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By Mathew Holding Eagle III, MPR News

The Twin Cities are at the epicenter of a dynamic shift in the world of land stewardship and restoration work. Leading the charge are two nonprofit environmental organizations — Wakan Tipi Awanyankapi and Owámniyomni Okhódayapi.

In the past they were predominantly led by white men. Today, they are being overseen by two Native American women.

For now, Wakan Tipi Awanyankapi is headquartered on the 15th floor of the First National Bank building in downtown St. Paul overlooking the Mississippi River. That will all change once planning and development is complete at a welcoming center to be located near the entrance of the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary.

Maggie Lorenz is executive director of Wakan Tipi Awanyankapi. In Dakota the name means “those who care for the dwelling place of the sacred.”

The organization used to be known as the Phalen Creek Project. Lorenz has headed the organization since 2019.

“Our mission is to engage people to honor and care for our natural places and the sacred sites and cultural value within them,” Lorenz said. “Our programs and our restoration and stewardship programs are really coming from a place of our traditional ecological knowledge and viewing the land and the water as a relative. So, we do a number of things differently than I would say a traditional or mainstream environmental organization might do.”

Lorenz is an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa and is also from Spirit Lake Nation in North Dakota.

Joining her in reshaping the leadership landscape is Shelley Buck. She’s a citizen and former president of the Prairie Island Indian Community southeast of the metro.

For the last year Buck has been working two jobs. One as vice president of Prairie Island and the other as president of Owámniyomni Okhódayapi — Dakota for “friends of the falls” — the organization’s original name in English.

The organization focuses on protecting and honoring the stretch of the Mississippi in downtown Minneapolis. It’s had different names over the years too: Owamni, St. Anthony Falls, and now may be best known as the site of the Stone Arch Bridge.

Buck joked, “I have no life. Work is life.”

Buck and Lorenz have known each other for years. And are two of each other’s biggest supporters.

“When she [Lorenz] asked me if she should take the position she’s in I’m like, ‘Heck yeah, go for it. I think it’ll be great. If they have the faith in you do it,’” Buck recalled.

Buck says both organizations shifting toward Native-women led is a redefining moment.

“Having Indigenous women leading groups like this is really important because for us as Dakota people we’re a matriarch society. Women are the keepers of the family. We’re the life-givers,” Buck said. “And I think I’m a little different than a lot of Dakota women. I have that compassionate side. But I also don’t have a problem bringing out the stronger side.’“

Lorenz agrees.

“Both of our organizations prior to having Native leadership had tried to do some tribal engagement. And there were missteps that happened and potential for mistrust to start building because of the different approaches that were taken,” Lorenz said.

“For both Wakan Tipi and Owámniyomni Okhódayapi, the transfer of leadership to Native people, and in my opinion to Native women in particular, really ensured that the projects were going to get the engagement that was needed — make sure that the people whose voices needed to be included, were included.”

Dana Thompson is an Owámniyomni Okhódayapi board member who is a lineal descendant of the Mdewakanton Dakota.

She’s also the co-founder and former co-owner of Owamni restaurant which sits just yards from the falls in Minneapolis. She sees the change in leadership for both organizations as an important social shift.

“It’s been extraordinary to watch the transition. And I believe that we’re in a renaissance in our culture right now,” Thompson said. “And people are realizing that more women in leadership is better for so many reasons. You know, empathic leadership, compassion, vulnerability, understanding of sustainability and how all of our actions impact our past and future ancestors.”

Thompson said when Buck agreed to take the position, she was ecstatic.

“Her leadership experience is so vast and extensive and understanding of tribal politics and national politics and all of the challenges that it takes to navigate through all of these different stakeholders, whether it’s the park board, or the city, or the Army Corps of Engineers, or all of the funders that we’ll need to get this up and running. She was the right person,” Thompson said.

“And so, when she actually took the job, I literally did a dance.”

When asked how the last year has gone Buck’s eyes lit up.

“This year has been one of the best years and we’ve been so successful. And it has been so surprising to see the outside community really support our idea and what we’re doing,” Buck said. “It’s like Dana said, it’s almost like a renaissance. You see this total change in people’s minds. And it’s great.”

Buck said the change in leaderships has been a catalyst for inclusiveness.

“I do think it’s because people like Maggie and I taking over these kinds of organizations — helping to show them a different way,” Buck said. “And making sure we get the right people at the table to tell the correct story.”

Lorenz said this new-found inclusiveness will be a driving force for years to come.

“We have a different worldview and a whole different background of experiences and knowledge and expertise that hasn’t been tapped into in a real way,” she said.

“And I think that because our climate and our planet is in crisis right now. It is irresponsible to not tap into that kind of really specific knowledge about place and land and water and how we can all better protect these resources and relatives for our future generations.”

Construction on Wakan Tipi Awanyankapi’s 9,000-square-foot interpretive center will begin in 2024 with a public opening planned in 2025.

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