Trepanier Hall has a new name to honor a man who jump-started the establishment of the American Indian Community Housing Organization's building in downtown Duluth.
Dr. Robert Powless, 84, professor emeritus of American Indian studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth, shook his head in disbelief Friday evening when it was announced that the hall is now named the Dr. Robert Powless Cultural Center. The announcement was made during a gathering on Friday to celebrate the fifth anniversary of AICHO's building, Gimaajii-Mino-Bimaadizimin, which includes the hall.
AICHO's 29-unit supportive housing center on West Second Street assists people suffering from long-term homelessness and survivors of domestic abuse, and provides optional social services, modern and traditional healing services and a Native American learning and cultural center.
Powless, an enrolled member of Oneida Nation of Wisconsin, was an advisory member of the Duluth Indian Commission during the development of AICHO's supportive housing. Speakers at Friday's event recalled that a $50,000 donation from Powless and his wife, Linda, from their retirement funds got the ball rolling in making the development a reality - and he continues to visit the building every week.
After receiving applause and a standing ovation from the audience, Powless said the honor brought tears to his eyes.
"I care for so many people, everyone in this room, because you are so special and this community we have lived in, it deserves every one of you because you are the kind of people that make life worth living," Powless said. "I trust that you will continue to be the kind of folks that make each others' lives and the lives of all other people in our area the kind of lives that they feel are worth living."
Powless said he's amazed by how hard people work at AICHO when he visits with the staff, families and children every week.
"It's a great place to be a part of. I trust that if you have never done anything to support, that you'll start because this place is so wonderful that it's got to continue, because it serves Indian people and others," he said.
Powless recalled when his mother moved them from the reservation to Green Bay when he was 5 years old. At his mother's urging, he got a job cleaning up stray papers at the local A&W in exchange for a nickel for root beer - and he said he has held a job ever since. He has also never smoked cigarettes or drank alcohol at the urging of his mother, he said.
"We need to look around us at the people who raised us, the people who work with us and remember how special they are for helping us to get from point A to point B and even beyond," he said.
AICHO staff member Daryl Olson noted that every week when Powless visited, she began to notice that the children would come down to the lobby to see him.
"It took me about three months to realize that he comes every week with quarters in his pockets and would give the kids quarters for the vending machines," Olson said to laughter from the audience.
Rick Smith of the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency recalled when he was first told that an elder - Powless - would be visiting him from Duluth to talk about the AICHO project, and he gathered the staff for the meeting. After introductions, Powless told the staff a story about the community and its needs, and said everyone should share with each other. The MHFA staff agreed that they would work together to make it a reality.
"That was the very first time I've ever seen us at Minnesota Housing negotiate funding with any city, any county, any private or any for-profit development," he said.