November is the doorway to winter, when cold winds begin to sweep the land and animals begin to hibernate. Where I’m from on the Navajo Nation, it’s time for families to gather around the warm fire to play string games and tell stories about animals like Coyote and Spiders. Stories are important to us.
This fall, artist and folklorist Ashley Minner, a member of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, began her tenure as an assistant curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. I wanted to share her story too, as she is new to the museum but not its mission: “In partnership with Native peoples and their allies, the National Museum of the American Indian fosters a richer shared human experience through a more informed understanding of Native peoples.”
As I learned during our conversations this month over Zoom, her efforts as a community-based artist, scholar, and educator made her a strong candidate for the job. For me, our dialogue represented a way two people might share their rich Native upbringings.
As a result, our conversations resonate with the museum’s mission statement as we discuss a range of topics including the museum, the Lumbee Tribe, Thanksgiving, and Indigenous commonalities and identity.
How did your work lead you to the Smithsonian?
When I began my career as a community-based visual artist, a lot of the art I was making was about the experiences of American Indian people living in Baltimore. As my art received more and more attention, I received more and more requests to speak and write about our community—especially Lumbee people. Eventually, I felt I needed a credential beyond my own lived experience to really represent us well, so I went back to school.
In the process of earning my doctoral degree, I was hired by the Maryland State Arts Council to work as a folklorist and guest lecturer in the Department of American Studies at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. I got to work with all kinds of amazing artists and culture bearers throughout the state but of course specialized in working with American Indian people and teaching American Indian studies. Eventually, UMBC created a full-time position for me, and I became a professor of the practice and the inaugural director of their new minor in public humanities, which was pretty cool.
I loved the public humanities work and wondered if I could take it to a bigger stage, so I applied for this position at the National Museum of the American Indian. UMBC made a strong case for me to stay, and it was a difficult decision to go, but I’m so happy I came to the Smithsonian. It’s a perfect fit for me! I get to do all of the things I do best with some of the most brilliant people I’ve ever met, and I feel I can really make a difference here—not only for the museum, but particularly for urban and East Coast Indian communities which are still underrepresented. I’d also like to work on growing representation in our collections from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
My office is located in the Cultural Resources Center in Suitland, Maryland, where all the NMAI collections are housed. It is a beautiful and impressive facility, thoughtfully designed to be a space where community members can visit their cultural heritage. The actual museums in Washington, D.C., and New York City are, of course, also beautiful and impressive. I would encourage folks to come in person whenever possible, but also check out the websites of each to learn more.
How would you like to build on the museum’s mission?
As a young adult, I ran the Indian Education Program for Baltimore City Public Schools. Baltimore is only about thirty miles from Washington, D.C., and every year, we would take a field trip to NMAI. My students so wanted to see themselves reflected in the exhibitions, and I think there were only ever two or three instances when we found representations of our people there.
I know how they felt because, when I was a kid—and this was before we had the museum in D.C.—a group of us went on a bus trip up to the museum in NYC and had a similar experience. It’s difficult living in cities where often the general public doesn’t even realize American Indian people are there. We never see ourselves reflected in pop culture or narratives of these places, and then we go to places that are supposedly for us and don’t find ourselves in them either. I’m ready to work on that.
And I should mention some incredible related work that had been going on for years just came to fruition in the form of a new exhibition, Native New York. I’m excited to see it.
In honor of Native American Heritage Month, how might the museum plan to showcase all federally and non-federally recognized tribes? What projects do you have in the works?
There’s a conundrum! There are so, so many Tribes, and, of course, we have limited space, both physically and virtually, and limited bandwidth. I actually think NMAI does a pretty amazing job, comments about representation of some communities notwithstanding. Keep an eye out for special programming all this month. Our website is a good place to start. Check out the Native Cinema Showcase! Also follow us on Instagram @smithsoniannmai.
Along with my collaborators, I just launched several projects based on my research in my home community—a print guide to East Baltimore’s Historic American Indian “Reservation,” a website dedicated to the same subject, and a cell phone walking tour app developed in partnership with Dr. Elizabeth Rule (Chickasaw Nation), the Guide to Indigenous Baltimore. I deliberately made sure most of the work on these projects was complete before beginning my position at NMAI in order to maintain autonomy, but now I’m thinking about how I might bring what we’ve made to work.
Next up is my first book, which will be based on this same research, and may well be published through Smithsonian Press.
As a member of the Lumbee Tribe, what are the biggest misconceptions of your Tribe? Do most people know you are a Tribe?
Without a doubt, the biggest misconception about the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina is that we aren’t federally recognized. This is not true. We have enjoyed partial federal recognition since 1956. The federal government agrees we’re Indian, but not that we should receive benefits. Unfortunately, our fight for full federal recognition began in the 1800s and continues today.
People better know we’re a Tribe! We are the largest east of the Mississippi and the ninth largest in the country. We are a very proud, hard-working, and high-achieving people. Lumbee folks can be found at top levels of many fields—from academia to government administration, to Tribal administration, to sports, science, art, entertainment, etc.
What does a Lumbee Thanksgiving meal look like? What are you favorite traditional foods from other Indigenous Tribes?
Lumbees love to eat! In addition to turkey and ham like you might find on most any American Thanksgiving table, many Lumbee families will serve chicken and pastry (“paster”), collard greens, fried cornbread, potato salad. I’m getting hungry just thinking about it. For dessert, there might be banana pudding, pecan pie, chocolate layer cake, and some more.
I don’t care for the mythology of Thanksgiving that is baked into American culture, and I understand why it’s a day of mourning for many. In my family, we take the day to spend time with one another, eat, and tell stories. And we give thanks. Any day that happens is a good day for me.
I have tried traditional foods from a number of other Tribes. Favorites include tamales, pueblo pies, walleye and wild rice. What I really, really, really want to eat is whatever my friend Bette Billiot (Houma) and her family are cooking down on the bayou. It always looks amazing.
In your experiences with other Indigenous people, what’s a common thread that we share? For those struggling to understand their Indigeneity, or even identity, do you have any advice?
I think it’s fair to say most Indigenous people have a great and warped sense of humor. Maybe we have to. When we get together, we “cut up,” and that’s good.
It’s important to know our history and spend time together. In cities, it’s easier than it seems to just drift apart and disconnect. Spend time with your Elders. Ask questions about your people, starting with your own family. Help with whatever you can, whether it’s cooking or cleaning. Practice listening.
If you can, leave home for a little while. In other places, it’s sometimes easier to understand what makes home “home” and special, and what makes you special for being from there and part of a community. Then go back.
Keanu Jones is an intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and Navajo filmmaker originally from Grand Falls, Arizona.