At the Falls: An Urban Ojibwe Story of Minneapolis Placemaking

Editor’s note: This is the fourth entry in this month’s theme at The Metropole, Urban Indigeniety. Additional entries in the series can be found at the conclusion of this article.

By Sasha Maria Suarez

Ignatia Broker (White Earth Ojibwe) remembered that to get a “toe-hold” in mid-twentieth century Minneapolis, newly arrived Indigenous peoples had to do it “by helping each other.”[1] The conditions Broker described — shared small apartments, friends looking out for friends — were experiences held by many other urban Indigenous peoples in Minneapolis during the years following World War II. It was, in fact, incredibly common for the community to rely on one another, and women in particular, for support. The city where Broker and many other Native peoples attempted to make a home for themselves was a place where the very social services designed to assist them with housing, employment, and financial relief were, by all accounts, difficult for Indigenous peoples to access.

The lack of aid for urban Indigenous peoples might seem counterproductive, given post-war federal Indian policy agenda and the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and its Voluntary Relocation Program, both of which sought to assimilate Native peoples into urban spaces. The success of relocation policy hinged on creating conditions that would facilitate Native peoples’ permanent residence in cities. Movement to and re-establishment of life in cities required money, access to stable employment, and support in navigating often confusing, restrictive, and sometimes discriminatory social service systems. In cities selected as official sites for the BIA’s Relocation Program, such as Chicago, Oakland, or Denver, the BIA made some effort to provide initial assistance to recently arrived relocatees. Such an investment on the part of the BIA was meant to be temporary. In theory, relocation contributed to the withdrawal of federal funding to the BIA and enabled the government to “get out of the Indian business” at long last.

Due to its proximity to reservations in Minnesota and neighboring states, Minneapolis was not an official relocation site. The goal of relocation, after all, was to turn Native peoples into city peoples, with diminished ties to reservation lands. Despite not being an official site for relocation, Minneapolis nevertheless saw a dramatic increase in its urban Indigenous population in the post-war years. By the end of the war there were an estimated two to three thousand American Indians living in the city, which increased to between six and eight thousand by 1961, and had exceeded ten thousand by the end of the decade.[2] Indigenous peoples found Minneapolis appealing for myriad reasons: its proximity to home reservations; the presence of family members who had also moved; purported employment opportunities; or enhanced education for their children. As the community began to rapidly expand, so too did stories of difficulties they encountered in the city.

First and foremost, community members agreed that they had serious trouble accessing social services. There was a lack of clarity around who was responsible for providing services to urban Native peoples, particularly those who had recently arrived in Minneapolis. Was it the responsibility of the BIA? The state of Minnesota? The city of Minneapolis? The answer to this question was unclear to Native peoples and social service providers alike. This problem was only compounded by the absence of city programs and services that acknowledged the specific obstacles facing newly urban Indigenous peoples.

Urban Native peoples in Minneapolis regularly reported issues with programming and services that relied upon racialized stereotypes of “Indian” people. Daniel Hardy, a Red Lake Ojibwe man, began working in the late 1950s as the “American Indian Worker” for a community center in the Phillips neighborhood of south Minneapolis. Hardy’s job entailed organizing Native programs, reaching out to Native families, and regularly making referrals for Native peoples to agencies that were equipped to help with employment, education, and housing assistance. In a 1957 report to the center about his work, Hardy wrote that he routinely heard stories about how Indigenous peoples were sent in circles by various city agencies. Employees at these agencies sometimes assumed Native peoples would not stay in the city because they lacked “steady” employment prior to arriving. Such assumptions ignored that, for many Ojibwe people, seasonal agricultural work was a common type of temporary employment, especially for people living on reservations with limited full-time employment opportunities. In turn, due to their own experiences being given the runaround or hearing about those of others, many Indigenous peoples simply “refused to attempt to access emergency aid and city welfare services out of fear of being treated poorly or being ‘forced to leave the city…’”[3]

In such a precarious situation, community members like Ignatia Broker often did the work themselves. Urban Native women and men regularly provided lodging and access to meals for friends — and in some cases strangers — who had recently arrived or were struggling to gain an even footing in the city. They also provided crucial information regarding where people could obtain community-based or non-discriminatory assistance and alerted other community members of potential job or housing opportunities. Scholars have noted similar community efforts took place in numerous cities across the country during this period. Much of the relocation era literature also emphasizes the intertribal nature of urban Native communities, many of which maintained ties to homelands and tribal nations while demanding urban space for themselves as Indigenous peoples. Minneapolis provides the opportunity to consider how community members like Ignatia Broker, an Ojibwe woman, moved through the larger intertribal community as members of tribally-specific community.

