Queen City’s Indigenous voice

Within Western society, the Native American population tends to be viewed along an all-or-nothing continuum. Either a state has a significant Native population with an abundance of reservations, or they don’t exist. The Urban Native Collective affirms that the Tribal Nations that once called Ohio home were forcefully removed when the Trail of Tears forced a mass Native migration to Oklahoma and other states west of the Mississippi.

According to Briana Mazzolini-Blanchard, Executive Director for Urban Native Collective, the area’s population of Native Americans, Pacific Islanders, and Alaska Native ancestry totals approximately 35,000, or roughly 1.5% of area residents. The group also engages the local Mexican, Central and South American population, which increases the number of individuals it potentially represents to about 98,000.

Mazzolini-Blanchard is Native CHamoru, Indigenous to the island nation of the United States territory of Guam. She became the executive director in spring of 2023 and spearheaded the revitalization of Urban Native Collective’s Northside headquarters. Its entirely Indigenous board of directors includes a mix of national members and local residents.

Thanks to a vibrant colored exterior mural that was painted by Apache Skateboards, a collective of Arizona Indigenous artists, the Collective’s front door provides considerable curb appeal. Inside, tapestries and artwork provide an organic sense of place and purpose that reflect a balance of pride and openness.

“It was a home base, but to be honest, it was dingy and not a place the organization was really proud of,” Mazzolini-Blanchard said. “We decided to make it a gathering space for not only our population, but for the whole community.”

The Collective leaned into purchasing books to build a lending library – anyone is welcome to walk in and check out materials for two weeks -- with an array of historical, fiction, and academically-oriented titles that provide insights into Indigenous culture that were often minimized or bypassed in history textbooks.

“People are in very different places in their knowledge and awareness of North American Indigenous history,” she said. “It’s important to be able to meet people where they are with information.”

Mazzolini-Blanchard was hesitant to position herself as a spokesperson for the local Indigenous population: “We’re not a monolith; we’ve come to where we are in our lives from remarkably diverse experiences and perspectives. We strive to understand where our people are and how we can best support them.”

One successful venture has been its Urban Garden Project, which maintains two plots within Gorman Heritage Farm in Evendale. The Collective has primarily planted a “three sisters” garden, which includes the Native staples of corn, squash, and beans, as well as potatoes and radishes, among other crops. Mazzolini-Blanchard noted that the garden provided essential sustenance for 35 to 40 families in need.

Politically, the Collective’s primary points of advocacy are land and water protection. The organization is a proponent of the Ohio Native Land Initiative, which, according to the Collective’s website, seeks to establish a broader platform to promote Indigenous perspectives on sacred sites, encourage land rematriation efforts, and assert Native sovereignty as foundational to some of the region’s most important natural resources and public spaces.”

Another important facet of Collective outreach is its podcast, “Life on the Margins: An Urban Native Experience.” Mazzolini-Blanchard co-hosts the program with Homer Shadowheart, the Collective’s office manager, with rotating guests. Recorded at the Playhouse in the Park, it premiered on May 1 with the topic, “Working in White Spaces as Marginalized Individuals”, which addressed the interpersonal challenges, microaggressions and tokenism that are a common experience for many minorities in majority-white workplaces. Other topics covered on the podcast, which typically drops once a month and is available on Spotify, Amazon Music, Apple Podcast, Google Podcast and Podbean app, include  Decolonizing Mental Health, which focuses on being respectful of Indigenous perspectives when working to enhance an individual’s emotional and psychological wellbeing, and Laughter is Medicine, which covers Native American representation and the cultural appropriation that all too often happens with mass entertainment. Mazzolini-Blanchard noted that Life on the Margins: An Urban Native Experience currently ranks among the top 25% of podcasts on the available streaming services.

Mazzolini-Blanchard noted that, for organizations such as the Collective, success is measured within a nontraditional framework: “Success is a colonial concept by nature. For us to be successful, it’s important to lift up our entire community, putting listening and serving at the forefront.”

Native American cycles to the cultural forefront when a major Hollywood movie, such as Killers of the Flower Moon, gains attention (and Oscar nominations). That Killers contained no “white savior” character (quite the opposite) nor cultural appropriation (Shadowheart, also an actor and comedian, rightly noted the ridiculousness of Johnny Depp playing Tonto in the most recent Lone Ranger movie) reflects some measure of progress. However, it doesn’t begin to undo the injustices levied upon the Indigenous population. Through a number of grassroots-level support and education initiatives, the Urban Native Collective is serving an often overlooked population.
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Read more articles by Steve Aust.

Steve is a freelance writer and editor, father, and husband who enjoys cooking, exercise, travel, and reading. A native of Fort Thomas who spent his collegiate and early-adulthood years in Georgia, marriage brought him across the river, where he now resides in Oakley.