Patrolling Minneapolis’s Native American History
Fourteen years before he killed George Floyd, Derek Chauvin was one of several cops who opened fire on and killed Wayne Reyes Sr., a Native man who was a suspect in a stabbing. Nine years before he killed George Floyd, Chauvin was placed on administrative leave for his role in an officer-involved shooting in Little Earth of United Tribes, the country’s only Section 8 housing project specifically devoted to Native Americans. He was among a group of five officers who fired at a twenty-three-year-old Native man named Leroy Martinez, whom they accused of brandishing a gun in the complex, shooting him in the torso, though not fatally. Chauvin was put on three days’ leave, but the Minneapolis Police Department chief concluded later that the group had acted “appropriately and courageously.”
Few in Little Earth were surprised when Chauvin made the news again this year. “In so many ways, Native people are like the canary in the coal mine,” said Dr. Joe Hobot, president of the American Indian Opportunities Industrialization Center in Minneapolis. A catalog of social ills, he said, from the opioid crisis to police brutality, acutely affect Native people, but these are often overlooked until it’s no longer “just” a Native issue. “In part, it’s because we are such a numerically small community, but I also think part of it is a sense of defeatism.”
While it’s true that their community has often labored under deep antipathy, the long history of Native organizing in Minneapolis is central to the activist fabric of the city, which appeared to some as an unlikely place for this summer’s historic protests against police brutality to begin. The Native community is marked by a dense concentration of self-directed nonprofits and social services, close intergenerational ties, and a can-do spirit in the face of intractable crises.
Hobot’s office on East Franklin Avenue is in the heart of a dense, mile-long stretch of downtown Minneapolis called the American Indian Cultural Corridor, which houses a cluster of institutions including the American Indian Center, a Native health clinic, a Native church, the Little Earth housing complex, and Native art galleries. On the street-facing wall of the American Indian Center is a three-story mural that says “Keep Tobacco Sacred.” It is the heart of Minneapolis’s significant and distinctly urban Native American history.
About 2 percent of Minneapolis’s population and 1.2 percent of Minnesota’s are Native American, per the last census. The Twin Cities have been a regional hub for Native Americans since the 1950s, when national “urban relocation” policies abruptly sought to depopulate reservations. The eleven federally recognized tribes in the state are all Ojibwe or Dakota, though several other nations are represented in a place like Little Earth; Martinez, for instance, is an Alaska Native. Minneapolis was where the radical, grassroots American Indian Movement (AIM) was founded in July 1968 to address police brutality. Its three charismatic and briefly famous leaders foregrounded traditionalist iconography—moccasins, braids, embroidered jackets—and their activism echoed that of the Black Panthers, from their “Red Power” rhetoric and guerrilla tactics, such as occupying a replica of the Mayflower on Thanksgiving Day 1970, down to their own free lunch program. AIM, though today less of a household name than the Panthers, inaugurated a “brief and exhilarating time,” when Native Americans “staged a campaign of resistance and introspection unmatched in this century,” as the Native writers Paul Chaat Smith and Robert Allen Warrior assert in their book about the Indian movement.
The movement’s flagship program was the AIM patrol, a citizen-led public safety initiative that in many ways anticipated the debates about policing taking place in Minneapolis today. (It was, in turn, inspired by the Panthers’ armed “copwatching” patrols that started in 1966 in California.) AIM also systematically collected boxes full of photographs of bruises and injuries inflicted by police on Native people.
In response, throughout the 1970s, the FBI’s Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO) systematically sabotaged the movement, as one of its founders, Clyde Bellecourt, an Ojibwe man who is now eighty-four years old, recalled in an interview: J. Edgar Hoover’s agents planted informants, surveilled reservations, and found ways to jail many of AIM’s leaders, tying them up in expensive bail proceedings that derailed the movement’s momentum. Bellecourt himself was shot in the pancreas during an armed showdown when AIM occupied Wounded Knee in 1973. Despite such repression and the declining importance of AIM itself within the city’s constellation of Native nonprofits, the patrol has periodically been resurrected. In the 1980s, for instance, it reunited after a wave of gruesome murders of Native women; and it did so again in 2010, after an incident in which Minneapolis EMTs roughly manhandled an Ojibwe elder.
Ironically, the patrol’s most recent revival came this year—not as a rebuke to the police, but at the police’s request. When downtown Minneapolis, including parts of the American Indian Cultural Corridor, started to burn during the intense protests that initially followed the murder of George Floyd, the sheriff picked up the phone and called Frank Paro, who had taken over as AIM president from Bellecourt just three days before Floyd’s murder.
“Thursday morning [May 28], they called and said, Can we get the AIM patrol back?” recalled Paro. “What choice did I have, given what was going on in the city? I just said, We’ll be there by tonight.” He was still dazed recounting the episode more than a month later, at an outdoor luncheon I attended that he helped organize at the American Indian Center to thank the community for keeping the corridor safe during the protests. He wore his stiff gray ponytail under a fedora lined with glass beads and a T-shirt that read “Caucasians” in a baseball jersey font.
