Shannon Nordby: At Home on Leech Lake and Roosevelt High School.

10168093_10152378534258033_6780100279175478209_nMy mom was born on Leech lake. She spoke only Ojibwe until she was five. She was put in foster care, and grew up in various places between the Reservation and Minneapolis. I was born in Minneapolis and I have lived on the south side my whole life.

I grew up a block from Barton, where I went to school, where my kids go to school, where, as a parent, I am still very involved.

As a kid I loved exploring outside. I was into rocks at a very young age. One of my favorite things to do when I was really little, before I could go anywhere on my own, was to look at the stucco of the houses on my block. We lived near Lake Harriet. There was so much nature there. There was a great big hill near my house and all us kids used to play there together without adult supervision. We felt very safe.

My dad used to take me rock hunting at a gravel pit near Osseo, when that area was still country. (It’s a first ring suburb now). I loved the baked smell of the biosphere. You don’t get that in the city. We searched for agates. My dad said I had eagle eyes for agates. That always made me feel good. He is the one who got me interested in science.

Dad is a house painter, in his 70s now and still working. He says “motion is lotion.” He knows if he stops he won’t start again. He grew up on 36th and Garfield. His mother was a union activist in the servers union at a fancy hotel down town and his father worked in an adding machine company. Dad went to Central high school. He was in the Painter’s union when he was younger.

My mom was a media specialist for the Minneapolis Public Schools until she got hit by a car. I got the call on the first day of school during my second year of teaching. She quit after that.

I grew up with one brother — five years younger than me. About four years ago I found out I have another brother. My mothers first child. He was adopted when my mom was in her early 20s. I have never met him. I want to, but we need to buy haircuts, food, a car. I don’t have any money for the trip right now.

K-12 Schooling, and Finding my People in Uptown.

I went to Barton school from kindergarten to 3rd grade. I was lucky to have Mrs. Finch as a teacher. She was African American. She was very kind. To have an African American teacher was life changing. I had had all white ladies up until that time —- I grew up in privilege — not a lot of diversity — she was really supportive. She knew what life is really like. A lot of people loved Mrs Finch.

Then I went to North Wind Warriors —- a district-wide program for Indian kids in 4 and 5th grade held inside the Seward and then Lyndale schools. I had Mrs. Roberson. She was not a good teacher. One time she was reading a story I got in trouble for closing my eyes and imagining instead of looking at the pictures. They picked us up on little buses. I felt no stigma about those buses. They were cool. I knew we had a special class — we did not mix with the school.

I went back to Barton 6-8 grade. After being crushed by Mrs. Roberson for being creative, I was now instructed to be think on my own. Barton was now an “Open” school, but they had yet to figure out how to guide student’s in the open program. I had a hard time. The principal thought I was selling drugs. I didn’t even know what drugs were.

I went to Regina Catholic school in St.Joan of Arc for one year, and then to Southwest. I didn’t take high school seriously. I could have done better if someone was looking out for me.
I started to get in trouble in Uptown — hanging out with skin heads and punks. Anti Racist Action (ARA) — that was my group. We hung out— we did political stuff too — went to rallies. My boyfriend did more than I did, but that was still my crowd. Among those friends at Southwest I was the only one to graduate from high school.
My identity was formed by anti-racist, punk Uptown. I was not punk myself and I wasn’t a skin head, but that was where I wanted to be — where I found interesting people and I could be myself. I did not fit in Southwest. I fit in with the misfits in Uptown. We all still know each other. Some of their kids have gone to Roosevelt. They are still my connections.

But once I got to college I did not go back. That is when Uptown changed — there was a new library, the greenway, gentrification.

I went to St. Thomas University because I was accepted there. That was another place where there weren’t people of color. I don’t claim to be a Tommy. I had a job, went to college parties, but mostly it was a waste.

I knew I wanted to study science. I thought about pre-med, but I did not like how drugs were being developed. My Plant Biology professor, Chester Wilson accepted me for who I was. We did interesting experiments in his class. I got a Life Science degree and a teaching license in Life Science education. I can teach biology, 9th grade physical science and middle school science.

Idle No More, Native Lives Matter, Leech Lake Council.

I have four children. Avery (14) and Aneila (12) and Biiwan (6) and Tyr (2). When I had three kids and a car and I was able to get involved in a lot of things: Idle No More, my teachers union and the Leech Lake Twin Cities Local Indian Council.

Idle No More was formed in Canada — four women saying we are not going to sit back any more. The movement moved to the U.S. A big part of it was round dancing. If you had a rally you had a round dance, if you shut down traffic you had a round dance. Round dances make community. Everyone holds hands and is looking at each other, having fun and making friends.

