Native Partnership Council

Centering Native Voices

At the heart of The Falls Initiative engagement process is the intention to center Native voices.

We acknowledge that the site of the Upper Lock is within Dakota homeland, and that the conspicuously missing story within this historic district is that of its first inhabitants. Therefore, our engagement process was structured to seek a fuller understanding of Indigenous experience in our community and on this site, and to put Native voices and individuals in a position to lead. 

Friends of the Falls and the Native American Community Development Institute (NACDI), convened the Native Partnership Council as a channel to share stories about Owámniyomni, consider this place from an Indigenous perspective, and set guiding principles for the project.  

Dakota Tribal leadership endorsed this approach, as a method to center Native voices at the beginning and throughout the community engagement process.

First Season Members

The following Native leaders directed the first season work, from September 2021 through September 2022.

All four Mni Sota Dakota Tribal leaders were invited to participate in the Council or to name a representative. Additional Council members were identified from the following categories: History Keepers, Spiritual Leadership, Artists, Environmental, Youth/Young Adult and Exiled Dakota Descendants.

  • Shelley Buck, Vice-President, Prairie Island Indian Community
  • Jewell Arcoren, Dakota Lakota, enrolled member of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate
  • Juanita Espinosa, enrolled member of the Spirit Lake Nation, Turtle Mountain and LCO Descendant
  • Wakinyan LaPointe, Sicangu Lakota
  • Maggie Lorenz, Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe, descendant of Spirit Lake Dakota Nation
  • Mona Smith, Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota

The Council was joined and supported by the following spiritual and community leaders:

  • Chief Arvol Looking Horse, Lakota
  • Brian Matrious, Anishinaabe/Ojibwe
  • Carrie Day Aspinwall, Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, Minneapolis Urban Band Member (Facilitator)
  • Robert Lilligren, enrolled in the White Earth Ojibwe Nation
  • Angela Two Stars, Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate
  • John Koepke, Ojibwe
  • Melissa Olson, tribal citizen of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe at Leech Lake

We continue to seek the expertise of our Dakota relatives, and welcome your interest in participating in the Native Partnership Council.

Starting in a Good Way

The initial meeting of the Native Partnership Council was held on September 24, 2021 in the form of a Ki Ceremony. ‘Ki’ means ‘to arrive back to where one started, to return’ in the Dakota language. In addition to Council members, the Ki Ceremony was attended by spiritual leader Chief Arvol Looking Horse, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, Council Member Steve Fletcher, and stakeholders of the Central Riverfront.

At the beginning of each gathering, we smudge and recognize that the River has a spirit which we must honor and respect; she is the life vein of our Mother Earth. The Council then meets in a circle, a place where all are equal and each voice has its place. Here, we share thoughts and work to find consensus on issues that affect all of our relatives.

Rather than record traditional meeting minutes, we documented early Native Partnership Council gatherings in a way that aligned with Native culture and traditional practices. Michelle Buchholz, a Wet’suwet’en artist who leads Cassyex Consulting, was engaged to bear witness to Council sessions and create graphic recordings depicting key stories and themes.

What We Heard

At early convenings of the Native Partnership Council, we sought to better understand the many histories and relationships tied to Owámniyomni, and to identify shared values that should guide broader community engagement efforts for The Falls Initiative. Members responded to questions like:

  • How can we look at this place through the lens of tribal history?
  • What is your personal history with this place? Do you have family stories related to the River?
  • In what ways has this history been hidden or erased? Are there ways it is still visible?
  • How do we define the site’s significance?
  • How do our people experience the River today?

These prompts led to powerful conversations about familial trauma, personal identity, tribal history, and cultural values.

Native Partnership Council members also advocated for those who cannot speak for themselves. They spoke powerfully about the lasting impacts of genocide, industrialization, and commercialism on all of our relations – the River, the four-legged, the fish, the winged.

At the heart of all discussions was the River – a living spirit and mother of life. The NPC challenged us to consider what the River wants, what can be learned from the water itself, and what would happen if this living force could flow as she wanted again.

A Place of Connection

“We have a responsibility to maintain a connection with the River.”

-Member of the Native Partnership Council

The Earth Remembers

“I’ve been taught that the earth remembers. The more time we spend in a place in silence and ceremony, the more we can remember, both the bad and the good.”

-Member of the Native Partnership Council

Play Featured Content | 1min

There is Power in This Place

“The white/dominant culture doesn’t see the earth as alive; they see it as a resource to be extracted and used. They never saw Spirit Island as a place of birth and life, but as an economic resource that needed to be extracted to run the mills.”

-Member of the Native Partnership Council

We Are Illegal

“[Previous generations] knew there was a law that said they couldn’t be here… so they stayed away. It took a long time for me to know that we’re illegal.”

-Member of the Native Partnership Council

Play Featured Content | 1min

An Opportunity to Restore a Story Disrupted

“How can we begin to heal? How can we understand and acknowledge this site, this home, of our Dakota people, if we don’t have access?”

-Member of the Native Partnership Council

Water is Life

“We need to recognize the River has been here for ages. The River knows what she wants to happen… She is alive, she is a Spirit.”

-Member of the Native Partnership Council

Council members’ stories and sentiments coalesced into four themes that formed the basis of engagement sessions with the broader public:

  • A Place to Restore a Story Disrupted
  • A Place of Power
  • A Place of Connection / Mitakuye Owas’in (All Our Relations)
  • The River is a Spirit / Mní Wičóni (Water is Life)

In 2022, Friends of the Falls and NACDI hosted an intensive period of public conversation informed by, and interwoven with, the groundwork, priorities, and emerging themes laid out by the Native Partnership Council.

A series of five Community Conversations broadened the discussion, connected Native and non-Native communities, and aligned the priorities of multiple stakeholder groups while continuing to authentically center Native voices.

The Partnership Council helped shape the format and content for each Community Conversation, and afterward, met to reflect on the public input. They took on the task of “weaving” together public and NPC comments in order to find alignment.