Our migration to Minneapolis started with my Uncle Dale. My family has always been musical. My uncle was in all kinds of Country Western and Country Western Blues bands. Sometime in the ’70s he got a gig in Minneapolis at an old bar right on Nicollet Ave. He came back and said, “Its AMAZING there! There’s the American Indian Movement, incredible bands… I’m moving, I’m getting out of the prairie for awhile…”
One by one, the rest of my family followed.
We are from North Dakota – The Three Affiliated Tribes – NuE’ta, Sahnish, Hidatsa, all within the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation. My ma said she had always wanted to get out of Twin Buttes, North Dakota. She was raised in a dirt floor log cabin. When she first saw Star Trek on a friend’s TV it changed her. To my mom, the whole world outside of her Rez was like the cantina in Star Wars and she wanted to see it.
Minneapolis was exactly what mom wanted. Her brothers were playing in bands and the Indigenous movement was going from protest and activism to working from within the system, joining and creating organizations. She helped start the first Indian clinic in St Paul. When we moved to the Phillips neighborhood she did the same kind of helping out but moved on to the Food and Drug Administration.
My dad had worked at the Red School House, but I went to Bancroft elementary where I was one of four Indians — and two of them were my sisters. I had long hair . Everyday I would fight someone who pulled my hair and called me a girl. That went on until 9th grade. My mom let my sisters transfer to the awesome Indian schools — Red School House, Heart of the Earth Survival School and The Center School.
When I asked to go there my mom and dad said No. My grandma said “If you want to hang out with Indians all day you can stay home with gramma and do the dishes. The world is filled with all kinds of people not just Mandans so it’s important for you to be able to talk to all kinds of people”
The places that I’ve been on the short time that I’ve been on this big old turtle have been pretty amazing and I attribute that to my mom and grandma insisting that I go a little further.
But it was Indian youth leadership groups that helped me to build confidence.
Golden Eagles Baseball Team. Twin Cities Champs circa 1993
I was always a super shy kid around non-Native people and even when I went to Folwell Junior High there were still only a few more Indians. I was in the Soaring/Golden Eagles youth group and and became involved in the Indigenous Peoples Task Force theater troupe. They helped me get out of my shell.
In high school we moved to Corcoran neighborhood and our first house. I got an internship for the Circle newspaper’s Native youth run and produced paper called New Voices The only other Indians in the neighborhood were our relatives the Yellowbird/St. Johns. My mom became a case worker for Ruben Lindh Family Services and my dad went from every once in a while construction jobs to working full-time for a big old construction management company. My parents wanted us to have something a little bit better. The house wasn’t big enough for all of us but it was ours.
What was also really great about moving was that we were going to be living down the block was my very first non-Indian friend. We were inseparable. Shane Caird– my older sisters called him our Albino brother. With Shaneo drawing and my stories, we even produced our very own single issue comic book, “The Adventures of Super Shane and Mighty Vince”
Then coaches at South came to see me play football for Sibley park and recruited me. I was always deceivingly fast and had lots of what they called “upper body violence”. They said “There are all kinds of Indians in a program called All Nations, and you’re going to love it.” So, — though I lived three blocks from Roosevelt High and I knew Shane would be upset (we only cried once about it) — I went to South. Most diverse school in the city. I met my first Somali friend there. His name was Mohammad Mohammad. I wanted to be Vincent Vincent but then he explained to me who Mohammad was. —
I wasn’t good at school. I could do the tests really well but I could not sit still in class. I ended up getting myself in trouble. My friends and I were stealing cars in the neighborhood. The first time I got caught they took me to the JDC but because I looked older they put me in with the adults. Left me there all day.
My mom and dad — activists from the sixties and seventies —had always told me “If the cops get you don’t say nothin.” So I didn’t. “Luckily”, one of the cops who worked at South saw me and me said “What is he doing here?”
While I was there at the JDC I had a moment. I thought “I don’t want this.”
