The Ostracon: Dispatches from Beyond Contemporary Art’s Center, an arts writing site by Nicole J. Caruth and Paul Schmelzer, looks at figures and ideas outside the mainstream of contemporary art—from public policy, indigenous rights, and folklore to community organizing, historic preservation, environmental science, journalism, and food justice—that may offer insight into new forms of making art that are more responsive, relevant, and connected to the way we live now as individuals and communities. Taking its name from the pottery shards used in ancient Athens when voting to ostracize community members, the site aims to celebrate, instead of push out, voices from art’s periphery.

Bulbancha Forever: From NOLA to Minneapolis, a movement to revitalize Indigenous names grows

In their practice of “one-word activism,” Jeffery Darensbourg and artist Ozone504 have been working to revive usage of Bulbancha, the Choctaw name for New Orleans since well before the city’s founding some 300 years ago. Their efforts prompt a broader look at Indigenous naming and what it can teach us in fractious times.

Graffiti in Bulbancha. Photo: Jeffery Darensbourg.

When Jeffery Darensbourg moved to New Orleans several years ago, one of the first things he did was look up the city’s Indigenous name. A writer, researcher, and enrolled member of the Atakapa-Ishak Nation of Southwest Louisiana and Southeast Texas, Darensbourg grew up in Baton Rouge and, while his birth certificate identifies him as “Negro,” he is Creole. But people usually assume he’s white. Some of his ancestors lived here in what is now called the United States, while others came from Europe and Africa. He’s traced his last name to a forebear named Karl von Arensberg (later changed to Charles D’Arensbourg), a man “of Swedish, German, Polish, Jewish extraction” who came from what is now Szczecin, Poland to Louisiana in 1722. His son later married a Native woman. For a guy who says he’s ethnically “a mixture of things,” Darensbourg’s adopted hometown has a fitting name.

“It took me 10 minutes online, and I found it in the first ever Choctaw dictionary by Allen Wright, who was a Choctaw chief in the 19th century.” Before the French founded the city in 1718, naming it after Phillip II, the Duke of Orléans (a man who, Darensbourg says, never set foot in the city), the area was called Bulbancha. But while many Indigenous place names reference sensory experience, the most defining characteristic of Bulbancha, it would seem, was human interaction. The name nods to the mixing of cultures, the languages spoken by the area’s many residents—tribes including the Biloxi, Choctaw, Houma, Natchez, and Tunica, among others, who often communicated in a bridge language, Mobilian Jargon—and economic exchange facilitated by wetlands that served as transit routes for trappers and traders.

Balbancha mentioned in Antoine-Simon Le Page du Pratz’s Histoire de Lousiane, 1758.

In 2014, Darensbourg and his friend, the artist Ozone504, started engaging in what they call “one-word activism,” a project that eventually drove them to revive use of the name Bulbancha. But it wasn’t until 2018, when New Orleans celebrated the 300th anniversary of its founding, that their ideas started gaining traction. As a counter-narrative to the tricentennial, they created a zine to celebrate Indigenous culture in the area, both today and thousands of years before Europeans arrived. Their efforts suggest a broader look at Indigenous naming and the power it holds in reconciling with our past and celebrating the real, and complex, diversity within our communities today.

What’s In a Name?

In Indigenous cultures, “place names tend to describe whatever is uniquely memorable about a particular place,” says Margaret Wickens Pearce (Citizen Potawatomi Nation), a geographer and artist whose Mississippi Dialogues project is creating an Indigenized map of flooding on the Mississippi River. “That may be what is sensed (smelled, heard, seen, tasted) or what we’re obligated to do there (gather berries, look for eggs, wait for the tide) or what happened there (treaty signing place, starving place, dance grounds), and so on.”

Beyond that, they convey history, a connection to ancestors, the earth, and other beings. “Place names remind us of our obligations to each other and our relatives,” she emails. “Place names specify Indigenous rights and responsibilities on land and water. Place names are our ancestors’ speech. When we say them and visit those places, we activate and ruminate on their guidance. Place names are our identities.”

