A new partnership with the American Indian Family Center
When Rich Antell was hired by the American Indian Family Center (AIFC) in the middle of the pandemic as the Men’s Outreach Specialist, the program was challenged in trying to meet the cultural needs of the men who participate — young, old and many different tribal representations.
Support groups went virtual and opened with prayer, song, and presentations from Anishinaabe and Dakota perspectives, very common in Minnesota. “Working with men in the Native community is mainly to help them connect or reconnect with their cultural identity no matter what Indigenous heritage they come from,” Antell says. “This stems from a longstoried history of the original people of Turtle Island.”
As the men’s group maneuvered through the pandemic, Antell was thinking about the long-term viability of the program. He wondered, wouldn’t it be awesome if someone could donate land for a sweat lodge? “A sweat lodge opens a doorway for men to go and heal, and then for the rest of the AIFC community to go there and heal,” Antell says. “I envisioned a partnership that would blossom and make an impact for our community.”
Antell learned about Belwin on the Nextdoor app and called to explain his goal: to offer cultural programming and build a sweat lodge. Belwin said yes and the project began.
“We want to shape a world that values our natural spaces,” says Belwin Executive Director Katie Bloome. “When Rich asked about a sweat lodge on our land, we were thrilled because AIFC’s values of connecting with the land meshed with Belwin’s. We saw this as an opportunity for this community to engage with the land in a way that supported them and expanded Belwin’s reach. If we can have a deep impact by working together, that’s a win for everyone.”
It took nine months for the project with Belwin to formalize and break ground. There were meetings and site visits, nurturing and enthusiasm as the partnership was built. Antell offered tobacco to AIFC Elder in Residence Nelda Goodman for guidance on the project. “I appreciate Rich Antell’s traditional ways of the Anishinaabe people,” Goodman says. “He teaches the men in his circle about having respect for his elders. He teaches the Seven Grandfather Teachings of the Anishinaabe nation.”
Since the sweat lodge was built last fall, the men’s group and the women’s recovery group have used it. There have also been full moon ceremonies at the site and other youth programming.
“This partnership helps in its own way for our men to reconnect to cultural practices and ways of life. What the sweat lodge at Belwin means for the men’s program is a place to go in and take care of ourselves as men. A place to be. A place that we can call our own that’s tied with AIFC through the support of Belwin,” Antell says.
“So much of what we can do to reconnect from the sweat lodge and teachings around it — the things we’ll be able to develop from this partnership — can be unbelievable in healing, growth, and reconnecting opportunities for our men, our women, our families, our children, and our community,” he continued. “We are really grateful to Belwin for providing that to us.”
Visit aifcmn.org to learn more about AIFC.
Special thanks to the Saint Paul Garden Club, who provided funds for native plantings at the sweat lodge site. Plants were chosen in partnership with AIFC for their traditional and cultural significance.