My parents yelled at me that whole Halloween and then I had to go to Minnehaha Academy. I tested so well I got into The Blake School but my mom said it looked like one of those schools from TV where all the mean white people go, so I went to Minnehaha. I lasted seven weeks. I came home and my parents asked me – how was it? I told them about a math problem they gave us, it was kinda like – “If Jesus had five apples…” They want us to figure out how many apples Jesus would have. I answered “Jesus is magic. He could have as many apples as he wanted.” My dad was not about Jesus at all. I went back to South and put my head down and studied.
My freshman year in the All Nations program there were 200 Indian students in my class. The second year, 75, the third 15. I graduated with six Indians — and a bunch of others who were from another schools but wanted to graduate with us at South. I still have the picture of us sitting there.
All Nations Awards Graduation Banquet Dinner, South High School, 1998.
Three of those kids and I went to Golden Eagles. For the most part (my pops was gone some times) we had strong male and female role models in our houses. That is the truth. David Paul Saice, Jr., Jesse James Strong, George Chi-Noodin Spears. I’ve known them for forever and a day. My friends who didn’t make it though South? All but one are still just trying to get right and they will, Indians are slow not lazy and stubborn, but when we set minds to something, doesn’t matter how long it takes, we’ll get it done.
Theater also saved me. When I was in Junior High, Sharon Day started a Native youth theater troupe called the Ogitchidaag Gikinomaagaad Players (Warrior Teacher in her people’s language Anishinaabe), but first came a theater boot camp in Phillips. It was taught by Spider Woman Theater, these New York Indian ladies: sweet but tough. You fooled around you were out. They widdled it down till they had the troupe. The Players. We performed plays for AIDS awareness, drugs and alcohol, and big list of other topics and for the play “My Grandmother’s Love” we performed monologue about our gramma Blanche Benson. At that time — ’92-93 — AIDS was an epidemic on reservations. Sharon got the money to train us and travel to reservations. I’ve been to just about every state traveling by van and airplane with them.
I won the Outstanding Youth Award of the year award for my work with the Ogitchidag Gikinoamaagad Players. Right after high school I went to the short program at the Centre for Indigenous Theatre in Toronto, “perfecting my craft”.
But then I came home to Minneapolis and I got myself in trouble again…
I ended up burning every bridge. I was 20. You couldn’t tell me nothin. All these awards, writing, acting — I had a pretty big head. I ended up homeless, living on the streets. If you are 20 and homeless, you WILL have a mental breakdown. I ended up at HCMC and from there Catholic Charities.
2000 to 2002 — starting back from zero.
My mom and dad loved me however their addiction to alcohol and drugs created an environment where we could do whatever we wanted. My sisters as well. Our structure was loose and because just trying to keep the lights on was an adventure unto itself, we suffered and sometimes when I’d come home from a weekend trip with the troupe or even tired from a football game at South and our the lights would be off, but only for a couple days here and there. We were all really smart so we could always fall back on ” Well, I’m doing well in school… ”
By 2002 I was climbing out of it. I got my own studio apartment downtown. I felt like “I DID IT!” I went from just owning a backpack to having a place of my own! I started acting again. I went back to the Children’s Theater. They were doing heavier plays in their Black Box series. They’d take kids like me, trained in their programs or other places, work with and eventually work with the meatier stuff. They were going to do One Flew Over the Cockoo’s Nest. I said great – what will I play? The director said Nurse Ratchett. I was like, alright , cool! He said “I’m kidding. I want you to play the narrator.”
I met my partner Megan Treinen through Cuckoos’ Nest. One of her friends was one of the orderlies in the cast. He asked me to go out to Burnsville to a bowling alley. I had never gone out to Burnsville. They used to have an Indian head for their high school mascot. I never wanted to go out there. But I went.
And right when I walked in. I thought — holy smacks — that lady is pretty. I told her as much that night. I stole her away from this really awesome African guy named Duke, I never met him, but I’m assuming as much because Megan is awesome. I always tell Megan that when I’m really old I’m going to tell our great grandkids that I stole her from a Zulu warrior, that I fought for the right to ask her out by fighting him in a ring of fire — my tribe against his — lions against coyotes and bears.
She was my white passport. She hates when I say that, but it is true. I moved down to Winona to be with her while she finished her degree in Political Science and Women’s Studies I got a job at the Green Mill and later at The Blue Heron coffee shop. Damn is Winona racist! Even their foundation myth. They invented their own Indian maiden myth and put her on a statue in the middle of town.
