Conversations around race and racial justice

Black-led nature retreat center faces pushback on North Shore

A sign in the woods
Several signs have been posted in Silver Creek Township outside Two Harbors opposing the Maji ya Chai Land Sanctuary.
Courtesy of Sara Preston

A nature-based retreat center planned outside Two Harbors aiming to provide a restorative getaway for Black, Indigenous and people of color, is receiving pushback from some local residents over concerns of noise, traffic, and other impacts on their rural “way of life.” 

Thirty-five residents of Silver Creek township north of Two Harbors have appealed the Lake County planning commission’s April decision to grant the Maji ya Chai Land Sanctuary a conditional use permit to operate the center on 40 acres along the Encampment River. 

The notice of appeal, filed in Lake County District Court on May 15, claims the county’s decision was “based on erroneous and insubstantial evidence.” However, Assistant Lake County Attorney Russ Conrow says it doesn’t offer substantive allegations to which the county can respond.

The project was founded four years ago by Rebeka Ndosi, a holistic health practitioner who wants to provide a safe space for Black people and other Indigenous and people of color to heal and interact with nature. She describes it as something akin to the cherished tradition of the Minnesota family cabin “up north.” 

A woman poses for a photo
Rebeka Ndosi founded the Maji ya Chai Land Sanctuary in 2020.
Courtesy of Rebeka Ndosi

“We hope Maji ya Chai can serve as a similar retreat for families of color,” said Ndosi, who grew up in the Twin Cities and never fully understood what it meant when classmates told her they’re “going to the cabin.” 

She said during COVID, and after George Floyd’s murder, she heard from many Black families asking whether anyone had a cabin they could visit.  

“We just need to get out of the city,” is something she said she and other practitioners heard. “We need to clear our heads.”

Ndosi plans to build a wellness center with spaces devoted to group movement and yoga sessions, massage, acupuncture and other kinds of healing. There will be a mobile barrel sauna, with thermaculture and cold water therapies. She says it will offer hikes on the nearby Superior Hiking Trail. 

Under the permit, the center will be able to accommodate up to 24 overnight guests at a time, with no more than 12 events a year that exceed 24 guests on site.

The inspiration for the center comes in part from her own experience. She speaks of falling in love with the North Shore yet never feeling like she could completely relax when she visited. 

“I was always very aware that I was being watched as one of very few Black folks up there. And that is something that was a barrier, honestly, to fully taking in what this relaxing and restful experience could be on the North Shore. It’s something that I really longed for.”

A view of a sanctuary
A view of the Maji ya Chai Land Sanctuary north of Two Harbors.
Courtesy of Rebeka Ndosi.

‘Way of life’

The attorney representing the landowners challenging the county’s approval of the project did not respond to requests for an interview. Several landowners who signed the appeal declined or didn’t respond to interview requests. 

But several area residents voiced objections at a planning commission hearing in April. 

“I don’t want the traffic, the noise. It’s going to impact my way of life,” said Dave Henjum, who also questioned how the development would impact local groundwater supplies. “It’s zoned rural-residential. And that’s why I live there.” 

Marsha Snowdon, who lives across the road from the sanctuary, said her family purchased its property in a rural neighborhood nine years ago for the benefits including “minimal traffic, dark skies, almost no neighborhood noises, privacy and general peace and quiet.”

She said the scale of the development would have “major negative effects on all the positive reasons I just stated.”

Others also raised concerns about fire risk.

Ndosi said after meeting with local residents, the center agreed to drop a plan to build a campground on the other side of the river. 

During the hearing, many people spoke in favor of the proposal, including Duluth-based photographer and speaker Dudley Edmonson, who’s written a book profiling African-Americans in the outdoors called “The Black & Brown Faces in America’s Wild Places.”

Edmondson led a bird-watching trip to the sanctuary land last year that included people who drove up from Minneapolis. He said people told him it was the first time they had ever felt safe in the outdoors. 

Two people pose for a photo
Rebeka Ndosi and Matthew Myrold at Maji ya Chai Land Sanctuary in Silver Creek Township outside Two Harbors.
Courtesy of Rebeka Ndosi

“I believe it might be a bit difficult for white folks to understand what it feels like to be in the outdoors and not feel safe,” he told the commission.

Edmonson said spaces like this are increasingly necessary. “And I just want to say that if this community supports this issue, I think you can kind of count yourselves on the right side of history.”

