Growing up, I would listen to my Dad tell stories for hours, weaving one story to the next and looping back to finish one while continuing another. During visits at the Ain Dah Yung Center, an American Indian community organization in St. Paul that serves youth and families through culturally embedded practices, I asked if I could share their story and the work they have been doing steadily for decades. To fully tell the story of this statewide leader, I would like to share this story in a more traditional way that brings in other stories.
Recently, I have been reading Why We Can’t Wait by Martin Luther King, Jr. and thinking about the way King pieced history and the details of oppression together to form a narrative of hope through action. The stories of African American and American Indian history are vastly different. Yet at the core, the cultural strength that carried people through loss and trauma is the same. King named the specific abuses endured to generate an understanding of exactly where the healing and repair must begin. For American Indians, the process has been similar and our sovereignty as Tribal nations is a critical part of our story.
During the Civil Rights movement, American Indians in Minneapolis formed the national advocacy group the American Indian Movement (AIM) in 1968 to protest police brutality, abusive government policies, and the disregard of treaties and civil rights. AIM brought issues like self-determination, sovereignty, and religious freedom into the discourse. AIM called for renewed spiritual practice and unity. This led to a rebuilding of identity and community.
Through the examination of history not taught or accessible in mainstream education, AIM identified the specific violations that had brought American Indian people from intact communities with large homelands to the precariousness of poverty. AIM identified both where the community was intentionally broken and the inherent community strengths. These points were selected as places to begin.
The forced removal of American Indian children into boarding schools has long been known in American Indian families, but only coming now to light for many others. This government policy has wide implications for families today, recovering from loss of cultural knowledge and language, abuse, trauma, and loss of loved ones.
In recognition of this history, AIM formed survival schools where American Indian children could thrive by learning cultural practices and academic studies. Many of these children and youth had dropped out or been pushed out of public schools.
One of these survival schools, the Red School House, was established in St. Paul. Those who worked at the school found that many of the children and youth attending school were homeless or having difficulty meeting basic needs. Community leaders worked hard to respond and opened the Ain Dah Yung Center in 1983 as an emergency shelter specific to American Indian youth.
Ain Dah Yung means “our home” in Ojibwe/Anishinabe language. The name conveys a purpose beyond immediate shelter; the Ain Dah Yung Center creates the safety and hope that makes a real home for a child, for a family, and for our community.
Today, the Ain Dah Yung Center provides a continuum of services and resources for over 4500 youth and families each year. Traditional American Indian beliefs and values guide the daily work and larger vision:
- Safety always comes first
- We treat each other with love, kindness, respect and dignity
- Native language, traditions, spirituality and storytelling are the keys to healing and thriving in our community
- We act with integrity and accountability as stewards of community resources
- Humor and humility help us weather many storms and keep perspective
- We empower all to dream, set high standards and achieve
At the heart of the work, the Ain Dah Yung Center is “committed to ensuring that American Indian youth and families retain access to their indigenous rights of community belonging and cultural identity.”
The Ain Dah Yung Center provides a culturally specific Emergency Shelter for American Indian youth ages 5-17 and the Beverly A. Benjamin Youth Lodge transitional living program for youth ages 16-21. The Street Outreach services reach homeless, precariously housed, highly mobile and at-risk youth (in collaboration with Streetworks).
The Ain Dah Yung Center is currently developing permanent supportive housing for ages18-26. The building will have up to 40 units, storefronts (job training for residents), and will feature green design. Deb Foster, Executive Director, envisions a circular design with a big community kitchen in the center for youth to cook and visit together as a space to build community with each other.
The Ain Dah Yung Center has a mission to provide a full circle of support for American Indian people. They have created specific services to support families through both American Indian values and collaborations with Ramsey County.
- Oyate Nawajin (Stand with the People) Programs focus on family and parenting support through a strengths-based approach to keep families together and strong.
- The Ramsey County Children’s Mental Health Case Management serves families with children with significant mental health needs by providing services and resources to support the whole family, including culturally specific services.
- The Indian Child Welfare Act Compliance Project (ICWACP) helps prevent wrongful out-of-home placement through compliance court monitoring and provides legal representation and advocacy to American Indian families involved in child protection matters.
- The Ninijanisag (Our Children) Program focuses on engagement with youth ages 8-17 through cultural grounding activities to prevent substance abuse, teen dating violence, gang involvement, sex trafficking and homelessness. This program recognizes that Native culture builds young people to be strong, resourceful, and resilient.
The Ain Dah Yung Center actively advocates to uphold federal laws (i.e. Indian Child Welfare Act) and addresses systemic gaps to improve the response to American Indian families, children and community. The Ain Dah Yung Center pushes innovative collaboration models forward and holds cultural integrity as core to these partnerships. Over the years, the Ain Dah Yung Center has been honored with local, state, and federal recognition and awards. As an example of progressive methods, the Ain Dah Yung Center has designed an evaluation tool to prove the impact of culturally specific programming on outcomes with children and youth to clearly show the value of cultural connections.
The Ain Dah Yung Center has been at the forefront of advocating for more early support for families before a housing crisis happens and full support for families to stay intact so children and youth do not become homeless as a result. The Ain Dah Yung Center has designed and implemented successful culturally responsive strategies to improve the quality and impact of their services. They continue to voice American Indian issues at policy tables, including recent concerns with the coordinated entry assessment tool and how appropriate referrals for culturally specific programs will be addressed.
I think about how Martin Luther King, Jr. claimed and named history as a means to enact change. American Indian community groups, both urban leaders and Tribal Nations, continually hold up our history of sovereignty and the right to self-determine our responses to our community needs. Those responses are sourced from where we draw strength—the very center of our power—our families who carry our cultural roots. I started this story talking about my Dad because, for me, everything begins with my family. It has been an honor to visit and see the work Ain Dah Yung Center does to forge change. This is done through understanding the importance of American Indian historical experience and holding our cultural values as sacred and as solutions to protect and support families and youth.
To learn more about The Ain Dah Yung Center and the comprehensive services they provide, contact (651) 227-4184.
Miigwech (thank you)!
—LeAnn Littlewolf, MCH Tribal Organizer