Open Society Institute Impact Series
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Connecting to Lumbee Heritage Through Art

Photos by: Colby Ware

July 24, 2014

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.

Baltimore American Indian Center

The Baltimore American Indian Center blends in with the scenery on Broadway in Fells Point. The center is a cultural outlet for Native people and at one time offered an array of social services as well as a sense of fellowship with other Native Americans, many still living in the neighborhoods surrounding the building. Over the years, the center has lost money and visitors. But programs such as Ashley Minner’s Native American After School Art Program are helping to bring vitality back to the building.

Ebony Gray at the Baltimore American Indian Center

The art program has had many participants since Minner started it in 2008. Today there are seven—all girls—who are “officially” enrolled in the program. Learning about their connection to the Lumbees, the largest tribe east of the Mississippi River and the ninth largest in the nation, gives each girl a sense of pride and roots. “Being in this program means everything,” says Ebony Gray, 10, shown above, working at the center. “Because I’m with the people that I love.”

Minner, shown here squeezing Karrien Johnson, 11, provides art supplies to the program participants, but she herself is the glue. She is Baltimore’s representative to the Maryland Commission on Indian Affairs under the Governor’s Office of Community Initiatives. And in 2009, the year after receiving an OSI Community Fellowship, Minner was awarded the Brantley Blue Award—the highest award her community bestows on members. “I think I was the youngest ever to receive it,” Minner says. “It was a tremendous honor.”

Students at the Native American After School Art Program

The girls in the afterschool art program are especially tight-knit. As part of the guidelines for participation, Minner allows them to set their own rules. The girls voted recently to cap membership—for now at least—to just their circle of seven. India Jones, 12, shown here kissing Kiyia Johnson (who is hugging Ebony Gray), is one of the oldest in the group. “The program is like my second life, my second love, my family,” India says.

Kiyia Johnson and Ebony Gray

Program participant Kiyia Johnson (right), a 5th-grader at Commodore John Rodgers Elementary/Middle School, won a citywide “If I Were Mayor” essay contest last year. Shown here with Ebony Gray, Kiyia says this about participating in the art program at the center: “I can have more confidence in myself because I’m different than other people. I don’t feel better than other people, but different, in a good way.”

Students at the Native American After School Art Program

The Baltimore American Indian Center roots the community’s young people in Lumbee pride, responsibility, history and accomplishment. Like many things center-related, the afterschool art program has an indirect—but crucial—spiritual component. Here, four of the girls in the program stop working on art projects to hold hands and pray.

Kiyia Johnson receives her eagle feather from tribe-member Louis Campbell

Like a large extended family, the Baltimore’s Lumbees—along with descendants of other Native American tribes—come together at the Center to eat, enjoy fellowship, and celebrate important events. At a recent graduation ceremony, more than 40 young people were recognized for reaching educational milestones—from Head Start programs all the way up to law school. Here, Kiyia Johnson receives from tribe-member Louis Campbell her eagle feather—a high honor—for successfully completing 5th-grade. “The fact that you chose to come and celebrate your graduation with us here at the American Indian Center means that the people who came before you, the work they did was not in vain,” Minner tells the graduates.

Ashley Minner, 2008 OSI-Baltimore Community Fellow

In addition to wanting to help the young people in her community, Minner wants to represent and promote the contributions of her tribe, her Lumbee family—a community that, in Baltimore, too often goes unnoticed, or is frequently stereotyped. “I want people to know that Native Americans are still present,” Minner says, standing near a window at the center, adorned with a “medicine wheel” symbol used by many Native cultures. “And that the center is alive and well.”