Across from the court-house where all the judges and police hang out is the Red Men Club. In it are photos of white men — lawyers, cops, judges, dressed up in feathers holding fake spears. And they have that statue of the Indian slumped over — “End of the Trail” — sculpted by a white guy.
Winona State University asked, “how do we get more Indians here?” I said, “First, you shouldn’t have kicked out the Santee Dakota that are from here. Second, maybe you shouldn’t have this effigy to the dying of my race. I’m standing right here, my brown-skinned self! Indians don’t want to look at that.” Their response was to hire another white sculpture to put some positive Indian imagery around the dying Indian. I said “Good luck with that. This is a very racist town and I’m out of here.”
Because Megan was white, I knew we could move to North Dakota and she would flourish. Her parents — some of the most racist suburban white people I have ever met — didn’t want her to go — said there were drugs there like somehow people weren’t doing any drugs anywhere in Savage, MN. We went, this is just something they do, justify they’re racism I mean. When we first started dating, she had her own apartment in Winona but for the summer she was staying at her parents. Out of the blue, she had a 12 o’clock curfew, a 20 year old with her own apartment. They could never come up with real concrete reasons they don’t like me, so eventually I started to help them out with some because that’s what I do, I’m a giver.
Almost immediately Megan became an intern for Senator Kent Conrad, and then worked for the Prevent Child Abuse North Dakota. Needles to say, Megan flourished, but that’s what she does, because she’s a beautiful flower.
With her resume built up, we headed back to South Minneapolis. I knew that I would need this white ambassador and I would need to help this white ambassador’s resume, if we were going to be able to build a life for ourselves.
Because, even in South Minneapolis, even with a degree, even the Indian organizations don’t hire us too much. We did have a short stay out at Megan’s mom’s house. I say short because her mom ended up kicking us out on the street, effectively making us homeless, because I got upset when Megan’s dad decided to grab some of our stuff packed up in the garage and use it as things for their dog to play fetch with. I guess when you live with white people in the suburbs, you have to let them use your things for dog toys and if you don’t like it and you raise your voice in defense, well then you’ll just have to find somewhere else to live. So we did.
There are four types of Indians: the urban Indians, suburban Indians, rural Indians and Rez Indians. (Most people don’t realize that rural Indians are not same as Rez Indians.) Now maybe it’s just me but the non-profit Indian organizations in Phillips, really only seem to hire light-skinned Indians who grew up in suburbia or other places where they may be the only Indians in their communities and here’s the thing, I don’t know why. Indian Health Board, Native American Community Development Institute, American Indian Center, Little Earth, Native American Community Clinic — go into any of those places and you will see mostly light-skinned and/or suburban Indians working, it’s like maybe a certain small percentage are people from the neighborhood, and an even smaller percentage of dark skinned Natives, I could speculate on why this is like this, but I don’t really know. What I do know is that they get money to develop our community aka “help the Indians” but even the ones that got a quarter of a million dollars in funding only put up stickers on the lightboxes, and then just on 1 street, the one thing the Native not for profits in my neighborhood have done in unison is Not hire from within the neighborhood for top positions.
Megan was incredibly excited to move to the city. I had an opportunity to finish my degree at Augsburg College but for the most part, I was scared to move home.
Augsburg was a really different experience.
Augsburg is open to all types of Indians but what they really wanted was the “safe” suburban Indians – those who know how to operate in this world. They elected me to the American Indian Student Association. That was a big scary thing. Some of those Indians were really entitled people. So mean and back stabby, on the southside beef is handled up front and direct, on site, that is not how they got down and the subcultures clashed. They kept asking us for drugs. I told them off.
I said to one guy, “We wanted you to help out with the Pow Wow but we have to pull back because you keep being mean to all the Indians.” His mom and dad were like these mega sciency Indians. They got postcards from Obama. His mom came down and got mean and everyone bowed down to her, I guess when you offer to buy the Indin student group hats and jackets, you can make moves like that. That is when I realized I was not cut out for college. I could not kiss anyone’s ass. I lasted two semesters and then the perfect storm hit. My older brother passed away and every semester Augburg went out of it’s way to remind how poor I was. it was tough. But not as tough as learning about how over and over again Indigenous nations were forced to convert to Christianity to survive in one class and immediately after I had to go to my mandatory theology class where the instructor told us all to just “think of this as Sunday school, because it is.”