No one recruited me to INM. I went on my own, made my own flyers. It broke down because of personalities. People wanting to take ownership over what was going on. The same thing happened to Native Lives Matter.

The person I had best time organizing with was JR Bobick. He is open to other people’s  opinions and brings people into the work. You go hang out with him and he is so positive. We organized together with Idle No More when there was an oil spill in MN. We went to the company headquarters downtown and round danced there on the mall, sang some great songs. We also connected with Save the Kids, organized by Anthony Nocella — until he moved away.

After that we formed our own local chapter of  Native Lives Matter, to mourn and organize against police brutality and missing/ murdered Native woman. I got out of it when I was pregnant with my fourth child. I also wanted to get away from all the drama — especially around people’s native identity, criticizing people for not being Native enough.

A big issue that has arisen recently is how heroin is killing our people. My students tell me how they are involved in Natives Against Heroin. I would love to be involved with them. Maybe when my youngest baby is in day care…..

I became the secretary of the Leech Lake Twin Cities Local Indian Council nine months ago. We have monthly meetings to open communication links between Leech Lake and the tribal members in the Twin Cites. I write the minutes — keep us going. There is a dichotomy between Indigenous people having an oral tradition versus me writing everything down. What I am doing is making sure people who are not there know what is going on. Increasing communication. We talk about heroin —how it is affecting kids, the education our kids need, supporting our elders. All of the work is really political. It is hard to keep out the jealously and ego stuff in order to get stuff done.

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About six years ago  I started a Facebook group for all staff of Minneapolis Public Schools — a place to organize. The union president saw that and asked me to run for secretary of MFT executive board in 2012. I won. I really enjoyed my two-year term — getting involved in how our union works.

Our new union president Michelle Weiss is working on “leveling out our union — so there is less hierarchy. I just said yes to being the assistant steward in my building and running for the MFT executive board. It is an important time to be doing union work. Minnesota is in danger of becoming a Right to Work state. That would be devastating for our union. Fewer members, less clout. People who are not in the union can’t vote on the contract. That is just the beginning of how it would affect us.

Teaching.

I teach urban farming right now at Roosevelt High School. I’m teaching the kids the basics of sustainability. I tell them this is the most important class they will ever take; learning to grow their own food. They hate it when I tell them that.

The food surprises them. They say “I didn’t know cherry tomatoes were so small…” There is no standardized test that goes with my course. That gives me freedom to design my own curriculum. We can go outside. I love the plants. I am learning and teaching indigenous farming. I am signing up for great conferences.

I need to get a car first though..

Its fun, because the kids tell me the school is like a prison — they hate the seating chart, the time limitations. They don’t want to be there…

Does anyone like high school? I just want to be a positive force in their lives, empowering them in anyway I can.

These days, instead of being so involved in social movements outside of work, I am taking it into school. I am planning a Native club. We will have eight meetings a year. I got someone to donate Tanka Bars and Leech Lake is donating wild rice.
I never thought I would love teaching as much as I do this year. In addition to Urban Farming I teach a class with RISE, for 12th grade kids who are in danger of not graduating. I love that as well. I can use positivity to help kids get through, so they can move on to the dreams they have, for after school.

I had a kid yesterday who got his diploma. He came down to see me. We were both so happy.

My principal is great. He supports my course and is excited that I am teaching it. He wants the students to have a voice. He understands we need to deal with white supremacy. After Philando Castile was murdered, he brought it up in a school meeting. He said “I know this makes you uncomfortable..”

I told him “For some of us, bringing it up makes us more comfortable.”

As a white man he has no idea what we go through as people of color and Indigenous people, but he opened the door. He wants to hear how it affects the school. This is different from other places I have taught where the principal did not want to hear it.

But I’m grateful for all my experiences, even those dysfunctional times at other schools. I learned from them. All the work I’ve done inside and outside of work, Leech Lake, Native Lives Matter, I can now use in my classrooms at Roosevelt.

The job I have now is not for first year teachers.

I’m living a good Ojibwa life. I want the best for everyone else. I hope my ego will not be called into question in breaking movements down. We Ojibwe have our Seven Teachings. One of them is humility. I strive for that.

These days when I’m done with work, I stay home with the kids and husband and the house and the dog and the cooking and the dishes and the laundry. The thing I need now is time —to do all this work, and watch the plants grow.

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Minneapolis Project. 

Valérie Déus: Missing New York, Building an Artist’s Life in South Minneapolis

 

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How did I get to Minneapolis? My husband.

I was born in the County of Kings, Brooklyn, Flatbush, New York City.
My world was big but felt small. Everyone I had contact with was Haitian. Until third grade I thought all Black people were from Haiti.