I’ve long been fascinated by the power we ascribe to names (including my own), but my interest in the naming of places was sparked only recently by the writings of Robin Wall Kimmerer, a botanist, bryologist, and enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, and by recent events here in Minneapolis. In her book Braiding Sweetgrass, Kimmerer writes of the “honorable harvest” and our “covenant of reciprocity” with nature, which gifts us our food. “Understand that the lives we are taking are the lives of generous beings, of sovereign beings, and in order to accept their gift we owe them at least our attention. To care for them we must know what they need and, at the very minimum, we should know their names. It’s a sign of respect and connection to learn the name of someone else, a sign of disrespect to ignore it.” And in Gathering Moss, she writes about the importance of knowing the scientific names of plants: “With words at your disposal, you can see more clearly. Finding the words is another step in learning to see.”

Like the lake itself, streets and parkways bearing the name of John C. Calhoun were changed in 2019 to reflect the Minneapolis lake’s Dakota name, Bde Maka Ska. Photo: Paul Schmelzer.

And seeing clearly is key to Indigenous naming, explained Dr. Kate Beane (Flandreau Santee Sioux Dakota) in a 2019 TEDx talk. “Our language is very visual,” she says. “Usually place names are not political. Usually places aren’t named after people. They’re usually descriptive, to describe the history or the connection to a place.”

Beane continued:

And today in order to include people who have been excluded from that master narrative, in order to be inclusive of us, we must create spaces where we can create our own stories. We must think about: Who do we honor? What legacies do we want to honor? And what’s our own legacy going to be? What do we want people to remember about us? But not only that, how do we create a space where the legacies of our children are able to continue, where they can make their own mark? How do allow space for them? Naming and honoring is meant to unify, not exclude and divide.

While Darensbourg and Ozone504 can be credited with bringing the name Bulbancha to the lips of so many in New Orleans, it’s thanks to Beane—along with twin sister Carly Bad Heart Bull, father Syd Beane, and many supporters—that people in my city speak the Dakota name, Bde Maka Ska (White Earth Lake), every day. For more than 100 years, Minneapolis’s largest lake was called Lake Calhoun, named after a man who, like New Orleans’s namesake, reportedly never visited the state. As US Secretary of War, John C. Calhoun ordered the construction of Fort Snelling on land near the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers in 1818. This area, known to Dakota people as Bdote (“where two waters come together”), has bittersweet distinctions: it’s the birthplace of the Dakota people and the center of Dakota cultural and spiritual life; it’s also the place where, following the US-Dakota War of 1862, nearly two thousand Dakota women and children were held in a concentration camp (some 300 of whom died there) before being expelled from the state.

The website for the organization Save Lake Calhoun, which opposed renaming the lake Bde Maka Ska, after the URL was purchased by another party.

Calhoun’s name, to Beane’s point, wasn’t one with a legacy of unity but division. His ideas for the treatment of Native people, first shared in 1818, set the groundwork for passage of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which led to atrocities against Native people, including the Trail of Tears, the forced removal of Cherokee people from their homeland. Additionally, a slave owner and avid segregationist, he characterized slavery in an 1837 speech not as “an evil,” but as “a good—a positive good,” one that benefited, in his logic, all involved.

“The names were changed in order to assert power over us, to claim the land, and to disconnect us from our ancestral homeland,” Beane says. “To sever our ties.”

Spread from Bulbancha Is Still a Place, issue two (2019).

A revival in the use of Indigenous place names has grown in tandem with related Indigenous rights movements, and momentum seems to be building. In October 2020, 14 US states and 130 cities officially commemorated Indigenous People’s Day in addition to or instead of Columbus Day. Last July, the Washington professional football team announced plans to “retire” its racist team name. In December, the Cleveland Indians promised to change its name as a way to “better unify our community.” And here in Minnesota, a judge ruled early last month that Mike Forcia, a member of the American Indian Movement and enrolled citizen of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, would avoid jail for leading the effort to topple a statue of Christopher Columbus on the Minnesota State Capitol grounds in June. In lieu of a felony conviction, Forcia was sentenced to 100 hours of community service. In a statement, Ramsey County District Attorney Sarah Cory acknowledged “that the violence, exploitation, and forced assimilation that has been inflicted upon Native people has been perpetuated from colonial times into modern times. And the trauma resulting from it is still present. The impact of those harms is largely unrecognized and unknown to the dominant culture. I also recognized that the legal process, of which I am a part of, is reflective of the perspectives of the dominant culture.”