Signs of opposition

Since the appeal was filed, a group of area residents who support the sanctuary have come together to offer their support to Ndosi and gather signatures from locals who back the effort. 

“I think they are going to be wonderful neighbors. I really believe that what they are doing is vitally important to the BIPOC community.” said Sara Preston, a retired nurse who lives a couple miles from the sanctuary. 

“Those of us who live here are so privileged to have property in this place that is so incredibly beautiful, and peaceful,” Preston continued.  

“With the increase in tourism that has been a challenge and will continue to be. But I really hope that we can share this, especially with people of color.”

Preston and others were alarmed at a series of hand drawn signs posted along the road near the sanctuary, with the words “No Clark Road Resort,” and a picture of a stick figure that Preston and other residents Ndosi called “clearly racist.” 

“It’s not something that can be really read any other way,” said Ndosi. 

Dave Henjum, who declined an interview request with MPR News on the advice of his attorney, told the Lake County Press that he painted the signs. However he said the stick figures depict “an angry Clark Road taxpayer,” and that no racist message was intended.

People lead a hiking trail
Rebeka Ndosi leads a hike along the Encampment River in the fall of 2023 at the site of the Maji ya Chai Land Sanctuary north of Two Harbors.
Courtesy of Rebeka Ndosi

Ndosi said she’s undeterred by the opposition, and heartened by the outpouring of support from many local residents who have rallied on their behalf. 

They continue to fundraise, plan to put up a yurt this summer and welcome their first groups this summer and fall. If anything, Ndosi said, the opposition has reinforced her vision for the retreat center. 

“It really affirms the need for a space like Maji ya Chai Land Sanctuary, a space that is intentionally welcoming and safe.” 

Correction (May 6, 2024): An earlier version of this story misspelled Sara Preston’s name. The article has been updated.

Audio transcript

NINA MOINI: A nature-based retreat center planned outside Two Harbors is aiming to provide a restorative getaway for people of color. But Maji Ya Chai Achai is getting pushback from local residents over concerns of noise, traffic, and other impacts. 35 residents of Silver Creek Township have appealed to Lake County Planning Commission in their April decision to grant the sanctuary a conditional use permit.

Joining me now is the founder of Maji Ya Chai, Rebeka Ndosi, with her goal for the new center. Thank you for being here, Rebecca.

REBEKA NDOSI: Great to be here. Thank you, Nina.

NINA MOINI: I'm hoping that I'm saying this name correctly-- Mah-jee Uh Chai?

REBEKA NDOSI: Mah-jee Uh Chai.

NINA MOINI: Tell me where that name comes from. What's the inspiration there?

REBEKA NDOSI: The inspiration for the name is actually from my family. There's a place called Maji Ya Chai Village in Tanzania, which is where my father is from, and my family there. And it is the place where my family were mountain farmers for many generations and continue to care for land and water in Tanzania.

NINA MOINI: Beautiful.


NINA MOINI: Tell me about the space in Silver Creek Township and your plans to develop it. What are you envisioning there?

REBEKA NDOSI: Well, we're on 40 acres of land. We're just right off of Highway 3. So for anyone who knows the area, you take 61, go up, you turn left after Betty's Pies onto Highway 3-- we're actually located between the two pie places, and I won't talk about which one we prefer. They're both great.

We're planning to build a lodging space, a space where folks can come and know that they're intentionally welcome and safe to rest, to take care of the land, to take care of themselves, to listen to the birds, and do so in a way where they can completely, and we can completely, relax, where we can just know that we belong, We're wanted here. And that hasn't always been the experience for folks of color on the North Shore.

Certainly, I have my personal experience of just feeling like I can't fully relax. I'm a little uncomfortable because there aren't as many folks of color on the North Shore as there are white folks right now. So we're building this space so that we can have a space to gather, a space to be, to breathe, and to connect with each other and the land.

NINA MOINI: Yeah, it's hard to be comfortable somewhere where you don't see a ton of people who look like you.

REBEKA NDOSI: That's true.

NINA MOINI: Something that's known. So what would a day there look like? You mentioned just relaxing and just being, but would there be activities? Or what would it be like?

REBEKA NDOSI: Well, a day there, it would vary, really. So we started the organization back in 2020 as a location, so as a destination. We're not heavily focused on programming. However, we have several people, including myself, who are holistic health practitioners, and cultural healers, and such, and outdoor experts.

So one might come with their family or a group of another type and wake up to the alarm of birdsong if they wanted to, and go in to have a nice meal, and then go to the healing center, which we're planning to build, which could be for morning yoga, or meditation, or stretching.

