Woman-Made, Nature-Inspired: Mary Annette Pember

In honor of Women’s History Month, Great Parks is celebrating seven local women writers who find creative inspiration from the natural world around them.

The views and opinions expressed in the interview are those of the artist and do not represent the views or positions of Great Parks.

Mary Annette Pember

Meet Mary Annette Pember, journalist

Great Parks: Can you tell us a little bit about you and your work?

Mary Annette Pember: I’m Wisconsin Ojibwe. Red Cliff Ojibwe from Wisconsin – I sort of ended up here in Cincinnati over 20 years ago now. So I’m almost kind of from here. I started as a newspaper photographer and, a long time ago, I worked at a Gannett paper. I was transferred here to the Cincinnati Enquirer and didn’t really spend very much time there. Ended up that my husband had gotten a job here at Northern Kentucky University with tenure track. So we ended up with our connection here. This is back in the day when newspapers had money and would move you, and they had staff photographers, and so on, so I did that for about 15 years. I had always, in my career, wanted to write. I did editorial journalism in college, and my daughter, who is an adult, was diagnosed with autism, and I really needed to—after I left newspapering and started freelancing, I needed to stay home. So I started writing.

And dang, if they didn’t pay me. Since about the early 2000s, that’s what I’ve been doing, and slowly have been blessed to be successful, at least in so much as I’m gainfully employed.

GP: Initially, what inspired you to become a journalist?

MAP: I always wrote, before I could really spell or even speak very well. One of my first memories was sitting under the kitchen table in our house, I had older brothers quite a bit older than me, and my family would often spell if they didn’t want me to know what was going on, which I hated. I had little thick black crayons and I would write underneath the table. They did teach me to write my name, but then I would make like little symbols about what was going on. I would be under there and they would forget about me. So I’ve always written.

GP: So you started young.

MAP: Yeah, really young. Yeah.

GP: So you mentioned you were a photographer before you were a writer. Is there a difference in your approach when you’re capturing truth through photos rather than with words?

MAP: You know, for me, there really isn’t that much. It’s all storytelling. I often thought of photography as concentrated words. I was still telling a story. I mean, I was making art and telling a story when I was doing photography. I didn’t necessarily tell the editor that, but that’s really what I was doing, always. It’s just the same sort of structure, at least to me.

GP: So the philosophy behind taking pictures to tell a story and writing words to tell a story are essentially the same?

MAP: Yes.

GP: You often cover the challenges that face native communities. For Women’s History Month, how can we celebrate native women?

MAP: Read our words, that’s good. Maybe learn a little something about history. There are books you could read. People don’t like to do that, though. People frequentlyget a camera and say oh, I want to take all these really good photos, but I don’t want to be bothered with learning all that stuff about F stops and apertures and so on. Or I want to learn to be a really great artist, but I don’t want to study life drawing or I don’t want to study anatomy or anything. In the community of responsible adults, we have to actually do some reading, a little bit of study.

GP: Switching gears a little bit, we read a lot of your work in preparation for this and in the 2019 article covering the Bayou Bridge pipeline, there is a quote that stuck out to me in there: “According to my tribe, the Ojibwe, human beings are not essential to the Earth’s survival, but the Earth is essential to ours.”

Could you speak a little bit more on how your native heritage influences your environmental reporting?

MAP: There’s actually a great lesson from a non-native guy. His name is George Seielstad, who’s an Earth scientist, and one of the things that he’s done is taken a great deal of inspiration from native people. For Native people, we are a part of, not apart from, the Earth, and I think remembering that kind of essential humility, if you will, that if we were to vanish from the face of the Earth, the Earth would be fine. What depends upon us exclusively to live? Maybe dead bugs, I think? They come to mind. They feed on us exclusively, and then maybe there would be some things in our microbiome that may feed on us exclusively, but I bet they might be able to adapt. So that’s a really important thing to remember.

GP: In the geologic time scale, everything will even out in the end.

MAP: There are many prophecies in the Ojibwe world view about life ending as we know it. I was talking to a cousin of mine. She said it doesn’t mean that all of life will end, its life as we know it that will potentially change. I think having that real understanding and realization that we are just a part of this great march forward towards whatever it is we’re marching towards, you know?

GP: In your opinion, what impact does journalism have in the world of conservation?

MAP: Well, if people actually read, it could have an impact, it brings stuff up. Sometimes it’s so strange to be a journalist. Sometimes you’ll labor over something and you’ll just think, “God, this is happening. This is really a profound piece I’ve written, it has a great implications.”

And it will just land like pfft, nothing. Nobody responds. And then you’ll kind of wrack something off and you don’t really give it a lot of thought. Oh my God. Everyone reads it. A lot of things are dependent upon what’s going on in the news cycle. There are so many things.

In a way, it’s super spiritual work. One wants to be accurate, and that’s a really key element of journalism. You want to be accurate, but beyond that, I don’t know how much control you really have over the impact of the stuff that you do. There’s a lot of factors at play.

GP: Are there any projects right now that you’re currently working on that you’re really excited about?

MAP: Well, I just took a year off to do a book about my family’s boarding school experience and the impact on our family. My mother’s boarding school experience. All the people on her side of the family are boarding school survivors. I had an editor who once told me, “Mary you were born to write this book.”

It was this quest that was handed to me as a child. My early bedtime stories were about the sister school my mother went to, a Catholic Indian boarding school. She always told me stories about the sister school. I got a draft out, but I haven’t heard back. I took a year off, and I’m really hoping there’s not a whole lot of changes because I’m doing a lot of other stuff right now.

More boarding school work about deaths at boarding schools: far more deaths than are buried at the cemeteries. They actually sent sick children home to die, and not only did they die, but once home, they made everybody else sick. And the chief illness was tuberculosis, which was one of the major killers among Native American people in the last 30 years of the 19th century.

I found a fantastic researcher who has done some very good research for his dissertation about this. What I came to is, you look at from 1816 till 1900, the Native population reduced by more than one third. One of the primary drivers was tuberculosis, and the tuberculosis was introduced by children in boarding schools who brought it home.

GP: Is there a difference in the way you’re approaching writing a book that features a lot of personal experience and family history as opposed to the objectivity required for journalism? What’s that experience been like for you?

MAP: When you are writing a book, you get so locked into being a journalist and just locked into attribution. But when you write a new book, they want you to commit a little literature. I’ve spent all of my career doing journalism. But as a young woman, I wrote stories under the table. I would sharpen a pencil to be really really sharp and I would write little tiny words in my house cussing my family out, write really tiny cuss words. I was an artist expressing myself without concerning myself with other people understanding it. It was really fun.

GP: It’s the difference between a personal truth and an external truth. But it’s both truth, right? In the end it’s the pursuit of and the broadcasting of the truth.

MAP: They’re different types of fun. It’s all fun for me. If it isn’t fun to me—and of course my children are always upset about my idea of fun—but if it isn’t fun, I’m really not interested in doing it. I’m at a point now where if I don’t think it’s fun, I just don’t do it.

GP: There you go. I respect that. Well, thank you so much for joining us today and chatting for a little bit.

MAP: Thank you so much.

Mary Annette Pember is one of the local artists whose artwork will be on display at Instinct: Woman-Made, Nature-Inspired, a nature-themed art show happening March 22 & 23 at Fernbank Park.

Jack Fogle
Nature Interpreter, Miami Whitewater Forest