“I just posted on Facebook and dozens of people showed up by the end of that same day,” he explained. “The next three nights, it grew to hundreds of people.” The volunteers, who included women this time around (which had not been the case on previous occasions), took to the rooftops and the streets, patrolling from All Nations Church, and carrying guns, crossbows, and clubs. “I’m proud to say only four of our buildings on the corridor were damaged at all,” he said.
While the AIM patrol was preventing parts of Minneapolis from burning, the off-duty cops ordinarily contracted by the Little Earth housing corporation to secure Little Earth had to check out for nearly two weeks. It put a fine point on the overall policing paradox that holds for the Native community here: although the Native peoples have been at the forefront of advocating against police brutality, they also say their communities are inadequately policed in the ways that count. Police respond to calls too late, fail to tackle gang violence, and rarely act in useful, supportive ways in cases of opioid overdose and mental health crisis—and yet they do find time to randomly stop cars with reservation license plates (according to several Little Earth residents) and regularly profile and harass Native people.
“Because of the long response times, our residents would just stop calling the police,” said Jessica Rousseau, the executive director of the Little Earth Residents’ Association. As part of her ongoing work to improve community–police relations, Rousseau has organized annual barbeques with residents and officers as part of a “National Night Out” initiative. Today, the off-duty officers give their personal cell phone numbers to residents and there’s a designated dispatcher on-call 24/7 at the complex who can escalate community complaints to the police, EMTs, or paramedics if needed.
That is a long-term project, not an instant solution. And the already long, post-Floyd summer has been so tense that a group of Little Earth residents have continued their community watch every night, even after the ad hoc AIM patrol disbanded within a week. Led by two longtime residents, Jolene Jones and Jacqueline Neadeau, both no-nonsense grandmothers (and distant cousins), the members of the group call themselves the “Protectors.”
“I just remember my birthday [her fifty-eighth] was rugged as hell: May 26,” said Jones. “That’s when the Protectors started, just three women and my husband, Bill. We took fire [meaning, people shot at us] five times in two days. But we weren’t alone. Leech Lake [reservation] sent down their EMTs and Red Lake [reservation] sent some of their boys down, too.” Gun violence is a longstanding problem in the community, but when the National Guard was called, she said, “we couldn’t afford to have them hurt our people. There are blood memories of what the military and troops can do to us.”
“I’m a ‘concrete Indian,’” said Jones, meaning that she was born a city-dweller here and has lived in the Little Earth development since 1974, making her its longest continuous resident. Both Jones and Neadeau are nieces of Clyde Bellecourt, one of AIM’s charismatic founders, so they both grew up under the movement’s wing.
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The core group of about a dozen Protectors, ranging in age from forty to sixty, sit on lawn chairs by the entrance to the complex, which is marked by two large teepees sculpted in metal. The complex’s 212 units, with dun-colored stucco walls, are home to members of at least thirty-eight different Native tribes; there’s a long waiting list for the rare unit that frees up. The apartments are on both sides of Cedar Avenue, separated by a park; residents have access to a sizable vegetable garden and even a sweat lodge.
Jones serves dinner to the Protectors every night at 9:30 from aluminum trays, as often as not a cigarette hanging from her mouth. When I joined their patrol on a Saturday in early July, sloppy joes and watermelon wedges were on the menu. Jones regretted that the quality of their evening meal had declined somewhat because their best cook, Muck-Wa Roberts Sr., was shot in the knee while patrolling in early July. On that day, the group was smaller than usual, because some had been drawn away to watch a UFC fight, but their numbers were augmented by the Bikwakoon collective of young, mostly non-Native people who also came together during the Floyd uprising.
Groups of teens walked back and forth to the park all night long. The generations crowd together here. Neadeau, who has long, gray curling hair, wore capris and Skechers. She is already a great-grandparent, as well as the primary caretaker of two of her granddaughters, whom she brings along to march at protests.
Jones was in an orange T-shirt that said “Got Naloxone?” She has been an activist for most of her life, starting from when she was a young mother who watched her only son become addicted to heroin in the 1990s. Desperate for answers, she enrolled at Minneapolis Community and Technical College to study addiction; it was there she heard about a new product called Narcan, a nasal spray designed to counteract overdoses.
“We were drowning in the [opioid] epidemic at this point,” she said. “Once, there were twelve overdoses in three minutes here. Even the paramedics didn’t know what to do. We had to fight for ourselves.” Narcan wasn’t legal for non-medical practitioners to use back then—a clutch of laws have now liberalized rules about its administration by private citizens in most US states, but mainly in the last six years—but she learned how to use it for overdoses and trained young people at Little Earth to do the same. “Now, of course,” she noted, “even the police have it.”
