When Vaughn Bull Lodge makes the rounds at Little Earth, a Native American housing complex in south Minneapolis, he hears stories of daughters who were attacked, granddaughters who go missing.
Prostitution and trafficking are persistent problems, Lodge says, but the solutions require daunting policy changes like a minimum wage increase and a psychological shift among the youth. “After 500 years of genocide and oppression, they’re not led to believe that we can be better than we are, that we can be successful,” he says.
Lodge, 38, opened up Dog Soldier MMA gym in 2013. These days, he trains about 40 young people in self-defense and self-respect according to traditional Native warrior ethics. “Dog Soldier” alludes to the military bands of the Cheyenne, who defeated Custer at Little Bighorn – the “kamikaze of the plains.”
“We try and implement all that training here, teach these guys how to be a true soldier instead of being thugs, instead of being gangsters out here on the streets,” Lodge says. “We run a hard ship here.”
Students from all over the Twin Cities sign a contract to relinquish their egos before they enter. They’re told to meditate on humility and respect.
The students also volunteer as protectors of the women who travel to the area for the nearby Minnesota Indian Women's Resource Center. The adjacent Franklin Street rail station is notoriously dangerous, and clients of the center are harassed, Lodge says.
A couple months ago, he found a woman sitting on the sidewalk outside Maria’s Café with her pants pulled down, beaten bloody. It was 9 a.m., and nobody called police. They just walked right by her, Lodge says. The woman wasn’t begging for money. He suspected she had been beaten and raped.
Dog Soldiers aren’t exempt from the violence of the world outside.
In 2014, one of Lodge’s assistants was waiting at the Franklin rail station on her way to work in the morning when two men and a woman in a pickup truck pulled up beside her. They told her to get in. She refused. The woman was about to get out and force Lodge’s assistant inside when she ran to the nearest house.
More recently, a Dog Soldier student went on the run after shooting somebody on the North Side, Lodge says.
“Soon as [training’s] over, they go back in the world, and it’s chaos,” he says. “The fighting, the domestic violence and alcoholism, drug abuse — it’s a part of their normal lives. What we try to do is bring a little bit of normalcy to their lives, teach them some cultural values.”
Apart from running the gym, Lodge has also been doggedly protesting the nearby Family Dollar’s sale of high-alcohol mouthwash.
On Sundays, alcoholics who can’t get booze elsewhere have been known to hit the shelves of the Family Dollar at 1433 E. Franklin Ave. for 54 proof Listerine. Lodge jokingly refers to it as “Indian champagne.”
When they sit outside and drink, it’s disrespectful to neighbors who have to call the ambulance on the vagrants. It's also hard on the people enrolled at the local treatment centers, who are trying to stay on the path to recovery.
“This company deliberately sells this stuff because they know they’re going to make a dollar,” Lodge says. “Time and time again, I have to step over this guy and call the ambulance because I don’t know if they’re going to be okay or not, and they have a Family Dollar Listerine bottle in their pocket. Stop exploiting our people.”
The city recently ordered Family Dollar to card anybody who looks younger than 30 if they’re buying mouthwash with more than 10 percent alcohol.