Ashley Minner doesn’t want to help you with your land acknowledgement or with figuring out what you should call indigenous peoples. She is tired of being asked to speak for all indigenous peoples everywhere. She’d rather be speaking about the specific story of her family or her own art practice. “It’s hard to be just an artist because you’re never not who you are, but I feel like I get tokenized a lot and receive a lot of attention in November,” she says, because November is Native American Heritage Month. “It’s exhausting, I miss drawing and painting.”
With her position in UMBC’s American Studies department, as professor of the practice and director of the public humanities minor, Minner knows that she’s an obvious person for a well-meaning outsider to query. A community-based visual artist and folklorist from a family of artists, Minner stands out in the Baltimore academic scene because of her many accreditations—she has a BFA, MA, and MFA, all from MICA, and is wrapping up her PhD from the University of Maryland, College Park. She pursued these degrees to become a credentialed authority. “Amongst our people, education is a real value, because we haven’t always had easy access to it,” she explains.
In conversation, Minner exudes a rare magnetic kindness: She’s easy to talk to, her thick Dundalk accent cutting through like a warm hug of immediate familiarity. I met Minner at the Baltimore American Indian Center to learn about her PhD project, “The Reservation,” which is part oral history, part mapping project, part lecture series, and an eventual book about the Lumbee tribe in Baltimore. The title of the project is a play on a nation’s typical relationship with the United States government (Lumbees have never had a designated reservation) and is what the Lumbee elders previously called the neighborhood where their community was concentrated. Together with a group of elders, Minner has been compiling a map of the old Lumbee neighborhood, centered on Broadway and East Baltimore Street in the Upper Fells Point and Washington Hill neighborhoods. Much of the built landscape they are mapping no longer exists, lost to urban renewal. “Basically everything we had was knocked down and redeveloped,” Minner clarifies—parks and condos have replaced stores and bars.
It is essential to Minner to acknowledge that both her PhD project and the museum where we are meeting are the result of continued community efforts. She sees herself as one person in a line of people doing this work. There has been a small amount of outsider scholarship and study into the Baltimore Lumbee population, but she is the first Lumbee to undertake a project of this size. “I feel like most of our population has been in survival mode since they got here. So you don’t have time to do shit like this,” she says. Explaining the structure of the Center, which she has been associated with since childhood, she says, “Everything we have here is a community effort where everyday people are trying to decide what is the best thing to put in a museum.”
While Minner clearly loves this work and her collaborators, she sees the creative process as a series of starts and stops, and acknowledges that “you fall a little in love with work you make” regardless of the form it takes. About the elders she says, they “are my favorite group of people, they always give me energy.” They are the project’s first audience. “I just hope I’m doing a good job to honor the legacy of the people who founded this museum.”
There is a through-line between this project and other community-facing work she has previously made. “Everything I do starts with a story that somebody told,” she says, “it’s all narrative.” Whatever story Minner chooses to tell next will certainly be worth following.
SUBJECT: Ashley Minner, 36
WEARING: Yellow Alfani shirt, custom Creative Natives earrings, black pants from Torrid, and Fioni shoes.
PLACE: Upper Fells Point
Suzy Kopf: What is the most important book (or books) you’ve read?
Ashley Minner: One of my favorites is The Truth About Stories by Thomas King. I go back to that one a lot. I’m currently reading The Ghosts of Johns Hopkins by Antero Pietila, and it is mind-blowing. All Baltimoreans should read it.
What was the worst career or life advice you’ve ever received? What is the best?
Worst: Someone once told me not to go back to school again because I would “over-qualify” myself for any job they could imagine me applying for. Best: Say no!
Could you ever see yourself living long term in another place besides Baltimore/Dundalk? Why is Baltimore so much a part of who you are?
I go to a lot of far-away places and I always have to come home. Once I’m on my way back, it seems like I can never get here fast enough. I think the longest I ever stayed away was about two weeks. My family is here. This place made me. It’s definitely in my speech. It shapes the way I experience the rest of the world. I guess I have to come home to recalibrate or something. For at least as long as my parents are here, I don’t see me living anywhere else. They say all of our houses will be underwater in 100 years. Of course, I probably won’t be around to see that. But we did flood with Hurricane Isabel back in 2003, and another flood is always a concern. That might cause us to relocate, but hopefully nothing else.
Who do you admire? Why? Do you think they know they’re a role model to you or would they be surprised?
George Ciscle is one of the smartest people I know, and one of the most down-to-earth, even though he’s a Titan in several fields. He has advanced the legitimacy of place-based art, and made real moves to turn “The Museum” as colonial enterprise right on its head. That’s just some of what he’s done for the whole world. For me, George made sure I felt welcome and like I was somebody when I was in grad school the first time. He has checked on me ever since—now we’re talking about a period of, like, 15 years. He has supported my development as an artist, my after-school art program while I had it, and the Baltimore American Indian Center when I was there. He even spent time with the young people I mentored—I mean, really took time with them and let them ask questions. He has always been accessible to me and always given me opportunities to participate in what he’s doing. He does things like that for so many people and organizations. And then he doesn’t brag about it. I would admire him greatly even if I didn’t know him, but because I really do know him, I admire him even more. He is an excellent, excellent person. I think he knows how I feel.
