American Indian leaders try to mend messy schism at the Wall of Forgotten Natives

James Cross in 2016, shortly after the founding of Natives Against Heroin. Cross and his team have come under fire from other Native leaders in a rare but public rebuke.

James Cross in 2016, shortly after the founding of Natives Against Heroin. Cross and his team have come under fire from other Native leaders in a rare but public rebuke. David Joles, Star Tribune file photo

As temperatures dip dangerously low, the tents in the Franklin-Hiawatha homeless encampment now sit on a bank of snow. Residents who remain holed up with propane heaters are facing siege conditions. Tensions have cleaved a wedge between social workers bringing aid.

Natives Against Heroin (NAH) is the main group providing security and distributing food, clothes, and survival items. Founder James Cross and his teammates have been stationed at the Wall since early this summer, when the tents first began to multiply. They’ve called out Mayor Jacob Frey for the staggered response to the demand for emergency shelter, accused other American Indian organizations of withholding money and donations, and hiring white social workers in place of Native people in need of jobs.

But Native social workers are dividing their attention among many clients scattered throughout the Twin Cities in smaller, unseen homeless camps. Nonprofits leading shelters and Native-focused group homes argue there are no vacancies to accommodate everyone in need.

A coalition of American Indian organizations fired back at NAH, releasing a bleak statement condemning the group of abusing its influence to bully non-white social workers and exile campers suspected of dealing drugs or working as police informants. 

Metropolitan Urban Indian Directors' statement from last week:

“MUID has been disappointed to learn that NAH leadership has used threats and intimidation – especially against women – in attempts to disrupt service delivery and organizing efforts. Their actions have disempowered and created fear among many of the camp residents. NAH leadership has interrupted the delivery of food, beverages and donated goods to the camp residents. NAH leadership and members have spread inaccurate information about the resources being made available to camp residents and have discouraged residents from accessing better housing and services.”

Relationships in the community become so strained that tribal leaders called a meeting at the American Indian Center on Sunday to air grievances, repair wounds, and re-focus efforts on helping camp residents transition into the Navigation Center, a temporary shelter near the Wall opening this week.

Kevin DuPuis, chairman of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, requested patience and open-mindedness as all sides spoke their piece.

"I think everybody here has heard of the crab syndrome, right? Whenever a crab gets to the top of the bucket, the other crabs pull it down. It's no different. So I'm here for that simple reason: find a resolution to what's happening down here as best as we possibly can."

But when other tribal leaders criticized NAH members for disrespecting women, Cross wouldn't stand for it.

"It's hard to be here listening to complaints when you haven't been out there," he said, pounding the table. "We're out here in the cold, rain, snow, providing resources for our community. And if nobody was out there, guess what? There would have been more deaths, more ODs, more sexual assaults."

Cross denies discouraging the homeless from choosing warmer, safer options, reminding people that NAH proposed opening a new shelter this summer. He accused other leaders of idly sitting "on every board, not doing nothing."

A group of Cross' supporters, feeling like they'd been put on trial, gathered to his aid, bearing banners and drums.

Michael Goze, CEO of American Indian Community Development Corporation, was clearly offended. He said he hasn't received a single public dollar for a heated hygiene tent erected Labor Day across the street from the Wall. He rattled off a number of properties that the nonprofit has developed to house people.

"We are housing the same people we are serving. There are people in this room living in the housing we have. You guys throw rocks at me, go ahead. I'm used to it. My whole life has been rocks."

At one point NAH member Fabian Jones moved toward Goze, challenging him on why donations were being stored in the hygiene tent instead of being distributed at the Wall, and why that tent is locked up before nightfall when people could have taken shelter inside.

As angry voices drowned out discussion, the women in the room began to sing a prayer song, effectively shutting down the fracas as some in the room wept.

There were not many camp residents in attendance to speak for themselves. The NAH team left and returned to the table several times. When it seemed that differences were not being resolved, the subject pivoted to imminent plans to shut down the Wall and move most of its residents into the Navigation Center, which occupies land owned by Red Lake Nation. 

There will be a soft opening Tuesday, when a handful of clients will move in and report back on the strengths and weaknesses of the temporary shelter. Camp residents actively using drugs will have to fend for themselves on the streets, as before.

Mayor Frey, who'd sat silently at the table until then, requested everyone's cooperation.

"The present site where it exists is not safe," he said. "What I don't want is a showdown between Native American brothers and sisters, where suddenly we're preventing the transition of people."

MUID vice-chair Robert Lilligren says that even though resolution proved elusive, he felt that heeding tribal leaders' call to meet at all helped.

Lilligren says he wants Cross to know that MUID only wants to distribute donations in a more organized fashion, and that sensational rumors of drug dealing ("We hear that shit all the time") had nothing at all to do with the coalition's statement, which was based on behaviors "becoming apparent to pretty much everyone in the community."

"It’s a big thing in the Native community, to make our business public. Native people don’t do that easily. So it moved us along... It made it clear that there are a lot of people who want our relatives at the camp to be in a safer, warmer place, and be part of an orderly transition."