For their part, the Protectors keep a zippered bag of preloaded Narcan cartridges with them every night. Today, there is a lot of fentanyl—a powerful synthetic opioid similar to morphine—going around their community, said Neadeau, in addition to street heroin and prescription painkillers. Amid the general mayhem that followed the Floyd protests, the opioid crisis flared up acutely in their community, with “ODs every night and every day,” according to Neadeau. The Protectors carry walkie-talkies that are hooked up to the complex’s dedicated police dispatcher, who can call an ambulance if things get out of hand—“but residents know residents, so we can get to it faster,” she said.
A big part of their approach is merely keeping tabs: on the young people who are drinking, on the people who are shooting up frequently, and so on. “We’re not snitches,” said Neadeau, trying to summarize the group’s worldview.
A little after 10 PM, a brooding man cut across the parking lot. Neadeau snapped to attention. “This guy’s got a big bottle of liquor on him,” she said, to Bill. “Tell him to go home and drink! No outside drinking.” To me, she added, “Sometimes we make the kids sit on the bridge to sober up, too.”
Around 1:30 AM, Neadeau got a text that some teen girls were getting high in a courtyard. Neadeau enlisted a younger Protector to drive her across the complex, and came back ten minutes later, visibly pissed off. “Three girls shooting up, all bold,” she said, vehemently. “They didn’t even have Narcan! At least two should do it and one should watch.” Even in their state, they were too fast for her, though, afraid of an elder, and had hastily retreated indoors.
Around 3 AM, a debate started in the group over whether their volunteers should be openly armed, like the Freedom Riders, another community patrol group. Because Little Earth is run by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, firearms are not technically allowed on its premises.
“But the [East Phillips] park is a public space, and we always have a hard time policing it,” Rousseau had told me earlier that day. “It’s almost an artificial distinction; there’s literally just a fence separating us, and when dysfunction happens, it’s usually there.” A young black man in Bikwakoon said he was thinking of getting a firearms license soon.
The Residents’ Association had come up with a stopgap solution to discourage criminality in the park, which was to rent streetlights. At 9:30 PM each night, a couple of Protectors wheel out two tall lights on wheels, hooked up to diesel-fueled generators, and station them on the park’s street-facing edge. It’s simple but effective—but it represents a continuing out-of-pocket expense for the community. “Nothing new,” said Jones. “When I was a teen, we protested to get a stop sign here. And it only became permanent two years ago!”
The next afternoon, I rejoined Jones and Neadeau, who showed no signs of fatigue, as they conducted an informal survey of the large homeless encampment at Powderhorn Park, and some of the new satellite camps that had sprouted off from there—at least seven, by one volunteer’s estimate. Many Native people are among them.
“Lot of Indians,” mused Jones, after touring the camps on foot. “More than we’ve been told.” Neadeau suggested that they get stickers for the Native peoples’ tents so that they could help them out more easily in the future.
Unlike Powderhorn, the flagship, these smaller encampments have few, if any, organized donations or volunteers. About half the people we saw there, in midafternoon, appeared to be high. Jones recognized a twenty-six-year-old named Kerry, who wore a seafoam green minidress and whose eyelids were drooping. She is the on-again, off-again girlfriend of her great-nephew and the mother of his child. “If anyone here bullies you, call me, okay?” said Jones. She spoke matter-of-factly, but, as she explained to me, she had reason to fear that some of Kerry’s male associates might pressure her into sex work for drug money.
Then they stopped by yet another pop-up camp at Brackett Park, on 13th Avenue and East 24th, which has been designated as a “safe haven” for women and children. A volunteer named Keiji Narikawa, long embedded in the Native community, helped set up the camp there in mid-July, after growing alarmed by the security situation at Powderhorn. “Within a week of Powderhorn setting up, I’d say one out of every three Native women I’d see would have a black eye,” he said. “So some of us volunteers quickly started scouting for new locations.”
“There are a lot of men here for a women’s camp,” said Neadeau, as they parked. The twenty residents were having a community meeting. There was controversy over one of the men providing security, who had previously been accused of sexual assault, and the discussion was getting heated. Jones, who was recognized instantly by everyone there but hung back to the side, counseled a woman who came up to her to “get the women together and talk by yourselves. And if you want a hot meal, come by Little Earth. Every night, 9:30.”
