Mar 31, 2014 - Small Minnesota Town with a Big Race Problem: Ojibwe Art Gallery Foreclosed by Colin R. Neary

Sculptor Gordon Van Wert (Red Lake Anishinaabe) and his wife Mary are owners of the Bezhiigwan Art Gallery in Park Rapids, Minnesota, which highlights Ojibwe artists from the Northern Minnesota region. However, Bezhiigwan Art Gallery was flooded by a sewer rupture in October 2012, and since then the Van Werts have lost their gallery, house, and land due to a botched settlement by the League of Minnesota Cities Insurance Company. The negligence of the City of Park Rapids, their insurance company, and the contractor is ultimately responsible for the damage, but the Van Werts are paying the price. A converted 19th century library, Bezhiigwan Art Gallery is the most beautiful building in Park Rapids, a town which has a reputation for discrimination against Native people. Mary Van Wert reports that before the flood a person from Park Rapids told her: “I will never let Indians have the best building in town.”

At 7:30 A.M. Monday October 29, 2012 the City of Park Rapids reported a sewer blockage in the vicinity of the Bezhiigwan Art Gallery. The blockage was cleared by city maintenance, but resulted in raw sewage flooding the basement of Bezhiigwan. Ten days after the spill occurred, Mary and Gordon Van Wert returned from a sculpture installment in Duluth to find that the basement of Bezhiigwan had been flooded with sewage. While the backflow at Bezhiigwan was functioning properly, the sewer blockage exploded through a toilet. As a result, the City of Park Rapids was liable for all damages to the gallery.

Prior to the flood, the Van Werts collected art from all over the world and were not exclusively Ojibwe. The Van Werts appreciate the co-mingling of cultures and resources, and the area of Northern Minnesota is rich with Finnish tradition, Polish tradition, and Irish tradition, along with Ojibwe. The Van Werts brought in old and new art, so that people could get an idea of the true Ojibwe spirit. Most of their products are from the Native people living on White Earth, Red Lake, and Leech Lake Ojibwe Reservations. The Van Werts used at least two thirds of their profit on a program to give local children summertime employment, including felons that couldn’t find any work. They also did regalia rescue, saving sacred objects such as jingle dresses from pawn shops.

Upon finding raw sewage in his basement, Gordon Van Wert immediately contacted the City of Park Rapids and reported the spill. On the same day the Van Werts also contacted the Fargo-based company Steamatic, which specializes in clean-up of toxic spills. Steamatic employees arrived the next day, fully equipped in hazmat suits and quoted the Van Werts at $26,000 for the clean-up. The Van Werts did not immediately pay for the decontamination and remediation because they had zero liability for the damages that resulted from the blockage.

The Van Werts’ lawyer Darrell Carter also advised them not to pay out-of-pocket, as he claimed that would have made the Van Werts legally liable for the bill of clean-up. However, Darrell Carter did not return the Van Werts’ calls during their dispute with the insurance company, and he was nowhere to be found when Gordon went to retrieve the sculpture he used for a down payment. The good old boy’s network in Northern Minnesota is hush-hush, and the Van Werts have since hired lawyer Steve Prince from Minneapolis.

Park Rapids Public Works Superintendent Scott Burligname, who exited the building when I came to interview him, contacted Gordon Van Wert the day after the spill was found. Burligname told Gordon Van Wert about the blockage and referred him to League of Minnesota Cities Insurance Company. Insurance agent Mark Nygaard visited Bezhiigwan a week later, and Gordon Van Wert reports that Nygaard refused to accept Steamatic’s quote of $26,000 for the settlement. Instead, Nygaard insisted on contracting the Brainerd, MN-based company ServePro, which quoted Mr. Nygaard at $16,000.

Mary Van Wert reports she and her husband were initially directed by Mr. Nygaard to begin tearing out the carpet of the Bezhiigwan basement, which was still flooded at the time. Mary Van Wert was scheduled for hernia surgery the next day, and Gordon was scheduled for hernia surgery the following Monday. Mark Nygaard was made aware of both of these appointments. Additionally, Mary Van Wert reports having a violent physical reaction from her first exposure to the sewage and mold spores that had grown in Bezhiigwan’s basement.

“My lungs started filling up with fluid. I went directly to Dr. Erickson’s office. I couldn’t breathe. He put me in the hospital. I was on oxygen, and I was let go home that evening. He wrote it on a prescription pad that if I went in there again, he could not be my doctor because he could not guarantee the results of what my lungs’ reaction would be to the environment. He said he wanted to see further air work done in there,” said Mary Van Wert, who has been hospitalized twice more with high blood pressure from the stress of their settlement.

