Mishkwaa-ga-mii-wii-zaaga’iganiing Giiwishiiwigamig, or the Red Lake Homeless Shelter in Red Lake, Minnesota, held a Memorial Feast and Fire on December 20, 2011 to honor the homeless who have died and to recommit to the task of ending homelessness. “This is our 8th annual remembrance of our sisters and brothers whose lives were shortened by being without housing,” said Carol Priest, the director of the shelter.
The Memorial Fire was kindled at dawn and burned until dusk. A ceremony and feast began at 11 a.m. at the shelter.
National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day, held annually since 1990, was recognized across the country in 2011 on December 21. Co-sponsored by the National Coalition for the Homeless, National Consumer Advisory Board, and the National Health Care for the Homeless Council, the purpose of the Memorial Day is to raise awareness of the tragedy of homelessness and to encourage people to remember the homeless who have paid the ultimate price.
The Memorial Day simultaneously celebrates the first day of winter—the longest night of the year and a hard one for those without a roof over their heads. The first day of winter, or the Winter Solstice, occurred in 2011 on December 21 at approximately 11:30 p.m. CST.
At the Red Lake Homeless Shelter, Priest welcomed about 30 people who came to commemorate the homeless who have passed away. “This gives us a fresh start,” said Priest. “We have sage and tobacco to cleanse us all. We are so grateful to have this place—a place to feel safe.”
During her welcoming speech, Priest shared the history of Red Lake’s shelter. “The idea started to form in 2001 in Bemidji by Judy Kingbird,” Priest explained. “Kingbird was soon given support by former Tribal Secretary Judy Roy.”
Funding was obtained in June 2004 and Priest was hired. “Construction on the structure began in the Fall of 2004,” remembered Priest. “It was finished in December 2005, and the first tenants moved in in January 2006.”
Priest said funding for the shelter comes from many sources, including the federal and state government, as well as foundations. Some of those sources include the Department of Homeland Security, the Northwest Minnesota Foundation, and the Otto Bremer Foundation.
Priest reported that there is a high need for the shelter, with approximately 250 Red Lake members a year going through the facility. The shelter has three case managers, plus homeless advocates and a wonderful board of directors, she said.
Red Lake Band Tribal Chairman Larry Stillday provided the invocation. “We must remember that this can happen to anybody. Many of us are only one pay check away from being homeless.”
Stillday shared that he was homeless, living on the streets, for two years after returning from Vietnam. “I am so glad the Tribal Council is doing something in this area,” Stillday said. “This is all part of the healing. We want to thank the fire, the drum and all of you.” Stillday then called on the drum for healing.
After several songs by the Muskrat Lodge Singers, everyone enjoyed a delicious feast of roast turkey with all the fixings.
A spirit dish was also prepared, and many offered tobacco at the memorial fire.