When speaking about tribally-specific community in Minneapolis, I focus on Ojibwe placemaking, but it is essential to understand that the history I sketch here occurred in a city built upon Dakota land. Any exploration herein of what it means to make a home out of Minneapolis requires me to also acknowledge that, in doing so, Ojibwe people are residing in another Indigenous nation’s homelands. Dakota people call the city Bde Óta Othúŋwe — village of many lakes — and  it’s a place very near Bdote, the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers and the place of genesis for Dakota people. For Dakota people, their relation to Minneapolis is one structured by settler expansion, forcible removal, and legal exile from not just the city, but the entirety of what is now the state of Minnesota. Dakota experiences in mid-twentieth-century Minneapolis, then, should be understood as a series of returns, of reclaiming and rebuilding relationships with lands their ancestor knew on an intimate level. Dakota experience as urban Indigenous peoples requires scholars of urban Indigenous history to seriously interrogate what making a home in the city means for people who know the land as home. Any answer to such inquiry must necessarily have Dakota people at its center.

In a tribally-specific Ojibwe context, Broker, a woman from White Earth Reservation in northwestern Minnesota, was far from an outlier in post-war Minneapolis. In fact, Ojibwe people from White Earth appear regularly in histories of Minneapolis’s Indigenous community throughout the twentieth century. Often attributed to land fraud and dispossession on the reservation and exacerbated by high unemployment, White Earth Ojibwe people had a longer history of moving to and through Minneapolis. In the decades preceding the 1950s mass movement, White Earth Ojibwe people developed critical experiences of maintaining their identities while making space for themselves in the city.

Essential to the maintenance of Ojibwe identity in Minneapolis is, I argue, the importance of Ojibwe women’s community organizing work, which allowed Ojibwe people to conceive of Minneapolis as a place within Anishinaabewaki, a broader Anishinaabe world Ojibwe people share with Potawatomi and Ottawa peoples. Anishinaabewaki encompasses lands geographically and is also defined by shared cultural practices that inform relations to lands and other beings. Anishinaabewaki is continually fluid, undefined by static borders and ready to move where Ojibwe people find themselves.

Ojibwe women have always been essential to community cohesion and organization within Ojibwe societies, particularly through the long-held practices of seasonal rounds. Best defined as movements that reiterated Ojibwe relations to various lands, seasonal rounds are more commonly understood as the seasonal practices of sugarbush (collecting maple sap), berry harvests and gardening, harvesting wild rice, and winter gatherings where sacred stories are shared. Each of these practices facilitated the integration and reaffirmation of small Ojibwe family units within extensive kinship networks and alliances across Anishinaabewaki. Throughout these seasonal practices, family moved together across the landscape, joining larger bands when they came together in the summer and winter. The seasonal rounds were, of course, about survival, but they were also about maintaining Ojibwe relationships with land and amongst themselves and are an integral part of Ojibwe identity and community.

Brenda Child and Chantal Norrgard have demonstrated Ojibwe women were essential to seasonal round practices, organizing labor, staking out family plots each season, and facilitating the share of harvests with those in their families and communities who were in need. In this way, Ojibwe women have always worked as community organizers from a purely Ojibwe epistemology. As Child articulates, if Ojibwe women are understood as community organizers, vital to the success of Ojibwe nations moving actively across lands on a seasonal basis, this role would, of course, extend into Ojibwe communities in urban spaces.[4]

In my own work, I envision Ojibwe women’s role as expanding Anishinaabewaki, encompassing Gakaabikaang, the Ojibwe name for the place where the city sits, which loosely translates to “at the falls.” Gakaabikaang is a place where Ojibwe people maintain an adaptive continuity of tradition, cultural practice, language, and fluid conception of what makes Ojibwe people who we are. In other words, much like seasonal round practices, Ojibwe women’s work in Minneapolis helped the community make sense of urban spaces and how Ojibwe people fit into them.

