As a child, Ashley Minner remembers spending countless hours at the Baltimore American Indian Center in Southeast Baltimore’s Fells Point.
Around big crowds of family, friends, and many fellow members of the Lumbee tribe—which settled here from North Carolina after World War II to find work—Minner fed her mind and soul.
Minner, a 2008 OSI-Baltimore Community Fellow, wanted younger Lumbees to have that same experience, so she developed the Native American After School Art Program at the center, focusing on Baltimore’s Native American youth population.
The American Indian Center blends in with the blocks of restaurants and retail stores lining busy Broadway in Fells Point. So too do the people who make use of the center. They are all shades of brown—from warm French vanilla to deep bronze. They’re raven-haired and blond, with straight tresses and spiraled curls, brown eyes and blue. It’s hard to tell, without knowing, that the community living around the center is nearly all connected somehow to the Lumbees, whose numbers are estimated to be in the tens of thousands.
“People will say, ‘You’re not really Indian because you don’t look Indian,’” Minner says. “Well, what does an Indian look like?”
At the center, with the youth (mainly girls, these days) who participate in her program, Minner uses art and community projects to explore questions like those. What does it mean to be an Indian? What does it mean to be a Lumbee? What do we have to offer this city where we live? What do we owe to ourselves, as Native Americans? What do we owe our ancestors who came before us?
The art—and the accompanying sense of community—help answer those questions.
“My goal is to empower the kids to make change in their lives and in their community,” Minner says. “I want to see them go to college, be financially independent and be good citizens.”
Every year, her program participants rank at the tops of their respective classes, achieving honor roll, or making the Dean’s List. They volunteer in the community and are civic leaders—even helping to push forward Maryland HB 40, to recognize November as Native American Heritage Month.
More than anything, the center is a place where the young people come and feel cared for by Minner and other elders, connected to their shared culture and recognized as special, unique, worthy.