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Ready to help: White Earth opens women's shelter

White Earth Tribal Council members Gus Bevins, Robert Durant, Chairwoman Erma Vizenor, Terry Tibbetts and Irene Auginaush cut the ribbon at the White Earth women's shelter Monday afternoon. Brian Basham/Tribune

Monday marked the grand opening of White Earth's women's shelter in White Earth village.

The opening ceremony started with a traditional blessing by spiritual leader Mike Swan. This was not only for those who come to the shelter seeking help, Swan said, but also for those who work there, because "it's not an easy job, helping people."

Following the blessing, members of the White Earth Tribal Council spoke to thank the shelter's workers and supporters, which included representatives from a number of area nonprofit organizations.

"We've waited a long, long time for this day," White Earth Chairwoman Erma Vizenor said. "On behalf of the tribal council, I am extremely happy today. ... It's for our mothers, and our grandmothers, and our children."

Vizenor described how years ago, the need for a women's shelter wasn't as apparent, but violence against women has increased across the country since then.

Among others, Vizenor specifically thanked Robert Durant, tribal council secretary and treasurer.

Durant helped White Earth obtain federal funding for the $1 million shelter by applying for a grant through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

"Native American Indian Housing from Washington D.C. helped provide the avenue of competitive applications for housing needs on Native American nations. White Earth applied for it and was successful," Durant said.

Other members of the tribal council also shared their support, gratitude and hopes for the shelter.

"I believe in this place, and I think it will do some good for us," said Irene Auginaush, District I representative.

Terry Tibbetts, District II representative, said he hopes the shelter stands for many years.

A tree was planted on the shelter's site, in honor of former Becker County Commissioner Carolyn Engebretson who died 11 months ago.

Engebretson was a strong advocate for women, Vizenor said. "It's not always easy to stand up for native people, but she did."

After speaking and thanking everyone, the tribal council participated in ceremonial ribbon-cutting. Before cutting the ribbon, Vizenor said the timing of the opening was perfect, because it was the day after Mother's Day.

After the ribbon-cutting, a meal and group tours of the shelter were offered.

The shelter is run by members of the Down on Violence Everyday program, which serves people within a 25-mile radius of the reservation.

"We absolutely love (the shelter) and are very grateful," said Tanya Vold, a DOVE program manager who will help oversee the shelter.

The facility holds a living room area, visiting room, dining room, seven offices for DOVE employees and eight rooms for domestic violence victims, including one that's handicap accessible.

Before this shelter opened, Vold said, the closest options for women facing domestic violence were about 50 miles away. That distance may have discouraged many women from seeking help, because it could require pulling kids from school and moving away from family or other support systems.

There is no one scheduled to move into the shelter yet, Vold said, but if someone needs help, the shelter is ready.