Broker’s memories of community helping one another, then, should be understood in relation to the work of other Ojibwe women who helped to make Minneapolis home. Louise Peake moved to Minneapolis from White Earth in the 1910s and organized numerous Indigenous causes including the Sah-Kah-Tay (Sunshine) Club. An Indigenous and non-Indigenous women’s sewing group, members regularly met in private homes to socialize and plan fundraisers to benefit urban Indigenous youth and families. Peake’s daughter, Emily, also carried this work on in the years following World War II, becoming heavily involved in city committees on urban Indian issues and pushing for the creation of Indigenous programming in community centers at a time where there were few options for the community. The Peake house continued to serve as a space of gathering and an entrance point for Ojibwe and other Indigenous peoples in the city.

Similar to the Peakes, Winifred “Winnie” Jourdain, also from White Earth, served on city committees, created programming in community centers, and organized another sewing group, Broken Arrow, which took up after its predecessor (of which Jourdain had also been a part). While rallying around causes to make visible space for urban Indigenous peoples in the city, Jourdain also continually hosted the community. Many newly arrived Indigenous peoples found refuge at Jourdain’s house, which was located on Portland and Franklin Avenues. Such legacies had a lasting impact on the community. In Jourdain’s case, the site where her former house once sat now holds an apartment building which is named in her honor.

Many of these women worked in the post-war period when it became impossible to ignore the need for an American Indian Center, a space run by and for the community. Though the history of this dream is long and often complicated, women like Ignatia Broker, Winnie Jourdain, and Emily Peake were all heavily involved in advocating for such a space. Over the course of a decade, these three women each regularly served on committees advocating for an Indian Center and wrote grants for funding. They even publicly shamed Minneapolis’s city council for not following up on its promises to support an American Indian Center when the city continued to drag its feet approving the use of a lot at the T-junction of Franklin and Bloomington Avenues in Phillips neighborhood. The oft-repeated story told by community today involves an elderly Jourdain who stood up at a 1972 council meeting and said, “you took this whole country from us…all we want are a couple of acres.”[5] It was not long before the city council approved the use of that lot. The culmination of their decades-long work resulted in the creation of the Minneapolis American Indian Center, which remains the very center of Minneapolis’s urban Indigenous community today.

The White Earth Ojibwe women I write about did not do this work alone, nor would they have ever claimed to, but their presence as Ojibwe women — not just “Indian” women — has been largely ignored in larger narratives of the Minneapolis Indigenous community. Their work, alongside others, was essential to placemaking in the city. For the many Ojibwe people who continue to live in Minneapolis, the work of Ojibwe women has been transformative. They facilitated the maintenance of identity and connection, the strengthening of Ojibwe ways of being. Ojibwe people are able to understand themselves as Ojibwe, as part of an urban Ojibwe community, in this city at the falls.

Additional posts in the series:

Sasha Maria Suarez is a White Earth Ojibwe descendant and an assistant professor of history and American Indian studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She received her PhD in American Studies in 2020 from the University of Minnesota. She is currently working on her first book, which provides an in-depth examination of White Earth Ojibwe placemaking, gender, and urban community organizing in twentieth-century Minneapolis. She has a chapter in Indian Cities: Histories of Indigenous Urbanization, edited by Kent Blansett, Cathleen Cahill, and Andrew Needham. 

Featured image (at top): “Minneapolis, Minnesota, “ (1885), W. V. Herancourt and I. Monasch. Geography and Maps Division, Library of Congress.

[1] Pauline Brunette, “The Minneapolis Indian Community,” Hennepin History 49, no. 1 (Winter 1989-1990), 7, Hennepin County Library Digital Collections.

[2] Minnesota Division of Social Work, “Indian Study, 1948,” Indian Subject Files, 1947-1964, Governor’s Human Rights Commission Records, box 1, folder 9, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul, Minnesota; “Joint Study by the State of Minnesota and Bureau of Indian Affairs Relating to Taxation and Community Services Available to Indians in Minnesota,” Dec. 15, 1954, Minnesota Indian Affairs Council Records, box 1, folder 1, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul, Minnesota; Official Memorandum to Members of Indian Action Committee, May 8, 1961, Indian Subject Files, 1947-1964, Governor’s Human Rights Commission Records, box 1, folder 10; Governor’s Human Rights Commission, Minnesota’s Indian Citizens: Yesterday and Today (St. Paul: State of Minnesota, 1965).

[3] Daniel Hardy, Report on the American Indian Project, May 1957, 6-7, Edward F. Waite Neighborhood House Records, box 21.

[4] Brenda J. Child, Holding Our World Together: Ojibwe Women and the Survival of Community (New York: Viking Press, 2012).

[5] Paul Levy, “Spirit of White Earth: City Life,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, Apr. 29, 1999, ProQuest: 1885575297.

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