Young Haitians I meet now tell me  “you sound like my grandma.” I don’t know the young slang because my neighborhood was made up of people who left Haiti in the 1970s — a middle class diaspora. There was one older woman of Irish descent who lived in my building. She had polio braces. She told me, “there used to be lots of us here, now there’s just me.”  I used to run up and ask her questions.

I started writing when I was 5 years old. I still have my kindergarten diary. So much of it is funeral plans. I was obsessed with preparing for my own funeral — the sweater I would need — the scarf. I also made a list of things I would need in the event of a hurricane. None of the Noreasters that hit New York when I was little were bad, but I knew about hurricanes in Haiti. I packed a bag with a flashlight, underwear, shirts. My mom found it and asked, Where are you going?

I first visited Haiti when I was three. My mom tells me at the airport the ticket person called my name, testing to see if I was who she said I was, making sure I wasn’t being kidnapped.

When I was six I went again. It was intense. Hot. Big, scary looking trees with shadows that looked like creatures that might eat me.  There was a hurricane when I was there — water everywhere, houses shaking.  There were these giant holes in the streets where all the sewage and water would run. Even at six I wondered, why don’t they fix this? Won’t people fall in? We went to a movie on that trip. I was upset they didn’t sell popcorn. People chewed gum. I don’t remember the movie much. Something with French aristocrats — lots of velvet.

At that young age I was already going to movies with my uncle. One of the earliest I remember is King Kong with Jessica Lange.

My parents let me watch TV sometimes so I could, “learn about my country,”  something they couldn’t teach me, but they worried about me watching too much.  They wanted me to read books.  When I was left alone in the summer they would disconnect the TV wires. I would spend the day trying to figure out how to rewire them. My mother would check the TV to see if it was hot.

I watched everything: Abbot and Costello, Laurel and Hardy, The Honeymooners, fantasy, horror and countless Woody Allen movies —Anne Hall, Sleeper, movies without Black people.  They were always on TV for some reason.IMG_2965 2

Reading Highlights Magazine, the Goofus and Gallent comic was a favorite. 

I had to wait a long time before I had a friend. My sister is 10 years younger. Once she came along it was awesome. Together we were unstoppable.  She didn’t tattle. She knew how to keep a secret. (My mother said the same about her siblings. Sisters and brothers kept each other company.) I brought her with me to all of my high school events and beach parties. She kept me out of trouble. I could always say I had to bring my little sister home. A good excuse.IMG_2968 2

 

School 

From kindergarten to 3rd grade I went to Holy Innocents,a Catholic school in the neighborhood.  The church was across the street from the school. One of priests had a pet snake. We would go visit the snake. He passed a long time ago. He was awesome. It was a good school. I used to want to get married in that church. But then when I got married I decided not to do church at all.

From 3rd to 7th grade I went to a French school in Manhattan with UN kids. There was a big class difference there. I met students from Haiti and the African continent. I am still friends with many of them.

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My family moved to Queens and I went to high school on Long Island. That was terrible. I just waited for college so I could get back to the city. Watching the Scaramucci scandal play out this summer triggered me, bringing up memories of horrible sexual harassment and bullying in high school. I had buried those memories.  I forgot, but my body remembered. I told my husband about it. Now he knows why I flinch when when he comes up to me without announcing himself — a defense mechanism from high school.

I was desperate to get back to the City. I went to PACE University in downtown Manhattan. It was everything I was waiting for.  I was smart enough to make friends with the international students. Now I have people to stay with all over the world. My mom was really against me moving into the dorms, but I needed that. I was worried I would not be able to live alone.

My mother worked for this child psychologist so I thought that’s what I’d do. I registered for a psych class where we were required to watch the film Altered States, about a guy losing it after time in an isolation tank.  It was disturbing. And reading Carl Jung was so boring. I quit psychology.  Today I often take the role of counselor for my students and friends. Without Jung.

Becoming a Writer and Teacher

I liked hearing and telling stories. I became an English major.

While in college I interned at Soho Press and met Edwidge Danticat.  Her first book Breath, Eyes, Memory, had just come out. She called the office one day and I answered. We’ve kept in touch ever since. She recommended I go to Long Island University, the Brooklyn campus, for graduate school. I took her advice as gospel, never thought to apply any where else.

I loved being in school. I didn’t want to be a teacher. My only teaching experience at that time was CCD communion class — sixth graders on a Saturday morning, there because their parents made them, a curriculum I couldn’t change, no room for questioning the content. It was terrible.

Teaching as a graduate student was totally different. Everyone was grown and wanted to be there.  They did the reading and they wrote papers I wanted to read. I discovered I enjoyed teaching.  Student were reactive. There work was clear.

Teaching in Minneapolis is different. There is something self-effacing about the culture. Students feel like what they have to say is not important. Once they are pushed to talk it’s great. In New York they needed no pushing. I would tell people to write a paper about why they missed class. Even those papers were interesting.