An Aaron Sechrist illustration for a 2013 symposium on racist mascots at the National Museum of the American Indian.

New Orleans 300, Bulbancha 3000

In his research, Darensbourg found plenty of documentation of the name Bulbancha (also spelled Balbancha): in addition to its inclusion in Wright’s A Chahta Lexikon (1880), it appears in the region’s first history book, Antoine-Simon Le Page du Pratz’s Histoire de la Louisiane (1758). And it appears as an identifier for a river in Alexandre de Batz’s 1735 painting Desseins de Sauvages de Plusieurs Nations, the earliest known European depiction of Native people.

But when he first started talking to scholars about it, he was taken aback. When he asked a staffer about Bulbancha at the Historic New Orleans Collection in 2014, “the librarian who helped me said, ‘Oh, there was nothing here before colonization. It was just a swamp,’ which is kind of racist.” Likewise, he notes that when he mentioned Bulbancha at a cocktail party at the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, “somebody in this conversation just laughed at us: ‘If there was an indigenous name for this place, I would have heard about it.’”

Alexandre de Batz’s 1735 painting Desseins de Sauvages de Plusieurs Nations features the name Bulbancha on its bottom edge. Collection Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University.

To combat this erasure—or to use the language of the Ramsey County Attorney, to counter “the perspectives of the dominant culture”—Darensbourg and Ozone504 partnered with the POC Zine Project to create Bulbancha Is Still a Place: Indigenous Culture from New Orleans, with publication timed to synch with the tricentennial celebration. Its first two issues feature contributions by Leila K. Blackbird (Mescalero Apache/Cherokee), who looks at the enslavement of Native people by colonists and how they sidestepped a prohibition on “Indian slavery” by using the terms “mulatto” and “creole” instead; an interview with Winter White Hat, a Two-Spirit Lakota teen living in Bulbancha; a poem by Rain Prud’homme-Cranford; and comics and artwork by local Indigenous makers; among others. The cover image for issue two: a photo from 1934 of the headless statue of Andrew Jackson—the president who signed the Indian Removal Act into law—in New Orleans’s Jackson Square. (“Even though no one knows who decapitated the statue,” Darensbourg says, “Ozone and I claim full responsibility.”)

The zine is also both a celebration and a reminder: “I think that when you say the word Bulbancha you are not just saying an ordinary name, you’re acknowledging that they continue in presence of Native people.”

A clipping from a September 1934 edition of the Times-Picayune

Since then, the use of Bulbancha has gained popularity. The National Performance Network (NPN), a New Orleans–based arts nonprofit (where I first learned the term while doing freelance work), uses it in its land acknowledgement, and it’s appeared in publications from The Nation to Scalawag magazine to NOLA.com, often in reference to Darensbourg’s activism. And on the website of the Historic New Orleans Collection—where Darensbourg did his research in 2014—there are now four references. But unlike the case of Bde Maka Ska, which legally had its name changed, Darensbourg isn’t leading a charge to have New Orleans’s name officially recognized by government entities.

“I guess I’d prefer that to not, but other hand, am I ever going to ask? No,” he says. “I don’t even recognize that [the government] has the authority to do that… If someone comes into my house and tries to rename my cat, that doesn’t have anything to do with what I’m going to call the cat. This is not theirs to do. And that’s how I feel about Bulbancha.”

A spread from Bulbancha Is Still a Place, issue two (2019).

He adds, “For this place to be Bulbancha has nothing to do with this fictional, fly-by-night, who-knows-how-long-it-will-last government. And if someone says, ‘Well, it’s lasted 300 years,’ my response is, ‘We’ve lived here for 10,000 years. So it doesn’t matter to me if the colonial government ever sees it as Bulbancha.”

