AICHO: Creating Home in Our Homelands

Housing advocates (top l-r): Scott Cordes, Jewelean Jackson, Habitat for Humanity of Minnesota’s Cristin Incitti, Erin Mathern, LeAnn Littlewolf; (bottom l-r): Margaret Kaplan, Sedia Omar. Not pictured: Henry Banks. [photographer Brian Muhs, MN Housing Partnership]

I work at the American Indian Community Housing Organization (AICHO) in Duluth, a nonprofit created to apply cultural strategies to real life social issues, like community and domestic violence, systemic housing crisis, and deeply embedded economic disparities based on race. We approach our work with an Indigenous mindset and our best efforts to move forward, staying true to our core cultural teachings and practices.

I was recently recognized by the Minnesota Housing Partnership as a 2023 Outstanding Housing Advocate (picture above). I was happy to stand with other advocates who never quit searching for real solutions and meaningful resources.

At the same time, I felt a deep sense of not deserving the award. I thought of many family members who I could not help when they had immediate need of housing. Each time, I had to refer them instead to a slow, unresponsive system and a formula for housing that does not work. They remain without housing and sometimes without shelter. They temporarily move in with friends or other relatives who can take them in. They enter treatment centers, then halfway houses, find recovery and success, and then land out in the streets again. They endure real consequences.

A few years ago, AICHO put up a billboard that asked, “How can we be homeless in our homelands?” This question is a constant fire for me.

In February, the capacity for our Dabinoo’igan Shelter — in Ojibwe language, “A place you are safe, sheltered, and comforted” — will have more than doubled, from 10 beds to 23. It is northeast Minnesota’s only Indigenous, culturally specific domestic violence emergency shelter. Dabinoo’igan offers supportive services, legal advocacy, children’s programming, and consistent and constant access to cultural practices.

AICHO also offers 12 units of affordable market rate apartments and 29 units of permanent supportive housing at the Gimaajii Mino Bimaadizimin building — in Ojibwe language: “We are, all of us together, beginning a good life.’ At Gimaajii, the Dr. Robert Powless Cultural Center has been nationally recognized for creative placemaking, incorporating vibrant art and cultural space.

In short, AICHO focuses on the consistent presence and access to our Indigenous culture as a means to build, rebuild, and strengthen community. When we strengthen ourselves collectively, we double the impact of individual lives.

Traditional drum and pipe ceremonies are held in our community on a regular basis, protecting and strengthening our people. We host honoring ceremonies for community members who reach accomplishments like graduating with a diploma or GED, finishing a marathon, or making deep steps in recovery.

The Children’s Program is active in food sovereignty, entrepreneurship, and hands-on cultural teachings, like the gathering and growing of legacy foods, traditional lacrosse scrimmages, weekly core cultural teaching sessions, and daily smudging and use of medicines.

LeAnn Littlewolf

The Indigenous mindset matters when we encounter crisis or difficult situations because it guides us in how we take care of one another.

At AICHO, we are not quick to evict residents. We work to help residents determine a path that works for them. Gimaajii provides safe housing with built-in recognition that families and individuals have experienced a high level of trauma, stress, and uncertainty for an extended time, which requires a high level of care, support, and room to recover and reclaim lives.

In truth, Indigenous peoples are all working to recover and reclaim our lives. We do so most effectively when we rest within our cultural strengths. We have solutions for ourselves, and we believe these solutions hold value for the world.

In Minnesota, we have a critical housing challenge. We believe we absolutely can make our homelands a home for everyone, with more immediate housing options and effective cultural strategies. One of our core traditional commitments is that every community member always has a home.

Details: aicho.org

LeAnn Littlewolf (she/her, Gaa-Zagaskwaajimekaag Band of Ojibwe) is executive director for the American Indian Community Housing Organization (AICHO) in Duluth. She brings Anishinaabe cultural perspective to her leadership, and has worked in housing advocacy and community organizing for 30 years.