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Anishinaabe author, Antioch speaker: 'As long as you're creating, you can't be destroying'

A woman wearing a turquoise long-sleeved shirt stands in front of green plants. The sun is shining on her face.
Molly Miles | McKnight Foundation
Marcie Rendon

Marcie Rendon spoke at Antioch College’s 2024 graduation ceremony on June 22.

Rendon is a Native American playwright, poet, author and community arts activist based in Minneapolis. She is an enrolled member of the White Earth Nation in Minnesota.

Rendon will release three books this year — a children’s book, a crime novel and her first published poetry collection.

WYSO’s Indigenous Affairs reporter Adriana Martinez-Smiley spoke with Rendon about her work, identity and career.

(This interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.)

Adriana Martinez-Smiley: What first drew you to the arts?

Marcie Rendon: I think that as Native people, we are always creative. There's something about always making things — I remember really, really young, my mother and her dad making red willow baskets because she was saving money to buy a sewing machine.

I remember her sewing and making clothes that she would exhibit at the county fair. There was always something being made all the time. And I think that I learned early on the importance of creating. I really think as long as you're creating, you can't be destroying.

Martinez-Smiley: I know the way that you practice art tends to be through writing. So could you talk about the power of expression for you through writing? 

Rendon: I mean, I was a troublemaker in school. The teacher would let me sit and write little books that I would illustrate. And I think it was a way to keep me out of trouble. But as I got older, I found that by writing — particularly poetry — it was a way to write out my feelings and to keep myself somewhat balanced and in charge of my life

No one told me that I could grow up and be a writer. And so it was years and years later that I made the decision to actually seek publication with my writing. But I've been writing since I first learned how, and just stuffing it in drawers or keeping notebooks of things that I'd written.

Martinez-Smiley: I know you are a member of the White Earth Anishinaabe Nation. Could you talk about how this identity shows up in your work?

Rendon: It's in everything that I do. When it's internal to who you are, you're not necessarily aware that this is what you're doing. It's just there. So the stories that I write, the plays that I create, the poetry that I write, it comes from who I am as a person, the life that I've lived, and the lives that I've seen the people around me live.

I've tried to write things that have nothing to do with Native-ness and failed because it always kind of seeps in there in some kind of way. When they tell you to write what you know, and what you know is who you are. So I don't separate myself from the things that I create or write.

Martinez-Smiley: I was reading that you are anticipating coming out with a few new works this year. Would you like to discuss these pieces? 

Rendon: So I’m coming out with a poetry book titled "Anishinaabe Songs for the New Millennium," and it comes out July 16. It's a collection of very, very short, what I call "dream poems," "song poems." They're almost like haiku, but they're patterned after our traditional Ojibwe songs. And it's an entirely new kind of work than what people are used to hearing from me, because typically I do in-your-face spoken word poetry. But this is an entirely different kind of work — these short two line pieces that create images in people's minds.

In September, I’ll come out with a standalone crime novel about three women whose home community is being impacted by oil pipeline workers and the drugs and trafficking that come along with that industry.

And in October, I have a children's picture book called "Stitches of Tradition." And that’s about a grandmother who's sewing ribbon skirts for her granddaughter.

Martinez-Smiley: You are renowned for your work and you've received numerous awards recognizing the impact that you've created as an artist. What's the biggest lesson you would say you've learned while navigating your career trajectory and journey? 

Rendon: It's important to do what you love. I love creating pictures and creating characters that impact and create worlds for people. And I love having the capacity to do that. Where, if I'm trying to force myself into this square box over here doing this 9-to-5 job with somebody else telling me what to do, I would go a little crazy. But doing what I love and figuring out how to make a living doing it has been really important to me.

I was just talking to another woman here from campus. And one of the things I said was: “I think with the world in its current situation, what we need is the ability and the capacity to think flexibly because so many things are changing so fast." Whether it's through school or our parents or the churches or the communities around us, we're encouraged to fit in this square box. Maybe that worked at one point in history. But I think it's really important that we develop the capacity to be flexible, to do the things that feed us, because only when we're well fed can we take care of others or be of service to others. So somehow, all of that is probably what I've learned or relearned or nurtured by having this writing career.

Adriana Martinez-Smiley (she/they) is the Environment and Indigenous Affairs Reporter for WYSO. They grew up in Hamilton, Ohio and graduated from Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism in June 2023. Before joining WYSO, her work has been featured in NHPR, WBEZ and WTTW.

Email: amartinez-smiley@wyso.org
Cell phone: 937-342-2905