Paintings, photographs, beaded earrings, books, cards, bags of wild rice and jars of maple syrup fill the shelves and walls of a newly created gift shop named Indigenous First, at the American Indian Community Housing Organization's building in downtown Duluth.

Behind the building, a new fenced-in area holds a garden of cucumbers, squash, sage, tobacco, herbs and sweet grass. A sandpit with logs will provide a space for the building's children to play. On the building's roof, plans are in the works to install solar panels and to create a space for public events. Adjacent to the roof, a blank wall is soon expected to become a mural of jingle dress dancers.

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New ideas and grant funding have resulted in the changes at AICHO's building, Gimaajii-Mino-Bimaadizimin, on West Second Street. A celebration of the new initiatives is planned for Wednesday, beginning with a ribbon-cutting at noon to officially dedicate the new name of the former Trepanier Hall: the Dr. Robert Powless Cultural Center, named for the professor emeritus of American Indian studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth.

Wednesday also marks the grand opening of AICHO's new gift shop, and visitors also will be able to tour AICHO's new urban garden project. The events run through 5 p.m., and are free and open to the public.

Gift shop

The Indigenous First store will sell artwork by any artists or emerging artists, but the focus will be on indigenous artists. The store is an extension of AICHO's arts program which assists emerging artists by paying some of an artist's upfront costs - with those costs then reimbursed to AICHO through sales of the artist's work, said Moira Villiard, AICHO's arts and cultural program coordinator.

Michelle LeBeau, executive director of AICHO, said they hope to expand the store's merchandise to include more jewelry, books and food, and she encourages people to contact them about potential items to sell. The store, which was funded by the Northland Foundation and First Nations Development Institute, will be open Monday through Friday, with the possibility of extending to weekend hours if it's successful.

"We'd really like to see the public embrace this opportunity and to know that when they're out looking for gifts, this is going to be a really nice place to get gifts that no one else is carrying," she said.

The store is a part of a larger movement - a similar idea has been proposed in the Twin Cities - and AICHO is fortunate to be among the first because it has the resources, funding, space and talent, LeBeau said. A store focusing on indigenous artwork also fills a need in the region.

"You look at Duluth and it's an amazing city for tourists and we have a lot of wonderful gift shops for our artists, but there really hasn't been a gallery or gift shop that specifically focuses on indigenous art. That's a gap in our community," LeBeau said. "When we first started in 2012, I think Ivy Vainio was one of the first artists that had an art show here. It was a show that featured 16 of her photographs of powwow dancers and then she had an elder speak and a young woman speak about why they danced. We had 250 people show up. For us, it was like, 'Oh my God, we are onto something big here. There's a need in the community and people want to come.' And then people started spending money."

The idea for a permanent store came out of sales of artwork at AICHO's shows; LeBeau explained that artists would have items such as prints or cards available for purchase during a show, but people would sometimes want to purchase an item after a show was over.

AICHO also plans to have a second space to sell indigenous artwork when it opens an art gallery and coffee shop, along with more housing, at 2301 W. Superior St. in the Lincoln Park neighborhood later this summer. They also plan to create a website where people can purchase items.

"The challenge is going to be (that) we're going to run out of space really, really fast because there are so many artists, and so much artwork, and it's such high-quality work that you want it in your store because it's going to bring in people," LeBeau said.

Garden and rooftop

AICHO was one of four organizations nationwide to receive a grant from the National Enterprise Foundation, which will fund an expansion of its rooftop garden into space behind the building, as well as go toward the installation a solar panel array on the roof. The solar panels will allow for energy cost savings - money that will then support needed programming.

A fundraiser for the solar project is underway online.

The children who live in the building love to spend time in the gardens and are very entrepreneurial, and LeBeau said they'd like to get them involved in selling some of the garden's harvest.

Katie Hanson, AICHO's children's program coordinator, said they wanted to create a garden space that's comfortable to be in, where children could play while adults relaxed. The kids helped plant the garden, she said.

"When you're a kid living downtown, it's hard to access parks and woods; most people don't have cars. It's so valuable for them to have this green space where they can watch the cycles of nature and they can look for bugs and watch things grow and climb around and make noise, all the things that kids are supposed to do, but it's harder when you're living downtown," Hanson said.

AICHO serves a meal nightly for the building's residents, and some of the food harvested in the garden will be used in the meals. The garden also will include a new water collection system and a composting system.

When the changes are complete, AICHO is planning to begin hosting more cultural and educational events in the rooftop space.

"All of the funding that we got ties together really nicely across programs because it all deals with culture and resiliency," Villiard said. "... How do you improve the climate for indigenous people in this area and how do you start to build off the struggles that people have been going through for so long and turn it into something more productive and meaningful for them? It's about ... giving people a place that they can take pride in and they can feel good about who they are and being connected to this place."


American Indian Community Housing Organization solar array fundraiser: