With hotel purchases, the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe welcomes you to St. Paul (again)


What goes around comes around.

When early emissaries of American “civilization” paddled up the Mississippi River to the future site of Minnesota’s Capital city — Lt. Zebulon Pike in 1805, Lt. Col. Henry Leavenworth in 1819, Father Lucien Galtier in 1840 — they were welcomed warmly by the Dakota and Ojibwe tribes of the region. Although much troubled history would follow, including decades of war and removal, double-dealing, racism and swindling as native peoples were pushed to the margins of survival, the tribes somehow survived and thrived. Today, in an ironic reversal of fortune that would have been impossible to foresee just a few years ago, Minnesota’s native people again are warmly welcoming people to their homes on the Mississippi River.

Homes called The Crowne Plaza and DoubleTree Hotels.

At a Monday press conference preceded by a drum song and an invocation in Ojibwe praising the Creator and the spirits that have protected the Anishinaabe — the first people — The Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe announced that it has purchased the hotels and their combined 720 rooms, almost half of all the hotel rooms in downtown St. Paul. The 22-story Crowne Plaza, originally built as a Hilton and operated for many years as part of the Radisson chain, is the biggest convention hotel in the city and its takeover by a Minnesota-based entity was hailed by Matt Kramer, president of the Saint Paul Area Chamber of Commerce.

“This is incredibly good news for the city of St. Paul and the state of Minnesota,” Kramer said of the tribe’s takeover of the hotels, which were sold for an undisclosed price, noting that the Mille Lacs Band has plans to improve and invest in the hotels, both of which are showing their age (the entrance to the Crowne Plaza was roped off Monday, due to falling ice).

But the business implications and economic impact of the deal, as important as they may be, pale in comparison to the historic significance, and ironies, of the occasion.

“Hello, St. Paul,” tribal business leader Joseph Nayquonabe Jr., exclaimed during the press conference in the Crowne Plaza ballroom overlooking the river. “The Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe is checking in to downtown, and we plan on being here for a long while,” he said as a room full of tribal members, most of whom had never before been inside the hotel, burst into applause.

Nayquonabe’s father, 68-year-old Joseph Sr., is a chemical dependency counselor on the Mille Lacs Reservation, where 2,300 of the band’s 4,300 enrolled members reside. He remembers once driving past the hotel to see a basketball game, but now, he was visiting the hotel for the first time, as one of its owners. He gave a lengthy invocation in the Ojibwe tongue, praising the ancestors who refused to sell their land, or cede their hunting and fishing rights to the encroaching white government that wanted to remove all the Ojibwe (formerly known as Chippewa) to isolated reservations on poor lands.

“When our ancestors turned down the money for the land, white people said we must be crazy. But our great-grandfathers said they wanted to keep our fishing and hunting rights, and to have education and health and they wouldn’t move. We stayed here.”

The band’s resistance, maintained even during attacks by white authorities who tried to burn the Indians out of their homes, earned them the name, “The Non-Removables.” That persistence paid off, generations later, with the band’s decision to expand its business enterprises away from the reservation to Minnesota’s Capital. (The band does not plan to develop casinos in its St. Paul hotels, saying it wants to diversify its holdings beyond gaming).

“This is an important day in our history,” said Melanie Benjamin, the elected chief executive of the Mille Lacs Band. The tribe, she said, is taking “a large step forward, but with our eyes open.”

Nayquonabe Sr., who stayed at the band’s new hotel Sunday night, was proud, and impressed.

“I was staying on the 10th floor and I was looking out the window at the river and the bridges and I said, ‘Wow, what a view!’ ”

Once upon a time in the Twin Cities, The Thunderbird Hotel in Bloomington, crammed with totem poles and Indian “artifacts” of doubtful provenance, served as the most visible reminder to visitors of Minnesota’s original culture. Today, the Ojibwe began a new era in the state:

Proud ownership of a Native American enterprise that will serve the people of Mille Lacs for generations to come, by serving visitors to Minnesota’s capital. It’s a great story.

If you want to say thanks, the word In Ojibwe is miigwech.

Videography by Hlee Lee