Rediscovering a cultural identity

The Baltimore Sun

There was a time when the Lumbee tribe was well-represented in Baltimore's Fells Point neighborhood, years before Ashley Minner's earliest memories. The focal point was the Baltimore American Indian Center - a cavernous three-story brick rowhouse on South Broadway that Minner remembers visiting from the time she learned to walk.

As the Native American community moved beyond the city, the center faded into the urban landscape. But for Minner, 25, the worn-down center holds the promise of a cultural renaissance.

There are about 1,750 Native Americans and Alaskan natives living in Baltimore, according to the American Community Survey in 2007.

Trained in community art with two degrees from the Maryland Institute College of Art, Minner has worked in city high schools with Native American students, most of whom have Lumbee heritage. She has designed art programs that help students tap into their Native American ancestry and confront issues relating to their identity.

Now she's chasing her dream of rejuvenating the Baltimore American Indian Center, at 113 S. Broadway.

She has received a big boost from the Open Society Institute of Baltimore, the foundation formed by billionaire George Soros.

In November, Minner was named one of its annual fellows - an honor given to only eight people in Baltimore and one that comes with a stipend of nearly $50,000.

Minner plans to use the money to launch a children's art program at the center, which recently opened a new community hall.

We asked Minner about her background and plans for the center:

Q: Tell me a bit about your family and how they came to Baltimore.

A: My dad is actually white, and he's of Swiss ancestry. His dad was from West Virginia, [but] he was actually born in Dundalk.

My mom, that's the Indian side. She's a member of the Lumbee tribe of North Carolina. Robeson County, N.C.

She was actually born in Tennessee, but they moved back to North Carolina when she was a small child. When she was older, in high school, she moved to Baltimore ... and settled in Dundalk. That's how her and my dad met.

It always amazes me how Lumbees end up where they do, because they always tend to stick to their community. Back in the day, all the Indians were on East Baltimore Street.

Q: So East Baltimore Street was like an Indian hotbed?

A: It was like an Indian reservation on south Broadway [laughing]. I guess the real heyday was in the '60s and '70s.

Q: Growing up in Dundalk, did you have Indian friends?

A: Yeah, my best friend. All through school, in Baltimore County, there was a scattered few of us. But even as a kid - and this is an issue [of cultural identity] our kids still deal with - my mom even said she thought her parents lied to her, that she wasn't really Indian. Like you're supposed to look like someone out of a movie.

The other Indian kids that I later learned to be Indian, I never knew they were Indian while we were growing up.

Q: What are you trying to start here at the Indian center and how important was it to win a fellowship?

A: That was just the answer to everything. I'm so grateful to OSI and the Soros Foundation for having faith in me and thinking this is something important. Wow.

It's about empowerment. Not everybody is interested in art, but do they realize what they're capable of? It's a visceral medium to communicate everything you love and think about. It's about helping the young people find their voice.

My background is in art, but I'm just facilitating this thing. What's important to you? What do you want to address?

To be able to work on it full-time, I think we can get a solid program going and change the quality of life in our community.

Q: How many times a week? What type of curriculum?

A: We'll start three days a week. I have a curriculum together. It follows a model developed by Kids On The Hill director Rebecca Yenawine [one of Minner's teachers at MICA]. It's a social action process where the kids decide on what issues are important to them. And they decide how they're going to address it. And they implement it.

It's a cultural identity curriculum.

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