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Sandra Hale Schulman

Special to Indian Country Today

The Minnesota-based McKnight Foundation has announced the selection of author, poet, playwright and activist Marcie Rendon, White Earth Anishinaabe Nation, for its 2020 Distinguished Artist Award.

This annual selection comes with $50,000 and was created to honor a Minnesota artist who has made significant contributions to the state’s cultural life.

Rendon grew up in Minnesota and is the author of poems, plays, children’s books and novels that explore the resilience and brilliance of Native peoples. She is the first Native American woman to receive the Distinguished Artist Award, launched in 1996.

“Marcie brings a strong and necessary voice to so many genres,” said Pamela Wheelock, interim president of the family foundation. “She has created a tremendous body of work, including poetry, plays, lyrics and award-winning crime novels, all while raising up other Native voices in our community.”

Rendon is the author of the award-winning Cash Blackbear mystery series that is set in Minnesota’s Red River Valley. The first in the series, “Murder on the Red River,” earned the 2018 Pinckley Prize for Debut Novel, and the second, “Girl Gone Missing,” was nominated for the Mystery Writers of America–G. P. Putnam’s Son’s Sue Grafton Memorial Award.

“I started writing crime novels because that is what I liked reading the most to entertain myself,” Rendon says by phone from her home in Minnesota. “It was a way to tell an interesting story that readers would want to read.”

Rendon, who is at work on her third novel in the series, is also the author of four nonfiction children’s books, including “Powwow Summer” (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2013).

Marcie Rendon (Photo by Jaida Grey Eagle)

Rendon’s plays include “Sweet Revenge,” chosen for the Oklahoma Indigenous Theatre Company’s 2020 New Native American Play Festival. She has also curated and produced a variety of Native-focused performances at the History Theatre, the Minnesota Fringe Festival and Patrick’s Cabaret. She is founder of Raving Native Theater, a platform that brings voice and visibility to other Native American artists and performers.

“My writing is about what I know. As a Native people, we are more resilient than we are traumatized,” said Rendon. “Art keeps us thriving, not just surviving. I try to make room for other Native artists. Every time someone steps forward, it makes room for others to step forward.”

Rendon’s poem “What’s an Indian Woman to Do?” will appear in the upcoming Norton Anthology of Native Nations Poetry titled “When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through.”

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Rendon’s poem “Resilience” is also included in U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo’s digital project “Living Nations, Living Words: A Map of First Peoples Poetry,” which will join the permanent collection of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.

As for her daily life as a writer, it has changed a little during the pandemic.

“I try and write about 2,000 to 3,000 words a day, but it’s challenging to work at my home office lately with kids and grandkids all here,” she said. “I rarely get a solid chunk of time to sit by myself.”

Aside from her personal writing, Rendon’s time is taken up with outside obligations as she works with many community organizations.

“I have a lot of deadlines with other writing projects and commitments like newspaper articles or year-end reports for groups I work with, so sometimes my own writing gets put off in the corner,” she said. “When I’m not writing, I like to go to the farmer’s markets here with my kids.”

Rendon lives in the Standish neighborhood of Minneapolis with her family, including two granddaughters and a great-granddaughter.

Her other awards include a 2020 Ensemble/Playwright Collaboration Grant from the Network of Ensemble Theaters and the Playwrights’ Center, and a 2020 COVID-19 artist grant from the Tiwahe Foundation for demonstrating resilience during the pandemic. Rendon was named a 2018 “50 Over 50” honoree by AARP Minnesota and Pollen Midwest and received Loft’s 2017 Spoken Word Immersion Fellowship with poet Diego Vazquez.

Born in northern Minnesota in 1952, Rendon was always a reader, creative writer and poet from an early age. While she was studying criminal justice at Moorhead State College in the early 1970s, she became part of a group of Native student activists who successfully demanded the launch of the university’s first American Indian studies department.

After moving to Minneapolis’ Phillips neighborhood in the late 1970s, she also worked as a counselor and therapist while raising three daughters.

“Marcie has moved fluidly as an artist, poet, and playwright, with a common thread of working in her community as an essential contributor to our cultural ecosystem,” said Sandy Agustin, a member of the Distinguished Artist Award selection committee. “Whether she is writing about boarding schools, incarceration or the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women, she is nurturing Native voices and amplifying communities that are too often unheard, especially Native women.”

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Sandra Hale Schulman, Cherokee, has been writing about Native issues since 1994. She is an author of four books, has contributed to shows at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian and has produced three films on Native musicians.

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