Allison's Book Bag

Interview with Cheryl Minnema

Posted on: April 6, 2015

CherylMinnemaA beadwork artist and a writer, Cheryl Minnema was born in 1973 in Minneapolis, the youngest of six children. By the time Minnema was ten, she had watched her mother applique many belts, capes, hair ties, moccasins, and vests. From the selection of materials to the details of sewing flowers, Minnema “learned that quality lies within the patience of the bead worker”.

After sixth grade, Minnema herself transferred from grade school to a tribal school. When Minnema’s seventh-grade English teacher encouraged her to submit her work to a contest, her essay about her grandmother’s life and crafts won first prize. Minnema has written poetry most of her life and has had her poetry published.

A real-life Johnny, Minnema’s younger brother, was the inspiration for her picture book, Hungry Johnny. Like the young boy in her book, Cheryl’s little brother used to run into the kitchen, just about to snatch something to eat. His grandmother would stop him with the reminder that the food was for a ceremony and had to be blessed first and that at the event, elders get served before anyone else. Minnema finds similarities between poetry and picture books, in that one has a limited amount of space.

Even before Minnema found a publisher, her story of Hungry Johnny proved to be a winner. She entered it in a 2012 competition at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis and won some critiquing time.

Besides from having her first children’s book published, Minnema has just completed her first year at Hamline University of her Master of Fine Arts. Minnema hopes one day to teach creative writing courses for young adults.

Thanks to Cheryl Minnema for agreeing to and providing such an interesting interview. Tomorrow I’ll return to review Hungry Johnny. Save the date: April 7!

ALLISON: Describe a typical childhood day.

CHERYL: I was an outdoor girl, playing outside in the woods mostly. Those woods near our home on the Mille Lacs Reservation opened my mind to many different make-believe worlds. My favorite was an uprooted oak tree; it’s roots standing over six feet. I used to talk with the little people who lived within the compacted dirt, trying to help them figure out what to do once the dirt fell away, exposing the inner roots of their world. I was very close with my grandmother, Omadwe. Here is a poem I had written about a typical day with her.

Turtle Heart

I was nine years old in the back yard with
grandma and a snapping turtle.

“Wewiib,” Hurry she said.

In my hand, she put a quartered turtle heart,
bloody, still beating.

“Miijin,” Eat she said.

I plugged my nose; put the heart w-a-y back
on my tongue and swallowed, with lots of water
I swallowed and swallowed.

Running through the house calling out to mom,
“Why did I just eat a quartered turtle heart?”

“Grandma said it will make you strong.”

“Oh, Okay.”
And off I went to the honking school bus,
on a Monday in September.

ALLISON: What is a memorable moment from your teens?

CHERYL: Graduating from Nay Ah Shing Tribal School at seventeen was by far one of my most treasured memories. My mom, Zhaawan made me a buckskin dress with a black velvet beaded cape. My grandmother made my moccasins and I beaded my leggings. Dancing into the high school gym for graduation marked a time in my life where I began to really believe in the possibilities of accomplishment.

ALLISON: What do you like about beadwork?

CHERYL: My collection of beads is like a collection of random words (my journals) sitting on my shelf waiting to be combined, waiting for me to create something worth sharing. Like words, I enjoy playing with the freedom to use space. When I sew, I am putting my thoughts into those beads and the flow of each design gives those thoughts a new home. It’s a neat idea to think of my smaller items of beadwork as poems and my larger pieces (bandolier bags) as novels. For example after my mother passed away, I spent a year making a bandolier bag with her favorite color of beads and only used her favorite flower throughout the entire piece. With the thoughts I put into the beads, this bandolier bag could be like a memoire of my mother.

ALLISON: Why do you blend traditional and contemporary styles in your beadwork?

CHERYL: I grew up making traditional style dance regalia, which consisted of realistic floral beadwork from the woodlands area. As I got older and began to accept my role as an individual artist, my work opened up to some of my own ideas. I like to take realistic flowers and add my own pedals, leaves and vines to create something new. For me, contemporary beadwork is much like writing creative non-fiction.

ALLISON: What is one Ojibwe tradition that you are happy to see survive? What is one that you’ve been sad to see fade or disappear?

CHERYL: There are so many traditions that are a part of our lives today, but one in particular that makes me happy is how we were raised with our cousins and how we were taught our first cousins are like brothers and sisters. Having lost a lot of my immediate core family including my parents and three siblings, this tradition has helped me not feel so alone in the world.

ALLISON: Why do you like to write?

CHERYL:  I started out writing when I was about twelve years old. For many years, I didn’t necessarily think of myself as a writer; I wrote because I had to. I kept a detailed journal, wrote short stories and poems about my life and about people.

ALLISON: You wrote an essay in school about your grandmother and now have written a story about your younger brother. What about telling family stories is important to you? What advice would you have for others who want to capture family life in a tangible format?

CHERYL: I grew up within a traditional Ojibwe family, experiencing what at times felt like two different worlds. At home we harvested many different kinds of natural resources, attended ceremonies, dances, and were a close extended family. Going to a public elementary school where my life seemed to only be a part of some chapter of a history book, I didn’t feel comfortable.

Being with my family is what made me happy. I love writing about them, because they are interesting and so funny. As an adult, it doesn’t feel like two different worlds any more. We have one world and I enjoy sharing what I thought was a whole different world. My advice to others in wanting to share their family stories is to actually do it and then work on polishing up the outcome, no matter what format. I hear a lot of people talk about their stories and dream of sharing them in a tangible format, but then don’t. It felt overwhelming when I first started writing stories, but it got easier when I learned how other writers didn’t just sit down one day and write the book we see on the shelf. Hungry Johnny has a file box full of drafts and when condensed, it’s probably a three-page story.

ALLISON: What do you hope will appeal about Hungry Johnny to those outside of the Ojibwe culture?

CHERYL: As Ojibwe people, we are still here. We live contemporary lives with a beautifully rooted culture. In sharing parts of my culture through writing, it is my hope that children outside the Ojibwe culture will identify with the universal themes being presented and with the right balance, learn a little about Ojibwe tradition, family relations, and of course, our sense of humor.

ALLISON: What has been the reaction to Hungry Johnny by those within the Ojibwe culture?

CHERYL: The book is a gift to our own children. It gives them the opportunity to pick up a storybook and not only see themselves, but also identify with the story’s setting.

ALLISON: What’s next?

CHERYL: The second Johnny book has been submitted to my publisher with a working title, Johnny’s Pheasant.

I’m in the middle of a young adult novel where the main character is a fourteen-year-old Ojibwe girl from the reservation and struggling to come out as a lesbian.

In writing poetry for adults, I have one manuscript currently looking for a home and I’m in the middle of another manuscript, which will also include my photography.

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