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An environmental Aazhoomon (crossroads) and an Anishinaabe (Native) cultural center

Ojibwe prophecy foretells a crossroads. At this point, humans can choose to turn away from a path of environmental degradation and toward one of stewardship of the earth and each other. If we choose the path of stewardship, the earth heals and all groups of people prosper together. 

Four adults sitting around a table full of meeting materials
David Abazs, Rick Smith, Wayne Dupuis and Tonia Kittelson at the second advisory committee meeting held at the UMD Memory Keepers Medical Discovery Team building.

A group of Northeast Minnesotans hopes a Great Lakes Cultural Interpretive Center would help us choose the latter. The vision is a center in the Duluth area that would provide education on the indigenous peoples who have lived in the region and encourage stewardship of the environment consistent with indigenous values. 

“Hopefully an interpretive center and a focus on ways of relating to the earth will help shape things differently in the future,” said Wayne Dupuis, a Fond du Lac Band member who is part of a group exploring possibilities for the center. Dupuis is a former University of Minnesota Extension Northeast Regional Sustainable Development Partnership (Northeast RSDP) board member and an environmental program manager for the Fond du Lac Band. 

Proponents also see the center playing an important role in reconciliation of different cultural groups and historical traumas. “It’s in our prophecies that all four races (red, black, white and yellow) come together,” said Rick Smith, director of the American Indian Learning Resource Center at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD), who is also part of the conversations. “For that to happen, one of the ways is creating awareness and letting people know who we are [and] the gifts we have to share.” 

Kjerstin Yager, David Wilsey and Rick Smith
Kjerstin Yager, David Wilsey and Rick Smith at a community consultation with City of Duluth staff.

Smith explained that the prophecies teach that the yellow race brings the gifts and lessons of air and emotion, the red race brings the gifts and lessons of earth and spirit, the black race brings the gifts and lessons of body and water, and the white race brings the gifts of fire and mind. In order to have all living things survive, all four races need to come together and share their gifts and lessons.

Big idea

For several years, Dupuis and other tribal members in the Duluth area had been discussing an idea for an interpretive center that would advance understanding of the different tribes that have walked this land and our collective responsibility to safeguard the land for future generations. “The idea was something that had been tossed around for quite some time, but just never had the air to breathe,” said Tonia Kittelson, Northeast RSDP board member and Natural Resources work group co-chair.

Old log church
The Sawyer Log Church on the Fond du Lac Reservation was built in 1884 by Chippewa parishioners and is a designated national historical site.

In fall 2018, Kittelson and fellow Northeast RSDP Natural Resources work group co-chair David Wilsey, director of the Master of Development Practice program at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, were looking for “big ideas” in the community that the Northeast RSDP could nourish. Wilsey and Kittelson had drafted an approach to discovering and shepherding big ideas for sustainable development in the Northeast region, with strong support from the board. The goal was to work with community partners who were in an ideation stage, partnering with them early on in the creative process to help them develop strong projects.

Northeast RSDP board and work group members learned of the cultural center idea, and met with the community members exploring it. The Northeast RSDP connected the group with two master’s students of Wilsey’s who were interested in working with the team as part of a capstone project. Over the course of a semester, graduate students Amanda Rosebrock (Master of Public Affairs, 2019) and Kjerstin Yager (Master of Public Policy, 2019) facilitated a series of community convenings to explore the idea with a broader group of community stakeholders. 

“The students developed and pitched a community consultation process to [the project] group,” Wilsey said. In the student-developed and led process, four groups were invited to visioning sessions: one for Fond du Lac Band elders, one for various Tribal community members living in the Duluth area, one for students in the UMD Master of Tribal Resource and Environmental Stewardship program, and one for staff of the city of Duluth Parks and Recreation Division.

a model of the vision for a cultural interpretive center
City of Duluth staff construct models of their vision for the center using the PLACE IT! method.

Working with a method called PLACE IT!, participants used materials such as rocks, figurines, blocks, paper and markers to build physical models of the center as they envisioned it. The groups then discussed the physical and experiential attributes they incorporated into their designs. Following each session, Rosebrock and Yager conducted a qualitative analysis of the themes expressed.

According to Wilsey, the complex considerations at play combined with the historical trauma of indigenous communities engaged in the conversations required acute sensitivity to conducting community consultations in ways that were inclusive. The students grappled with questions such as how broadly the consultations should take place geographically from the center point of the proposed site, which groups needed to be included, and how diverse voices could be elevated in the conversations, recognizing that many people have moved through the area over time. 

“I think [the students] acquired a skill set associated with thinking about how to engage diverse communities around complicated and contentious ideas in a productive way,” Wilsey said. “One of the things they really wanted to do was think about how to design the consultation process. ... And they developed, I think, a capacity and competence around facilitation of those meetings, and I dare say an enjoyment of that process. It was inspiring to do it, and it was impossible not to come out of those meetings without a sense of being lucky to have been in the room during those very profound conversations [in which] people shared what they want the world to be like.” 

People around a table and one writing on a white board
Community consultation with City of Duluth staff.

