Think back to the last time you saw something related to Native Americans in Baltimore City. Maybe while flipping through the Department of Public Works calendar that arrived in mailboxes a couple of months ago, you noticed that Columbus Day has been officially changed to Indigenous People’s Day. Or perhaps you saw someone wearing a Native headdress as a Halloween costume. Or during Native American History Month, your kid learned about how the Natives helped the settlers make it through the winter. Based on all this data, one might draw the conclusion that Native presence in Baltimore is just part of a mythical historical past.
The artist and folklorist Ashley Minner wants you to know that Native heritage in Baltimore is vital and alive, continuing to this day. If you’ve been here long enough, you’ve probably driven by a historic site related to Native history in the city without even realizing it. Native American people have, in fact, always been present in what is now Baltimore; theirs is a dynamic story of migration, shifting demographics, and ongoing response to the intense pressures first ushered in by colonization.
Minner’s recent multimedia project The Baltimore Reservation uncovers the often-overlooked history of the Native community’s presence in Baltimore, which peaked in the mid-20th century and endures today. Through a website, print map, iPhone app, and Android app, The Baltimore Reservation centers the Native community’s impact on our urban landscape and surfaces how “thousands of Lumbee Indians and members of other tribal nations migrated to Baltimore City, seeking jobs and a better quality of life.” The project aims to rectify the fact that many places in the city were at one time definably Native, but that history is no longer visible or recognized in public memory due to various interconnected forces such as gentrification, urban renewal, economic hardship, and upward mobility.
Minner’s project, which grew out of many years of deep research in archives and interviews with elders, humanizes Native history and tells the story of their role in the development of modern-day Baltimore. This dramatically departs from so much of Native history, which is written in a historicizing mode that erases modern-day Natives and renders urban Native populations invisible. According to popular understandings, the Native is not a person who lives but, rather, a friendly peaceful neighbor that fed your ancestors turkey, or an artifact of the violence of western expansion. In history books, Natives vanished into the slivers of wilderness afforded them or walked off to remote reservations somewhere out west. But Native Americans are still here. Some do live on reservations, but nearly three-quarters of Native Americans in the US live in urban areas like Baltimore, and have done so for a very long time.
The movement of Natives to cities was a result of economic, political, and racist forces. Novelist Tommy Orange, who is a citizen of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma and grew up in Oakland, CA, raised the issue in his book There There. “Getting us [Natives] to cities,” he writes, “was supposed to be the final, necessary step in our assimilation, absorption, erasure, completion of a five hundred year old genocidal campaign. But the city made us new, and we made it ours. We didn’t get lost amidst the sprawl of tall buildings, the stream of anonymous masses, the ceaseless din of traffic. We found each other, started up Indian Centers, brought out our families and powwows, our dances, our songs, our beadwork… We did not move to cities to die.”