Instead, it seems that seeing the name’s organic adoption by people who live in Bulbancha is far more gratifying. On Tripod, an NPR podcast dedicated to New Orleans’s tricentennial, Darensbourg coined a phrase, which was used as the title of the episode, that spoke to the status of the area’s Europeans as relative newcomers. It seems it struck a nerve. A few months later, just before the city shut down in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Darensbourg was celebrating Mardi Gras. “I was walking from the R Bar in the Marigny neighborhood, packed with people, and I see this guy walking along. He’s in his early 20s and he has a jacket that says ‘New Orleans 300, Bulbancha 3,000.’ I introduced myself, and he had no idea who I was. That was great, because it means that people know about it without having a relationship to me or Ozone or any of the contributors to the zine. The name is being revived.”

Welcome to Bulbancha

Reclaiming the Indigenous name for Bulbancha is, of course, political. Darensbourg agrees that it could be seen as a conceptual counter-monument: “I don’t know what way it would be represented in stone, but I do know that every time the name is used, that’s a little jab at white supremacy,” he says.

But he loves the Choctaw name for the region for another reason: it’s so much more fitting for a place of such fusion and comingling, a place of welcome—the place that birthed jazz, where amazing culinary fusions were born and evolved, and where nearly every language in the world is spoken—than a name derived from a white guy from France.

“When I say ‘Bulbancha is still a place,’ I’m not saying everybody else go home,” he says. “People here say, ‘No matter how weird you are, wherever you live, you could move here and you’re probably not that weird here.’ Obviously, the land that was Bulbancha is still a piece of land. But we’re also talking about those fundamental interactions between people, that diversity, the values of those people, the way that they would all come together and form this sort of place of interaction, place of cultural exchange. That is still a place, and Bulbancha means that place better than any European word.”

What to do with a broken democracy: Ostracism and other lessons from Athens

Just days from the most consequential presidential election in modern times, the brokenness of the political system of the United States could scarcely be more evident. But how to mend the fractures in our body politic? In a bit of poetic irony, perhaps the solution can be found through more brokenness—in particular, the shards of pottery from which this site takes its name.

 

With a monumentally important presidential election upon us, the brokenness of the political system of the United States could scarcely be more evident. On one hand we have a president, accused of coddling white supremacists and influence-peddling from the Oval Office, who has consistently defied historical precedent, the law, scientific consensus, and common decency (not to mention the will of voters). On the other, the opposition party has seemed ill-equipped or structurally unable to serve as a substantial counterweight. Further, it could be American democracy itself that is breaking apart: Donald Trump has said he may not abide by the results of the 2020 election, and his surrogates, including Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), appear to be unconvinced of the value of non-autocratic rule: “We’re not a democracy. Democracy isn’t the objective; liberty, peace, and prospefity [sic] are,” he opined in a pair of tweets on October 8, 2020.

How to approach such brokenness? In a bit of poetic irony, perhaps the solution can be found through more brokenness—in particular, remnants of the work of artisans, the shards of pottery this website takes its name from.

Ostraka from the Agora excavation site in Athens. Photo courtesy the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. All image design by Ian Babineau

In the 5th Century BC, the Greek city-state of Athens brought the world its first democracy. Deriving from the Greek terms for people (dêmos) and power (krátos), it was a system of direct representation in which male citizens over the age of 20—women, foreigners, and slaves were prohibited from participating—would gather regularly at the Agora, on a hillside near the Acropolis, to tend to community concerns and vote on issues of the day. Once a year this convening, the ekklesia (Anglicized to ecclesia) would hold a special vote meant to hold rulers and other citizens accountable for their actions. This practice of removing real or perceived wrongdoers from political life for a time, which gives us our modern-day term “ostracism,” seems to have been created around 507 BC, according to references in Aristotle’s The Constitution of the Athenians, following the city-state’s rule by tyrants—a series of autocratic rulers who assumed power unconstitutionally—from around 560 to 510 BC.

Here’s how it worked: If a quorum of 6,000 was reached, a fraction of the total population of between 30,000 and 60,000 at the time, and a simple majority voted in favor, a second vote would take place two months later. But paper ballots weren’t used. The closest thing, papyrus, had to be imported from Egypt, so a more common material was recycled: bits of broken pottery called ostraka (often spelled ostraca or, in its singular form, ostracon). In this second vote—again, after a quorum had been reached—voters would scratch the name of a citizen onto a potsherd, someone they believed showed anti-democratic leanings or had otherwise earned public contempt. After all the shards were gathered, votes would be tallied and the individual whose name appeared most often would be required to leave Athens for 10 years (or face execution). Upon their return—presumably having had time to think about what they’d done—all would be forgiven: they could return to the community, seek public office (if so desired), and resume ownership of property or possessions (welcome back to Mar-a-Lago, Mr. Trump!).