Rosebrock and Yager also developed case studies of a subset of similar tribal interpretive centers that could provide guidance and lessons about what is involved in this kind of work. These included the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., the Squamish - Lil’wat Cultural Centre in British Columbia, the Suquamish Museum in Washington, the Hibulb Cultural Center and Natural History Preserve in Washington, and the Squaxin Island Museum Library and Research Center in Washington.

The result of the students’ work is a report that identifies themes emerging from the community conversations and presents findings of their case study research. “I was impressed by what [the students] had accomplished and the time in which they did,” Smith said. “The process they used with different sectors of the community – Indian and non-Indian, city, county, Cloquet and Duluth – I thought they did a really good job.”

The dream

Amanda Rosebrock standing in front of whiteboard with lots of notes written on it.
Graduate student Amanda Rosebrock gathers data from community visioning session participants.

The process helped community members come together around a vision for the center. The center would focus on the Woodland Indian tribes, extending from the East Coast to central Minnesota, and how their relationship with their environment has sustained them for thousands of years. “[We] want to be inclusive of all the tribes that inhabited this area at one time,” Smith said. “They will be invited to provide their interpretation of their tribe and their culture and everything that goes along with that [in the center curriculum].” 

In the words of Dupuis, as quoted in the student capstone report, “Through interpretation and education, the Great Lakes Woodland Indian Cultural Interpretive Center will contribute to the appreciation and preservation of historic and cultural sites. Strong community partnerships forged in the Cultural Interpretive Center will enhance sustainable tourism, share [an] indigenous world view and spread indigenous prophecy throughout the Great Lakes region.”

Team members envision a lasting impact. “My ultimate dream to come out of this is to educate people to know that the indigenous people of this area may be different, but we’re okay. And that we learn to respect and accept each others’ values and get along instead of continuing the fear of the unknown,” Smith said. “I would like for my grandchildren to be able to talk about this place with pride.”

Northeast RSDP executive director David Abazs described the concept as transformative. “It’s an incredible opportunity for all of us to learn more about the values and the cultures that will provide many of our solutions as we move forward.”

Man behind table building a model of his vision for the cultural center
UMD Master of Tribal Resource and Environmental Stewardship (MTRES) student Mark Pero participates in a community consultation.

Beyond the potential for the center to build unity among people and with the environment, team members also see strong economic potential. “In the Black Hills you see lots of tourism. I think we have that kind of potential here,” Dupuis said. 

According to Dupuis, there is a gap in regional tourism experiences that represent area tribes and their relationship to the environment. “I think it [can be] a source of economic development for the region [while putting] forward stories and narratives about the native people of the land. [It can help share] understanding of our relationship and methods of living that sustained us for thousands of years.”

Complex considerations

Team members are grappling with complex questions around how such a center might be governed, managed and financed, and where it would be located. “The gravity of some of the decisions that have to be made became really apparent – the complexity and the gravity,” Wilsey said.

“It’s visionary-based,” Kittelson said. “This is tribes from all over the place. This is communities coming together. This is big funding. This is education to who knows how many people. It’s a massive undertaking.”

Two women standing in front of lake with Spirit Island in the background.
Amanda Rosebrock and Kjerstin Yager pictured with Spirit Island in the background, en route to the first advisory committee meeting at the UMD Memory Keepers Medical Discovery Team building.

In summer 2019, the idea was brought before the Fond du Lac Tribal Council, which is the geographically closest tribal council to Spirit Island. The sacred Ojibwe Island, located in a widening of the St. Louis River 15 miles south of the Fond du Lac Reservation, has been proposed as a location due to its cultural significance to the Ojibwe people as ceremonial grounds and the sixth stopping point in the migration of the Anishinaabe. As explained in the capstone report, “Spirit Island in Lake Superior has major significance in Ojibwe culture: this is [the] starting point, the Odana, the place where hearts gather.” 

According to Dupuis, the council was in full support of the concept. With the council’s support, team members can begin exploring questions of financing and governance. “It’s still in the conceptual stage,” Dupuis said. “There are a lot of people excited about it. We’re doing a lot of exploration about how it can work. We don’t have all the answers yet.”

According to Smith, now that the tribal council has sanctioned the effort, “It’s time to bring all the stakeholders together and start the discussion” about issues such as who will be fiscally responsible, funding sources, ownership and management of the land it would be on. “The inclusion of other stakeholders that will be a part of this and resources will [help ultimately] determine the site.” 

view inside of the church
The community consultation with Tribal members living in the area took place at the American Indian Community Housing Organization in Duluth.

Looking ahead

Team members have met with a variety of city of Duluth, county and state government officials in recent months, and will be meeting as a stakeholder group again soon. Those interested in more information on the effort can contact Dupuis (waynedupuis@fdlrez.com) or Smith (rsmith1@d.umn.edu). 

According to those interviewed for this article, the experience of being a part of these conversations has been profound. In the words of the capstone students, “We learned more than we ever expected about this idea, the people who champion it, and ourselves.”

Caryn Mohr, October 2019

Caryn Mohr is the assistant statewide director of the University of Minnesota Extension Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships (RSDP).

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