Transfer students didn’t have to take this mandatory class, but I did even though I transferred in from a technical college they wouldn’t accept my Algebra credits I tried so hard pass (im not good at math and have had to take algebra at every school ive gone to) and that followed with mandatory Sunday school and American Indian Studies professors who weren’t up to facilitating conversations about misuse of Indigenous iconography by people who have vague Indigenous descendancy. I’m not kidding when I say a senior in film studies actually said that because he was 1/3rd Cherokee (he wasn’t, people don’t come in 3rds of anything, that’s absurd) he was entitled to use any and all Native imagery without asking permission, and the professor said nothing, I on the other hand am a pro at dropping knowledge bombs on the 33.33% Pretendians but not having that backup in the department of study that I switched because it would inform my work as poet, was disheartening. And so because if all of that, I dropped out, still owe the gov’t 5000, I’ll probably never get a 4 year degree. That’s a dream now, like buying a projector, or owning an electric car.
I had gone to technical college and to get my associates degree so I had planned to finish my degree in Information business management at Augsburg. Fortunately I decided to take a few non-management classes. Intro to acting. American Indian Studies. Poetry 101 with Cary Waterman. I took the class so I would have more to talk about with this playwright/poet I was getting to be friends with, who had given me a copy of her first book of poetry when I was an intern at the Circle in high school.
Cary Waterman was awesome — that 90 days was like my second birth. I had thought my art was acting, performing. The way I learned to write at the Circle was right down the middle and you piss both sides off. Inverted Triangles. I never thought I’d be able to do creative writing. Now I was learning all these forms of poems….
Cary Waterman wanted us pick a poet and get them to mentor you. Other students chose Walt Whitman, Shakespeare. I didn’t realize she meant we were supposed to read the work of one poet. Asked my playwright/poet, friend who gave me her book, if she would be my mentor. I told the other students “We went to a coffee shop and talked for an hour….”
One of the kids who wrote for the student paper said: “that woman was the poet laureate of Augsburg College.”
I was like, “Dope! I’ll tell her.” I felt like I messed up. I only took the class so I could talk to my poet friend and have better conversations.
I started writing poems, mentored by this great Indigenous writer. That changed my life. She waved her hand and the hallway of closed doors in my life just opened up. I followed her, walking through doors. She was constantly telling me “You’ve got something. You’ve got agency in your braids”
A year later I won my first Jerome Foundation Grant. My mentor told me it was BIG. She never won one.
I was ready to go to my first professional Indian writers conference. Returning the Gift: Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers. It was held at an old University of Wisconsin Mens dorm — a mansion. Those white fuckers had a mansion. But now it was the Mansion that Indian Writers Built. I walked in and there was Jim Northrup laughing and teasing Joy Harjo. I saw Gary Farmer, Denise Sweet, Wade Fernandez, Susan Power coming down the stairs talking with Heid E. Erdrich….
We were about to drive back to the cities when my mentor said “I think you should try that poetry slam. If you win this you go to the next round and they will pay for it.”
I was like — “pay for it? Pay for Indians?”
She said there is only one other Indian champ. Sherman Alexie.
I thought OK, I’ll go and do my poem and get the hell out of here. I was sitting at this table with this guy Norb Jones. He came only for the poetry slam. He was there to win. On the other side of the table was Charlie Hill – he worked for Richard Pryor! He was one of the judges. There were Indians from Canada, Hawaii, Mexico, the Sami even– they were all there to compete. Some of them were reading from their published books.
I got up and put my two worlds — writing and acting — together. The first bout I got all tens. I was like, that was great – can we go home now?
My mentor said “No. Tomorrow is the championship and you are in it.”
It was me and Norb Jones. I got all tens and won the championship. Now it was Sherman Alexie and me, the two champions. That was it. I was a writer. After that I started winning every Minnesota poetry grant you could win.