I’d rather not teach on-line. It feels make believe. You’ve gotta be in the room and feel that heat when you say something wrong — sit in that embarrassment. Those moments push you into places you didn’t even think of going.

Escaping New York after 9/11. 

I have trauma from 9/11. I was dating someone who died that day — not at the Twin Towers.

All the phone lines were down.

That morning I picked up my sister at school and we went to the hotel where my mom worked. Micheal Jackson’s limo was in front of the hotel. His fans were gathered twenty feet in front me. I didn’t see him, but I saw his hands.  I looked down the street and saw dust rising. It was the most surreal American moment.

That night my boyfriend’s father told me his son — who had sickle cell anemia — had died.

I had just started grad school. I didn’t go to class for two weeks. Everyone was miserable — out in the streets — people crying.  I was working in D.U.M.B.O. The World Trade Center was right out the window — a smoky pit.

I thought — I can’t live in this cemetery.  I decided to take a trip to Poland to see a friend. The day I bought the plane ticket, flight 587 to the Dominican Republic crashed.

It was good to be in Poland, where I didn’t understand anybody. Just what I needed. I thought I might move there. I did research about the Poles who came with Napoleon  to fight against the Haitian Revolution in 1802, got to the island, decided they liked it and stayed. I was looking for a Polish/Haitian connection to justify my moving plans.

I had a neo-Nazi experience in Poland. I saw these skin heads moving in formation, went into a store and asked the saleswoman if she thought I should stay there. She said yes. I believed her and stayed over an hour, bought some amber jewelry,  until they left.

It made me realize anything could happen anywhere.

I met my husband-to-be in New York. He couldn’t get a job he wanted so he came back to Minneapolis, where he grew up. I thought, well I guess I like him enough to follow. I figured if I don’t like it I can always come back — that is what my parents always told me. I landed in Minneapolis on July 5, 2005 and went immediately to Dunn Brothers to look for a job. I always thought of living here as temporary.

A lot of my moving to Minneapolis was about escaping 9/11.  I needed to get out of that space. New York City sometimes feels like a small town. Sometimes that is stifling. I thought I could come here and start over where no one knows me. Nobody still knows me. Even my husband doesn’t know me, ha.

 

Minnesota Nice 

Nice can be nice.
I’m not against nice.
Maybe I am.

I want people to tell me what is happening. At work there is always someone trying to make everyone feel OK. A lot of time is taken up, but nothing is produced. I think, Its not OK. Let’s deal with what is.

I never had a problem meeting people before I moved here. In New York I was always meeting new people. People are much more open to that newness. Here people like the old reliable. If I stuck with old-reliable in New York I’d never talk to anybody. As an adult I was one of the few native New Yorkers I knew!

I don’t know how to approach people here. I don’t understand the body language. I never thought it would wear me down. I spend a lot of time at home. I feel like I have only a limited amount of patience and I want to spend it on things that are clear.

I never get to have a full map of a person here, because nobody tells you anything about themselves.

Sometimes I think about moving home to New York. It was busy and awesome. Then I realize I’m thinking about how New York was, when I was in my 20s. It’s frustrating when I go back. I’m 43 now.

An Artist’s Life in Minneapolis 

There are many things that keep me here, opportunities I would not have in New York. In NYC I had no time for anything except teaching and commuting.

I have a radio show, Project 35, on KRSM  98.9 FM.  It airs at 9am on Thursday and 10am on Saturdays. Part of the Southside media project.  I like that nobody listens to it. I’m weird, I know. I can say anything. I think of it as an eclectic magazine for your ears.

I curate Cinema Lounge — screening short films at Bryant Lake Bowl that are locally made, third Wednesdays of the month. (Send me your short films!)

I produce an Art Zine: We Here.

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Valérie’s first issue of We Here — just out — is filled with exquisite work by South Minneapolis artists. The free Zine is a hard love gift to the city. Look for it in your closest Little Free Library 

My goal is to publish one a year— essays, poems, rants, Instagram posts, photography, things people write on Facebook that should be in books. Somebody did a project where they mapped them all out the Little Free Libraries. I’m using that map to distribute them.

Radio, print, film, my own work. I have chosen an artist’s life. Minneapolis allows me to do it.

We live in the Central neighborhood in South Minneapolis.  Its been good. My mother came here and she liked it. She knew I was OK.

I have a tendency to want to flee things, but I will probably stay here. Starting over at this point would be too hard. I can’t imagine doing it again. I wish more of my people were here. I wish we had soft-serve ice cream trucks here. I can’t believe how sad it makes me. Those unsanitary New York ice cream trucks are something I miss.

 

Minneapolis Project.