Courtney Cochran poses for a portrait at a community painting event at All My Relations Gallery this past summer in Minneapolis Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

In 2018, Lisa Kaste used to walk up and down the sidewalk along the Wall of Forgotten Natives,  an encampment of unhoused people in south Minneapolis, pulling a wagon full of supplies and registering people for social services. 

Back then, the Wall of Forgotten Natives was the largest and most visible homeless encampment in Minnesota. More than 200 tents rose along Franklin Avenue near Hiawatha Avenue, in the heart of Minneapolis’ Indigenous community. Kaste, a member of White Earth Nation, was working for Indigenous People’s Task Force, a nonprofit specializing in services for Indigenous people with HIV. 

This summer, tents returned to Franklin Avenue, providing shelter for dozens of people. But state and local governments have built hostile architecture—elements like chain-link fencing, concrete barriers, and metal poles—over much of the grassy area  where the encampment previously stood..

Concrete jersey barriers and metal poles line the land of the former “Wall of Forgotten Natives”

On October 26, Kaste helped zip-tie to the fence a new art piece. A string of large resin beads in front of the panels presents a kind of ornamental fastening. 

This installation by Ojibwe artist Courtney Cochran presents a sequence of corrugated plastic panels that spell out the message “Never Homeless Before 1492.”  For the installation, Cochran has created 24 painted boards, each representing a letter in the phrase. One open canvas offers a space where viewers and visitors can memorialize those who have died on the streets. 

“The saying itself really gets straight to the point,” Cochran, 31, told Sahan Journal. 

Each letter of the piece has a painted backdrop highlighting the abuses and challenges Native Americans have faced and continue to experience in the United States. For example, one painting features the Morrill Act, which created land-grant institutions like the University of Minnesota, that used land taken from tribes. Another depicts missing and murdered Indigenous women. A third looks at children abused and killed at Indian boarding schools.  

Each panel of the piece highlights an issue contributing to homelessness, such as redlining and the government sale of Native lands. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

All these issues, Cochran suggests, contribute to the disproportionate levels of homelessness experienced by Indigenous people in Minnesota and across the country. 

“I wanted people to take away that there are a lot of reasons people are unsheltered,” Cochran said.

Unhoused community members joined the painting project

The project was a community effort, with Cochran painting just over half of the panels and local organizations and Native American arts groups contributing others. She held community painting days where people came together to create the project. “It made sense for all of us to do it together,” she said. 

Today, Kaste works nearby for Avivo Minnesota, a nonprofit that specializes in helping unhoused people. She and other community members were invited to help with Cochran’s project. Kaste and Cochran went to the current Franklin Avenue encampment and let people there paint, too. 

A community member works on the panels for “Never Homeless Before 1492” over the summer. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Kaste said the years since the Wall of Forgotten Natives have brought some positive changes, but that too many Native and non-Native people still experience homelessness in Minnesota. Many face barriers to housing and feel overwhelmed by the complex documentation required to stay in shelters and apply for benefits. Still, she’s hopeful for the future. 

“I’m more optimistic, because I’m meeting people like Courtney who are finding ways to be heard,” Kaste said. 

Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Cochran collaborated on the project with  All My Relations Art Gallery (part of the Native American Community Development Institute), and received funding from the Minnesota Department of Transportation. The project will stay in place for about two years, and the site will host several ongoing community art projects, Cochran said. She plans to add tobacco and ribbon ties to the negative space. 

The installation as seen from across the street. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

She is also preparing to release a companion documentary, “The Wall of Forgotten Natives,” by the end of 2021. This film will feature first-person accounts from people who lived in the encampment. 

The day after installation, Cochran told Sahan Journal that the installation had already changed. A local named Todd had spray painted his name on some boards. She went to the site to paint over the graffiti. 

“He should have come to the community paint days,” Cochran said.

Additional reporting by Jaida Grey Eagle.

Andrew Hazzard is a reporter with Sahan Journal who focuses on climate change and environmental justice issues. After starting his career in daily newspapers in Mississippi and North Dakota, Andrew returned...