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White Earth to open youth treatment center in Bemidji on New Year's Day

White Earth Tribal Chairwoman Erma Vizenor explains to Beltrami County commissioners on Tuesday the need for a chemical dependency facility for American Indian youth. The White Earth Band of Ojibwe plans to open Jan. 1 such a facility at the former Archdeacon Gilfillan Center in Bemidji. At right is tribal prosecutor Joe Plummer. (Brad Swenson/Bemidji Pioneer)

BEMIDJI -"The best investment any of us can ever make is in our youth," White Earth Tribal Chairwoman Erma Vizenor told Beltrami County commissioners Tuesday.

The state Department of Corrections, in a study of Twin Cities youth, found that 47 percent of the youth in the juvenile corrections system were American Indian, way higher than the 2 percent of the Minnesota population that is American Indian, she said.

"We're losing our future," Vizenor said.

The White Earth Band of Ojibwe this summer bought the former Archdeacon Gilfillan Center on west 15th Street, and on Jan. 1 plans to reopen it as a tribally run White Earth Oshki Manidoo Center, or "New Spirit," a chemical dependency residential treatment program for American Indian youth ages 10-18.

"What a dire need we have for culturally appropriate facility," Vizenor said.

Vizenor and a handful of tribal officials came to brief the Beltrami County Board about the center, and to ask for a formal letter of support -- necessary for the state to grant the center a license to operate.

Commissioners approved such a letter as part of their consent agenda when they met in regular session later Tuesday.

"Two years ago, we thought owning the Gilfillan Center was a long shot," she said. "Gov. (Tim) Pawlenty supported us and the Legislature gave us $2 million. We also received $2 million from the Mdewakanton Sioux. The remainder will come from new market tax credits."

The tribe paid $5.6 million for the former youth residential treatment campus operated for more than 40 years by the Episcopal Diocese of Minnesota. It includes a 40-acre site with 10 buildings, a pool, basketball courts, sweat lodge and lighted ski trail.

"The need for such a center is long overdue," Vizenor said. "It is our vision to have a holistic culturally appropriate treatment services for our youth. ... It is a bold step for a tribe. We believe in excellence and that is the type of center we will have. The tribe will be the best neighbor you ever had."

When asked by commissioners, Vizenor said the center will be geared to help American Indian youth from Minnesota and surrounding areas, but will also take non-Indian children.

"Our doors are open -- we will serve both native American and non-native youth," she said.

Joe Plummer, White Earth tribal prosecutor, said Beltrami County should incur no costs associated with American Indian youth. Referrals will come mostly from Indian reservations, which will first tap their own comprehensive chemical dependency allocations. Others will tap other federal funding as the facility haqs been granted special status by the Indian Health Service under Public Law 93-638.

"There should be no financial burden to the county," Plummer said.

Staff will be licensed professionals in a variety of fields, said Jill Hewitt, who will direct the Oshki Manidoo Center. A number of treatment strategies will be employed for chemical dependency and substance abuse, she said, including the 12-step program and White Bison programs.

"We will also teach independent living skills and talk about historical trauma," she said. "We will practice a holistic healing forest, with a strong mental health component. Family involvement will be a struggle, but we want to have the family involved. These are their children. We want to approach them in a respectful way."

Ron Valiant, White Earth tribal executive director, said White Earth is working to complement other tribes. The Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe had sought state funding for a samilar facility, but now will concentrate on halfway houses and such, to follow treatment at Oshki Manidoo, he said.

Residents at the center will receive education provided by the Bemidji School District, Valiant said, adding that the White Earth delegation met with school district officials earlier Tuesday.

Vizenor said the center will employ 75 people and will mean $3 million to $5 million annually to the Bemidji economy.

"It's very important our youth find pride in what they are," said County Board Chairman Quentin Fairbanks, a Red Lake Band of Chippewa enrollee.

"I'd like to see Oshki Manidoo work and become a success story," said Commissioner Jack Frost.

"Boundaries are artificial and can't define us," said Commissioner Joe Vene, who welcomed that the center will house both American Indian and non-Indian youth. "We hope that what you do is for the greater good of youth."

"We will be great partners," Vizenor said.