I went with my mentor to Michigan, and to the Turtle Mountain Writers Retreat and Workshop to work. Dr. Gordon Henry was there at both but while in Michigan he asked me “Do you have 90 poems?”
I thought he was asking me — how much do you write — are you working hard enough?
My mentor said — “Ninety poems is a book. He’s asking if you have enough for a book. He runs a Press, dumdum”
The rest of the time there is a blur. I only remember that he paid for dinner.
My mentor told me to take my time getting the work together. She said “It took me five years – you are in this one year and some change — take your time. It was like she put a force field around us.
Then someone showed my Youtube videos to Sherman Alexie… and because he’s got super powers and he was in town at the Fitz AND my friend was a DJ for the event I got to go. We got box seats. I’m thinking — I’m going to say right to his face that he should stop writing so positively about fry bread and Pepsi. He’s giving us all diabetes.
During the sound check Sherman looked up at me from the stage. “There is an Indian in Lincoln’s seat. Watch out they are going to shoot you.”
After his performance he hung out with a group of Indian kids from one of Indian Schools for about an hour. I thought –he is a really good dude.
Then he looked up at me and motioned with his lips, “Hey – come on down here.”
I had one of those movie moments — Sherman Alexie just called me down… So I did.
He said “I’m Sherman Alexie.” I was like — I know who you are.
He said “How’s it going? Your name is Vince.” I thought “My name IS Vince.”
“People have been sending me your videos.”
I thought, I am about to get in trouble.
“Do you write them down?”
“Do you want to show me them?”
I said “Well, they are being looked over by Dr. Henry at University of Michigan Press, I don’t think I can….”
He said “I know Gordy, its OK. Send them to me.”
He asked “Do you have any of my books for me to sign?”
I said “I don’t have any of your books. I read em and I give em to my Aunts and my mom to read. So he said “Do you have anything for me to sign?”
I pulled off one of my red Pumas and he signed it “Less fry bread, more running. ”
That’s when I realized he read my tweets and eventually I would send him my poems, because he asked to see them, he being Sherman Alexie.
When he was back in town — at Macalester, the only college in town that can a afford him – that and the U when he takes a pay cut. I emailed him: “What do you think of my poems?”
I thought he was going to break it down – tell me what to work on — tell me to read more of this or that poet. His email was: “You know your pretty good right?”
That was it! I thought to myself — “fuck that guy.” I thought I was going to catch some knowledge….We went a year. I finally sent him another email.
Sometimes its problematic to be Sherman Alexie. Sometimes Sherman Alexie makes decisions that Sherman Alexie shouldn’t make and he catches some national shade for those decisions. I sent him an email and told him he can’t talk for all Indians…
His email, back said” I’ve been writing this email to you for five days. I write and I delete it, write and delete it. I have been having this conversation with Indians on and off the reservation for 25 years. Instead, for you– I am going to give you a to do list.”
All the things I wanted to hear were there. But then there were other things like: “Eat More Salads” and “Run more.”
I was 450 pounds two years ago. I weighed myself a month ago — 265 pounds. Sherman Alexie didn’t do it. I was already on my way — but you know it’s getting bad if Sherman Alexie is telling you to run and eat more salads.
I took on my niece and two nephews a few months ago, from North Dakota. As we were driving out of Bismarck together, I got text from Sherman. It said “Write me a story about an Indian Kid.” That was it. I thought – doesn’t he know I just write poetry? I don’t write short stories.
I started writing, — my first five pages — not ready to read, but on my way.
It’s all moving pretty fast. I scares me a little bit. I was an actor when I was a kid. I even went out to LA and auditioned during pilot season. I was Indian Famous — which is like being a Z level celebrity. It was awful. I had to learn that lesson hard. I have learned that there are so many tertiary people who want to have a piece of you and they want to be your friend. I had to push those people away. They started un-friending me on facebook. I learned to create a bubble around myself. All you can do is what you can do.
That’s me. That’s where I’m at. I made some bigger mistakes recently but I’ll learn. Then I drove over here to tell you about it.
R. Vincent Moniz, Jr. Performing his work.