On March 24 the American Indian Community Housing Organization opened its doors to the community to celebrate the fifth anniversary of Gimaajii-Mino-Bimaadizimin. The Gimaajii Building is AICHO’s official headquarters and serves multiple functions; not only does it provide 29 units of permanent supportive housing to area families, but it’s Duluth’s only American Indian center. In conjunction with its supportive services, AICHO has established a thriving arts and cultural program, working with Native American and emerging artists to help them overcome barriers to their professional careers, including unexpected costs, public awareness and finding their voice in the community. AICHO hosts hundreds of events each year and averages around 15,000 visitors annually — many of the events have taken place in the auditorium and art gallery space formerly known as Trepanier Hall. On the night of Gimaajii-Mino-Bimaadizimin’s fifth anniversary celebration, AICHO officially unveiled the new title of this space in honor of a man who’s been there from the beginning.
Dr. Robert Powless is an enrolled member of the Oneida Nation of Indians in Wisconsin. He earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison before going to the University of Minnesota’s main campus to obtain his doctorate in educational administration. Dr. Powless was chosen for the honor as a result of his long-term support of Gimaajii-Mino-Bimaadizimin. In the beginning, he served as an advisory member of the Duluth Indian Commission on the AICHO development committee and he and his wife donated $50,000 of their retirement funds toward the establishment of its American Indian center, Gimaajii. By personally advocating on behalf of homeless American Indians at Minnesota Housing, Powless was able to help AICHO secure the funding that has allowed it to become the organization it is today. Dr. Powless still visits Gimaajii every week while his wife runs errands, spending a few hours each time sitting in the lobby and interacting with children, staff and guests alike. He recently celebrated his 84th birthday and the renaming of Trepanier Hall was a surprise announcement from AICHO during Gimaajii’s celebratory event.
The event drew an enormous crowd of people from different backgrounds. It was spread out throughout the Gimaajii building, which underwent one of its signature transformations to accommodate the masses. Trepanier Hall had been booked for a conference earlier that day, so time was of the essence as a team of staff and volunteers poured into the room to set up tables and decorations exactly an hour and a half before the event. Tables went up in all parts of the building with white table cloths to match the floor mosaics. Part of the team prepared food for the feast in the kitchen and others directed incoming guests to the downstairs gymnasium where Rick Defoe began with an invocation. The Debwe’idam Singers played the drum throughout the ceremony.
Guest speakers included Leanne Littlewolf, Jon Day, Rick Smith, Daryl Olson and Jeremy Wilson. When it came time for Dr. Powless to speak, his eloquence and kind spirit enchanted the room. He spoke of his life growing up and all of the people who made his life special thus far, concluding with his appreciation for everyone in the AICHO community and their role in making his life worth living.
Given that the name change was intended to be a surprise, AICHO staff made sure that Dr. Powless didn’t step foot in the newly renamed space until the end of the ceremony. A short jaunt upstairs following all the formal announcements and the teleprompter image of the the new intended signage over the exterior of the Dr. Robert Powless Cultural Center, guests found their seats and were waited on by a team of volunteers. Three large cakes were decorated with the image of Dr. Powless taken by one of the youth who lived at the Gimaajii building.
Moving forward, AICHO intends to continue its work providing high-quality supportive services and arts programming to the community. There is a lot to live up to with the new name, but the staff and community are as dedicated as ever.
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