What mundane thing do you hope you’re remembered for?
Maybe for being a really good parallel parker? Or maybe I’ll be remembered for a mundane thing I did not do—I absolutely refuse to participate in conference calls.
Why are conference calls the worst?
I read this book called the Social Construction of Reality, written by Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann. The guys who wrote it argue that the ultimate form of reality is a face-to-face interaction. In any situation where people are further removed from one another’s presence, their expressions become skewed and are likely to be misinterpreted. Ok, that started to be a lofty, academic-ish answer. Another truth is that I just hate talking on the phone and avoid it at all costs. Most of my phone conversations last less than 30 seconds and consist of instructions or details regarding immediate next steps. I make exceptions for elderly or grieving loved ones. For the people who managed to get me on a conference call before I swore off, I guarantee they did not experience me at my best. I feel such dread and annoyance before, during, and after. And I’m totally distracted during. Hey, everyone else is, too. Why do we put ourselves through it?
What is the most rewarding aspect of being a professor?
The most rewarding aspect of being a professor is working with students who get excited and apply what they’re learning in meaningful ways to their own lives. I usually give an ethnography/oral history option for final papers, and I’ve had the opportunity to witness such beautiful, important work. For example, one student interviewed her terminally ill mother, and another interviewed her father, who is from Israel, about his understandings of indigeneity, race, and colonialism. I also get a kick out of my art students when they are wowed by/really benefit from basic professional development skills I share with them.
What’s the best local restaurant and what is your go-to order?
I can’t say because people might read this and go there. Seriously. I don’t want any more of my spots to become gentrified. It may not be a regional dish, but how about Chap’s Pit Beef? If Guy Fieri couldn’t ruin it, I guess no one can. A Chap’s Pit Beef sandwich with a lot of raw onions and some mayo is one of my favorite summer treats. It seems like my husband and I go there on days when we’ve been swimming and it always hits the spot.
Do you consider yourself an artist? Have you always? Was there another career path you could have pursued?
Yes, I have always been an artist. I found a paper from elementary school where I wrote about what I wanted to be when I grew up. Even then, I said I wanted to be an artist or a veterinarian. I turned out to be an artist with pets. But I think I would really enjoy being a mini-golf course designer. I just love the worlds that people create and I like to think about what I might come up with, given the opportunity.
Whose work would you want in your home or to wear on your body? Specific piece?
I already have several of Missionary Mary Proctor’s works in my home and I would love to have at least one more, like the one that’s in the American Visionary Art Museum. That piece is about forgiveness and it tells a story. When the artist was a child, she broke her grandma’s blue willow plates and expected to get a whipping. Instead, her grandma held her hands and said, “I forgive you because just yesterday God forgave me. He said one must forgive to be forgiven.” The works I have in my home say, “Chick be tough as this old hen on tin”; “A woman got to love herself. If you don’t, who will?”; and “I feel the sun will shine when I pick up my paint brush.”
Do you have a typical day or not right now? Do you wish you had a routine if you don’t or do you thrive on change?
On days when I don’t have to do anything else, I go get my pet turtle. He hangs out with me in the backyard while I sit on the porch and write. I take breaks to visit my family and I go for walks. Most days, I have other things to do. I teach on Tuesdays and Thursdays now that the semester has started, so that’s a routine. Some days I’m in the archives, or out doing interviews, or traveling for other work. I guess I have a good balance of routine and change.
Does your astrological sign match your personality?
Yes, I’m a Taurus through and through. I’m very grounded and consistent. I can also be self-indulgent, resistant to change, and stubborn to a fault.
What was the most memorable assignment you were given in school? What did you make?
One of my all-time favorite teachers, Bob Salazar, once gave an assignment that I think was about gratitude. I made a cupcake and a receipt—a literal receipt tape—for maybe a dozen people who had wronged me in some way over the course of my life. I typed the receipts on a typewriter. I described what the people had done and ended with “Thank you for helping to make me who I am. ENJOY ENJOY ENJOY.” The trespassers/trespasses ranged from my first grade teacher who punished me for asking to go to the bathroom on the first day of school, to a guy who caused my first car to be wrecked in a police chase (true story). I struggle with holding onto grudges. I guess this project was a way to approach dealing with that. Anyway, Bob thought it was pretty good and he took pictures, which is why I’m able to recall so much about that piece today.
What have you learned recently that made you think, “Oh, shit, how did I reach my mid-thirties without knowing this?!”
I recently learned the keyboard shortcuts to make the em dash and accents!
Especially now that you’re about to have your PhD, people recognize you as an authority on the Lumbee people. Do you identify as a historian now or, like “research,” is this a hold-over colonial term we should avoid? Do you prefer story-teller or author?
I identify as a community artist (and a storyteller sometimes). I believe that everyone is an authority on their own experience, or an expert on their own life. I don’t really claim to be an authority on anything but mine.
Ashley Minner will be on a panel with Michael Casiano, Kate Drabinski, and Nicole Fabricant, moderated by Nicole King, at the Radical Bookfair Pavilion at the Baltimore Book Festival, Sunday, November 3 at 2 p.m.
Photos by Jill Fannon