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Local women recognized for AICHO efforts

MaryAnn Wait, left, pictured with Toni DeFoe at an event honoring women involved with the American Indian Community Housing Organization. Photo courtesy Ivy Vainio

In the early 1990s, Mary Ann Walt committed to creating affordable housing for native women.

"I wanted to make strides to end the abuse of women," Walt recalled as she accepted the first "Phenomenal Woman" award on March 10. "I was on welfare with little kids, living in Solon Springs in cheap housing, thinking there has to be something more. I had no education. But I had drive."

Walt moved to Duluth and worked on sexual assault, battered women and incest issues. With others, she began the long slog toward creating good, safe living space.

They succeeded. On March 10, the region celebrated the women who labored for decades to envision and raise the funds for housing, arts and community space that the American Indian Community Housing Organization (AICHO) opened in 2012. The building, renamed "Gimaajii," served for decades as Duluth's YWCA on West Second Street. Today, it offers permanent supportive housing for Native American women and children.

The celebration honored 10 women of several races and tribes and spanning the age spectrum who have been pioneers in shaping AICHO and the community. Victoria Ibanez — an Apache and Mexican — was a founding member of AICHO, bringing her experience in helping women survive violence. Receiving her award, she shared: "It's hard to exist as a native-specific organization. You have to fight for every bit of resources. We are fighting for the right to exist as indigenous women, and we are going to make a difference in this world."

The speakers shared memories. Karen Diver, former Fond du Lac chairperson and special assistant to President Barack Obama, recalled taking funders around to show the poor condition of Duluth low-income housing and having to push neighbors on their ignorance and racism.

Another recalled touring the new Gimaajii apartments: "I cried to see the new stoves, the refrigerators and no cockroaches!"

Gimaajii offers more than affordable housing. It invites Native Americans and members of other races, ethnicities and identities to convene, present their artistry, work on the environment and farming project and access social services. Art exhibits and performances draw large crowds from the Twin Ports, nearby reservations and Arrowhead small towns.

Several of the awardees are artists. Fond du Lac's Wendy Savage, an independent curator and artist, helped develop AICHO's art spaces and plan events. In the 1970s, she was a key initiator and promoter of the historic Ojibwe Art Expo that offered native artists a place to show and sell their work. The Expo continued annually for almost 25 years. Her sister, Karen Savage, also receive a phenomenal woman award for her unique artworks and her long record teaching Fond du Lac students.

At the end of the feast, served by children, attendees were treated to a performance by the Oshkii Giizhik Singers, a group that Fond du Lac's Lyz Jaakola, who teaches music at Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College, formed a decade ago. An all-women's drum circle, Lyz, worked patiently with elders to permit what had traditionally been a men-only cultural ensemble.

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