In the heart of downtown Duluth, Minnesota, a decorative brick building provides safe, stable homes for 29 formerly homeless Native American families. It also provides a cultural home for Duluth’s Native American community. Gimaajii-Mino-Bimaadizimin, which means “We are, all of us together, beginning a good life,” is a project of the American Indian Community Housing…

Duluth, Minnesota
American Indian Community Housing Organization
Public Funding Includes

Minnesota Housing Finance Agency: Deferred loan, grant funds

Federal Home Loan Bank: Grant funds

City of Duluth: Grants from the city’s allocations of U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development HOME Investment Partnerships program and Community Development Block Grant funds

U.S. Department of the Interior National Park Service: Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credits

Minnesota State Historic Preservation Office: Historic Structure Rehabilitation Tax Credit Grant

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: Administration for Native Americans grant

In the heart of downtown Duluth, Minnesota, a decorative brick building provides safe, stable homes for 29 formerly homeless Native American families. It also provides a cultural home for Duluth’s Native American community. Gimaajii-Mino-Bimaadizimin, which means “We are, all of us together, beginning a good life,” is a project of the American Indian Community Housing Organization (AICHO). Housed in the former Duluth YWCA facility built in 1908, Gimaajii’s 50,000 square feet hold permanent supportive housing on the top three floors, AICHO’s offices, and a cultural center with event and exhibit space where tribes often hold elections, feasts and other gatherings with their band members.

Photos by Ivy Vaino

When AICHO purchased the building in 2008, it focused first on creating supportive housing. AICHO Executive Director Michelle Lebeau recalled that the renovated building “still felt like a YWCA. Everyone who came in remembered it as the YWCA. They had stories about aunts living there or kids swimming there.” AICHO decided to transform the building’s public spaces with Native American art to give visitors an immediate sense of the building’s place and purpose.

Photos by Ivy Vaino

The organization used social media to recruit an artist to create a mural in the building, which became the first of many. Gimaajii now holds 10 murals, both inside and outside the building. The most prominent is Ganawenjiige Onigam, or the “Water Protector” mural, which spans several stories on the southwest side of the building and depicts a woman wearing a traditional Ojibwe jingle dress, serving as a symbol for missing and murdered indigenous women. AICHO also sought artists to show their work in the building. “People were cautious at first,” Lebeau remembered. “There were no art galleries or shows or museums in Duluth just focused on Indian art.” The Water Protector mural, in fact, was the first piece of public art in the city by and for Native Americans.

Although AICHO was new to the art world, it quickly learned there was an appetite for Native American arts and culture in the city. The first art show at Gimaajii, in which local artist Ivy Vaino displayed her photography of dancers at powwows, drew 200 people. The second show also brought a huge turnout. “The community then claimed the building,” Lebeau said. “They became co-owners of the building and really influenced us in terms of what kind of art show to do and whom to reach out to. We found artists who had been in community 30 years and never had any place to show their work.” Before the COVID-19 pandemic, AICHO had progressed to holding art shows monthly with up to three galleries in use at once, including space in an adjacent building AICHO purchased and converted into the Dr. Robert Powless Cultural Center. The organization also launched an annual winter art sale. After a few years, it established a permanent gift shop to give artists a venue to sell their work on a regular basis and create a revenue stream for AICHO.

Photos by Ivy Vaino

The artwork is not just for visitors, however. “I think there is a need to have art and music” in spaces designed for low-income and formerly homeless people, Lebeau said, “because most people who come into permanent supportive housing don’t have that opportunity. They don’t have the luxury of going to museums. It’s pretty unique when [the art] is in their own home.” In addition, she said, being surrounded by beautiful pieces of their own culture has a positive impact for families and children who have experienced trauma.

Connecting with artists in the community helped AICHO make Gimaajii the community hub of art and culture that it is today. “The artists really shaped and created what happened and continues to happen in this building,” Lebeau said, remembering the blank white walls of the newly renovated space. “It’s full of color and gorgeous artwork now. It wasn’t planned; it just evolved.”

The path to Gimaajii’s success, however, was anything but smooth. It took six years for AICHO to assemble the necessary funding and complete the project. “It was really difficult, LeBeau said. “I think we ended up with 21 sources of funding.” AICHO received significant support from tribal governments and foundations, in part thanks to intensive outreach efforts. “Some of that was in response to the racism we encountered in the six years trying to put this project together,” she explained. Tribal governments and organizations invested in the project “because every tribe has band members who live in Duluth and they know how hard it is for them to get affordable, decent housing,” Lebeau said. Tribes not only put their resources into project, they also supported AICHO at city council meetings, which was important as AICHO struggled to obtain public funding for Gimaajii.

The city turned down AICHO’s initial request for funding, eventually reversing its decision after public outcry. The project was rejected three times for funding by the state housing finance agency, Minnesota Housing. Finally, Dr. Robert Powless, the chair of the Duluth Indian Commission and a champion of AICHO’s vision for Gimaajii, met personally with the Minnesota Housing commissioner and convinced him to fund the project. That conversation proved to be a major milestone. Minnesota Housing committed about $4 million to the project from multiple funding programs. “Because we finally got that, we were able to start getting some other money,” Lebeau said.

Photos by Ivy Vaino

Even with the Minnesota Housing funding, AICHO still faced a large funding gap, so the organization decided to apply for tax credits. AICHO won federal historic tax credits and found an investor to supply an additional $2.4 million. They also received the first ever grant in lieu of tax credits from the Minnesota State Historic Preservation Office, a program the state launched in 2010 to provide alternatives that made it easier for nonprofit developers to access state historic tax credits.

AICHO finally secured funding from the City of Duluth’s HOME Investment Partnerships Program and Community Development Block Grant, but Lebeau said it was the most difficult funding to obtain. On paper, the project was a clear win: 29 units of supportive housing and the reuse of a vast empty property in downtown Duluth. “The native  community is the most impacted community in Duluth, with the highest rates of homelessness, lowest educational attainment and the lowest-income families,” according to Lebeau. She sees a pattern of structural racism underlying difficulties in securing funding, as similar dynamics play out repeatedly, including delays in permits and approvals that cause projects to miss critical milestones.

Photos by Ivy Vaino

“AICHO always writes the cultural program into every grant, so that is something that has always been funded, whether it’s state, federal or foundations,” Lebeau explained. AICHO’s blend of supportive housing with art and culture has now become a national model, attracting visitors from all over country, including tribes, rural groups and urban housing developers. These visits and word of mouth often lead to new relationships and funding opportunities for AICHO. Looking back to that first art show, Lebeau said she knew then that AICHO had tapped into something special: “The first floor of building was filled with people. I remember thinking, ‘Wow, we are really onto something with this. This is a great need in the community and it’s going to change the landscape of Duluth forever.’”