It could be for some sort of music gathering. They could help us garden and grow some vegetables there. And they could take advantage of the sauna and the hydrotherapy offerings that we're planning as well. Or they could walk on the footpaths across the encampment river and just take it as their own body, energy, and spirit really feels called.

NINA MOINI: I'm getting relaxed just you talking about it. I'm feeling more relaxed than I've been.

REBEKA NDOSI: Very good.

NINA MOINI: And I mentioned, the activities that you're describing don't sound particularly loud, but as I mentioned, there are a few dozen residents that are against this space coming to fruition. What is your response to people who don't want the retreat there? They're concerned about noise, or traffic, or just more people in the area.

REBEKA NDOSI: Our response has been and still is that we're with you. We're here as neighbors. We're not planning to be disruptive noise wise. There's already a lot of noise in the area already from traffic.

There's a gun range that's nearby so that we can hear it sometimes. There are there are dogs, sled dogs, which are awesome, and they bark a lot. So we are there to be part of the neighborhood, good neighbors. And we share a lot of their concerns that they've raised about fire.

We've actually been responsive in shifting our plans to some of the things, because of some of the concerns that they brought up. And there's an element of they're going to have to just wait and see, really, because even though we've said this again and again, what we're planning, there are those who don't seem to want to hear it, or just don't understand it enough, or maybe feel scared of what they don't know at this point.

So we have responded. We've heard them. We've engaged them in conversation as they've been open to it and have left the door open for us to talk about our differences or talk about concerns as neighbors. Unfortunately, right now, they're not really talking with us.

So we focus, though, on the neighbors in the area who are supportive. And there are so many. In fact, our supporters outnumber the ones who are working to stop what we're doing. So we are really grateful for them.

They prove to us that this is a place where we can belong, where we're wanted. And that is really exciting to have to have local folks and regional folks say, I want to help out. I want to come on board, and join up, and volunteer, and bring my family.

And we're so open to that and so grateful for all the new friends that we've made through this process. So amidst the opposition, there's also just a tremendous amount of support. And we're really, really glad to be in community with them.

NINA MOINI: Yeah, and our Dan Crocker did a whole story on this that people can read more about at There is always sort of this idea of places that are sort of untouched by development, weighing, do we want more noise, do we want more development, or do we want to keep the serenity and the beauty? So some of those arguments are good things to dive into.

You're mentioning you have a ton of support. Why is it important for you to focus on BIPOC individuals, in particular? We know that, historically, folks who go up to the cabin or go up North may not always be BIPOC people.

REBEKA NDOSI: Right. Well, it's important because of that experience that I talked about of being on the North Shore and still feeling like I'm sticking out and not totally-- and, honestly, seeing eyes on me, watching me in stores, and if I'm at a campsite. And it does prevent the full experience of being able to take in the beauty-- just the stunning beauty, and tranquility, and peace of the area.

So our space is intentional, and explicit, and welcoming, and creating a safe place for folks of color. And I need to say this too-- it's not exclusive for folks of color, but we are intentional at welcoming folks of color, because we need that.

We're the only space like this on the North Shore. So we need that support. And we're being explicit so that we can increase the number of people who feel like they really belong on the North Shore. It's really, really important for people to say, you know what? Not only do I see you, but I welcome you explicitly.

And we know we want you to be able to relax, to rest, and be safe here so that, then, you can actually become more fully able to just be, and be yourself, and to, ultimately, hopefully, regenerate energy, if that's what you need, or to bring it down, or whatever you need. Connecting in nature really helps us to reflect and reconnect with our wholeness, which is good for everybody.

NINA MOINI: Yeah, we know how healing the effects of nature can be. So right now, you do have the green light to move ahead. When do you hope to be fully operational and having people come to visit?

REBEKA NDOSI: Well, it'll be a process to get from here to full, full operations as we got our permit for, right? So if we have everything in a row and all the support that we need comes in, then we're hoping to open fully in the spring of 2026.

NINA MOINI: Wonderful.

REBEKA NDOSI: Yes, we're really excited. And we really welcome any support that's out there who wants to help us to build this space for connection with nature and humanity.

NINA MOINI: Well, thank you so much for sharing about this with us, Rebeka.

REBEKA NDOSI: Thanks for having me.

NINA MOINI: That's Rebeka Ndosi, the founder of Maji Ya Chai Land Sanctuary.

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