 

A man stands at a podium
Sam Olbekson, citizen of the White Earth Nation and lead architect of the new Minneapolis American Indian Center, raises his hand during a preview presentation.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Just before the community gathered in a conference room for the afternoon’s program, Olbekson stood inside the center’s large, drum-shaped rotunda. He spoke to MPR News about how the rotunda’s design speaks to the community’s cultural identity. 

“It’s intended purpose is to be the heart of the facility where people gather. It’s off the new main entry. Every public space from the building opens up from the space.” 

He said all the center’s public spaces, including the new café, the gymnasium and fitness center, the art gallery and meeting spaces and conference rooms are all visible from the rotunda. 

A young man wears Native regalia
Erick Greenleaf Gordon of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe wears regalia in the style of the chicken dance, a design that honors his ancestors, he says, during a parade in Minneapolis on Wednesday.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

The center welcomes visitors through a main entrance through glass doors and a large bank of windows. The rotunda, along with other features, opens up to the street and, according to Olbekson, is intended to assert an urban Native American presence on Franklin Avenue. 

“We put this as a prominent form on the outside of the building too. This curved space has its expression on the outside,” said Olbekson. “So, people know the space is here, and it’s for them, and they’re welcome.”  

The entrance to a gym
The entrance to the Frances Fairbanks Memorial Gymnasium at the new Minneapolis American Indian Center.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

There is also an emphasis on activities for youth and elders. The gym, along with a new teen tech center, will be used by youth for recreation and learning. Overlooking the gym is a new dining area for elders who eat lunch together daily at the center. 

The refurbished gym is dedicated to the memory of the late Frances “Frannie” Fairbanks, the center’s former director. A plaque dedicated to Fairbanks is mounted on the wall. 

‘A real modern feel to it’ 

Charlie Stately is the owner of Woodland’s Crafts and has operated his arts business for more than four decades. He began working for the original owner of the shop at age 21. Stately has now moved into his new location in the renovated center, in a space double the size of his original shop. 

A man stands at a display case while visitors look in
Proprietor Charlie Stately stands in his Woodland Crafts Gift Shop located in the new Minneapolis American Indian Center.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

“I am thinking about if we got more space, more things we can offer, more artists we can include. The gallery is right there. We have a door to the gallery,” said Stately. “People will be saying, ‘I am looking forward for this or that.’ That’s how we operate, we listen to our customers.” 

Bruce Savage, one of Stately’s long-time vendors, dropped in as Stately’s new shop was reopening. 

A woman looks at a bus driving past
Artist Marlena Myles, who is Mohegan, Muscogee Creek and an enrolled member of the Spirit Lake Dakota tribe, watches as a Metro Transit bus covered in one of her designs drives down 24th Street in Minneapolis during a parade on Wednesday.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Savage said the newly renovated building speaks to the importance of the center to the future of the community — both local and national. 

“For some reason, we fixate on old architectural structures within Indian Country, but this building has a real modern feel to it,” said Savage.  

The Minneapolis American Indian Center opens Wednesday to the entire community during the kickoff to Minnesota’s American Indian Month. 

A man drums
Nation Wright drums during a ceremony at the new Minneapolis American Indian Center.
Ben Hovland | MPR News
Volume Button
Now Listening To Livestream
MPR News logo
On Air
MPR News