The situation of Native Americans in Minneapolis is inseparable from the legacy of their relocation in the 1950s. From the 1940s to 1960s, the US pursued “Indian termination” with a series of laws and policies designed to “assimilate” Native Americans as taxpaying citizens and erode tribal sovereignty, including the Indian Relocation Act of 1956, a federal law that incentivized moving from reservations to cities with vocational training, free transportation, stipends, and health insurance, at least on paper. (In reality, many promised benefits failed to materialize.) Thus, Minneapolis, which was proximate to many reservations, immediately became home to “one of the largest urban concentrations of Native Americans in the country,” said Hobot—though not all politicians necessarily recognize this fact. “They still think we all live on reservations.” Actually, about 74 percent of Native Americans in Minnesota live off reservations, and even nationwide, only about 30 percent of the country’s 5.2 million Native Americans live on reservations, per the last census.
Hobot’s own biography speaks to this pattern. His mother’s family comes from Standing Rock in South Dakota, his grandfather was a World War II veteran who served in Guadalcanal, and his father was a longtime member of AIM. “But I grew up in a Minneapolis neighborhood as white as snow,” he recalled. He struggled intensely with his identity in public school, though he later obtained a doctorate and became a leading theorist of culturally sensitive education for Native Americans. By his account, the midcentury move was a disjunctive trauma; as a result, the “bottom fell out” of Native communities and “poverty metastasized like a cancer.”
“When folks got off the bus, there was nothing here to receive them. And they were met with racially charged law enforcement, redlined and segregated neighborhoods, and overt racism in hiring practices,” he said. “By 1968, when AIM is formed, there is a rather large urban population that is suffering.”
That was the impetus for what is now a cottage industry of Native-focused institutions and nonprofits. Hobot travels the country as an instructor with the Falmouth Institute, a Virginia-based private company that consults for Native American tribes. He believes Minneapolis is now a nationwide leader when it comes to providing services to Native communities—thanks, in part, to “the spirit of AIM.”
I spoke also to Robert Lilligren, who became the first Native person elected to the Minneapolis City Council in 2001. He quit the chamber in 2014 and is now the CEO of the Native American Community Development Institute (NACDI). “We’re very aware of the urban legacy of Native organizing here,” he said. “We have these iconic anchors here like Little Earth and the density of native agencies is rare, maybe unique in the country.” He pointed out the rise in Native elected officials within his lifetime. The lieutenant governor of Minnesota today, Peggy Flanagan, is Ojibwe, the highest-profile such appointment in state history. “I wrote her first campaign check,” said Lilligren, proudly.
The obstacles to progress, and the extent of social problems in Native communities, remain daunting. Keiji Narikawa’s observations about violence against women in Powderhorn Park were no anomaly. According to one 2010 report from the Department of Justice, more than half of all Native women have faced sexual violence, compared to about one in three women in the general populace. And while Native people comprise less than 2 percent of the population of Minneapolis, they are more than 20 percent of its homeless. Substance abuse and addiction, too, are a constant problem—both as a public health crisis but also because they have exacerbated incarceration and police profiling.
But today, Native activism in Minneapolis is more robust than ever, and several events have given that trend an extra push. The Floyd protests have been only the most recent of those—in Rousseau’s words, they have sparked “a conversation about injustices within our community that were never satisfactorily addressed.” Inspired by the energy around Black Lives Matter, local activists established a chapter of Native Lives Matter in 2014; its members have been highly visible at protests this summer.
In 2016 and 2017 came the Dakota Access Pipeline protests at Standing Rock, a cause that was very much a focus for Native Lives Matter. “It was pretty monumental,” said Heidi Inman, an unaligned activist of Dakota heritage. “I drove out there every other weekend, loading my car with supplies, picking up elders along the way. I didn’t really consider myself as an activist until then.” Hobot, too, took part in the protests at Standing Rock, an experience that he said “reaffirmed for us the power of collective advocacy.”
The other lesson learned in recent years, and distinctly reinforced this year, is the power of autonomous organizing, channeling the AIM spirit of services for the community, by the community. “Native people respond better to Native people,” said Lilligren. “That’s the bottom line.” He noted that even something as basic as collecting statistics, such as on Native homelessness, is more accurate when the surveyors are Native, too. And despite their relatively small numbers, in absolute terms, Native activists in Minneapolis have an outsize influence that is refracting through many other interest groups—from the precedent set by AIM patrol, now mirrored in so many community policing initiatives, to being early adopters of Narcan, now carried by the police. In Little Earth this summer, aspiring neighborhood watch programs have been seeking out Jones and Neadeau for their advice and expertise—something I witnessed on Saturday night, as two young white men from the Frogtown neighborhood earnestly noted Jones’s advice, delivered between drags on her cigarette.
“You’re going to want to make T-shirts for visibility,” she said. “There are some guys on 29th who can do that. Make sure to shut down the alleyways, that’s where a lot of shit goes down. And if the neighborhood association is making things hard for you, you don’t need to keep talking to them, just get out onto the streets. Don’t ask for permission, just do it.”
Krithika Varagur is an American writer and journalist, generally based in Indonesia. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Guardian, The New York Times, and The New Republic, among other publications.
Co-published with The New York Review of Books.