ServePro did not arrive at Bezhiigwan until the middle of December 2012, more than a month and a half after the spill. Additionally, ServePro employees were not prepared to clean-up a toxic spill, since they arrived dressed in t-shirts and jeans without protective masks. According the Van Werts, ServePro employees were two young men who brought only wet-vacs for the initial clean-up and were disrespecting sacred objects that remained in the basement, such as the jingle dresses they were kicking around. Fortunately, the Van Werts were planning to remodel their basement and had removed much of the art upstairs. However, due to ServePro’s negligence, all of the art upstairs was damaged as well.

When ServePro returned for its second round of clean-up several weeks after their initial visit, they sprayed Oxy-Mold MX-500 fogger in the basement and upstairs of the building. Lars Knobloch of Nordic Home Inspection, who conducted an environmental evaluation of Bezhiigwan, stated that there was no need to spray the fogger upstairs. The upstairs was not affected by the sewage back-up. Not only was spraying the fogger in the upstairs unnecessary, but Knobloch says that ServePro employees were irresponsible to not remove any or all of the artwork before the fogger was applied. The question remains: Irresponsible or intentional?

Park Rapids has a history of running Native businesses out of town. While Mary Van Wert is old enough to be his mother, Mark Nygaard called her “little lady” and told her to replace the damaged artwork from a local craft store and trading post. Nygaard also told Mary Van Wert that he could drag the settlement out until he ruined their business. Presently, the Van Werts believe the City of Park Rapids is controlled by white supremacist men. Very rarely do Native people eat or shop in Park Rapids. During a recent fishing opener featuring Governor Dayton, Park Rapids extended an olive branch to the Native community but only part way. A local drum group was invited but told not to wear regalia, and Red Lake Nation Fisheries was placed next to the port-a-johns.

Gordon Van Wert was working on a major installment for a patron of the arts in Paris at the time of the spill. Due to the damage of the sculpture caused by ServePro, Gordon lost the commission. This one sale would have saved Bezhiigwan and the Van Werts’ home, both of which have already been foreclosed. “It would have made one of our balloon payments at the gallery and at the house too. That one deal would have taken care of us for another 6 to 12 months. We would have been in pretty good shape. So all of the sculptures were compromised, and I have nothing to sell,” said Gordon Van Wert. Between the damaged artwork, the time Gordon has lost on sculptures in-production, and the time he will lose remediating completed sculptures, losses are probably in the millions of dollars.

Steamatic, the company the Van Werts initially recommended, was eventually hired to clean-up ServePro’s negligent clean-up after ServePro was removed as contractor. Despite all the clean-up, there is still a serious health concern about the Bezhiigwan building. Lars Knobloch of Nordic Home Inspection found obvious signs of negligence, such as mold spore levels more than 20 times the safety limit and black mold levels more than 200 times the safety limit. Most of the damages claimed by the Van Werts are the liability of ServePro and the City of Park Rapids, such as damaged artwork in the upstairs and the basement ceiling tiles that have become saturated with moisture and mold, yet the damages remain in dispute with the League of Minnesota Cities.

Since the entire process cost the League of Minnesota Cities under $20,000, compared to Steamatic’s initial estimate of $26,000, the insurance company considers this a success. Mark Nygaad has told the Van Werts that he will work with the owners of the building for the remaining clean-up, referring to the people who own the lease to the building. The man the Van Werts bought the lease from has passed away, and his inheritors are eager to sell the building. Indeed, closing the only Native-owned business in Park Rapids and bleeding them dry is a victory for white supremacists.

Deprived of their livelihood, their gallery, their home, and their land, the Van Werts are struggling to find hope. Gordon Van Wert is determined to sculpt a brighter future for his family, and he will continue to make art for his people. “We’re not just a logo on the side of a helmet or something. I want the people to see how powerful, stoic, and wonderful that we really are,” said Gordon Van Wert. “I’ve worked at this my whole life. These last 7 years of my life have all been tied up in my gallery that I can’t sell, which is contaminated, and now I got to start over. Set me back seven years with this spill. So I’m kind of stuck in a time warp because I’m starting over. I’ve never had to do that before.”

The Van Werts are losing their gallery, their land, their house, and most of their worldly possessions, including their pets and horses, yet their dignity remains intact. The Van Werts hope their legal settlement, which has not yet begun, will provide them with the fresh start they need. They have until April 2 to move out of their home, with nowhere to go after that. Despite their disappointment, the spirits of the Van Werts stand strong and resilient. Speaking on the phone with Gordon Van Wert after he got the bad news, I heard power songs in his tears as he burned the past in a sacrificial fire.

Last Real Indians