“One important feature of ostracism was that it did not require a formal charge,” James Sickinger, an ostraka expert and Classics professor at Florida State University, told me. “It was an extralegal or extrajudicial procedure. There was no indictment, and as far as we know there was no formal debate when it was time for a vote. There was not even a formal list of candidates or potential victims. Athenian citizens presumably discussed among themselves whom they wanted to send into exile in the days and weeks before the final vote.”

Those who were ostracized, or sent into exile by ostracism, weren’t always government officials, Sickinger adds, although they often were. “What does seem to be the case is that most individuals who were ostracized were deemed to be ‘too big for their britches’ (my phrase) and to display anti-democratic (or aristocratic) traits, [but] some ostraka actually refer to the sexual practices of their candidates. Others accuse candidates of crimes (like bribery) and possibly treason. There was no precise definition of what made someone susceptible to ostracism, so it really boiled down to strong public sentiment against an individual.”

The Constitution of the Athenians. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

So, in today’s climate, Trump could be removed from office at the will of the people for any grievance, from showing disregard for the constitution to sexual assault, defaming soldiers and veterans to not paying his fair share in taxes to, simply, telling a heap of lies. Without any formalized system like ostracism in place, the closest thing we have today might be social media–driven “cancel culture,” which, like ostracism seeks to shun public figures as a way of seeking accountability, but unlike Athenian ostracism of yore, seems to leave little room, at times, for redemption for the accused.

In a 2003 op-ed in the International Herald Tribune, the director of Agora Excavations at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, called for a modern-day reconsideration of this ancient democratic practice, noting that “those in office might not like it, but a return to ostracism would certainly return power to the people and ensure that their voices were heard and heeded.” But in his piece John McKesson Camp also noted several other accountability measures baked into Athenian democracy that merit a second look today: dokimasia, “an examination to check the qualifications of an individual before entering office,” and euthynai, “a formal rendering of accounts at the end of a term of office.”

The Athenian Agora excavation site, 1997. Photo courtesy the American School of Classical Studies at Athens.

Reached at his home in Virginia, Camp highlighted two elements of democracy from ancient Greece, “accountability and term limits, both of which are essentially ignored today.” (One new development on the accountability front: last week House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD) introduced a bill that would create a commission that would rule on the physical or psychological fitness of future presidents should their removal from office under the 25th Amendment be warranted.)

Ostracon of Megakles Hippokratous Alopekethen. Photo courtesy the American School of Classical Studies at Athens

“The dokimasia presumably checked beforehand that you were an individual in theory capable of holding office: you were not the village idiot, you had not murdered your parents or fondled the wrong young man, etc.,” Camp tells me. “And the euthynai were a built-in part of the deal, a given that those leaving office presumably underwent automatically, so it did not fall to anyone to have to file charges.”

If in force today, these twin practices might have prevented, or at least provided a fair accounting of, the candidacy of a man wildly unprepared for office and a presidency likely to be followed by a spate of potential legal actions related to everything from bank and insurance fraud to sexual misconduct to tax evasion.

John McKesson Camp walks at the Agora excavation site, from the video “John Camp: A Life at the Athenian Agora.”

But in trying to fix what’s broken, Camp says, it’s ostracism that “the ultimate in accountability.” Were it part of modern American democracy, it’d be “a huge opportunity to ensure that the do-nothing Congress did something. If each knew they were a good candidate for removal next month that might help focus them on the task (any task) at hand.”

In Minneapolis’s Third Precinct, a restauranteur puts justice at the heart of rebuilding plans

“Let my building burn. Justice needs to be served.” Shared online after Gandhi Mahal was destroyed in the unrest sparked by George Floyd’s murder, the words of Ruhel Islam went viral. Now that the dust has settled, the Minneapolis restauranteur and sustainability advocate discusses what’s next, for his business and his multi-modal mission of “bringing peace by pleasing the palate.”

The rubble where Gandhi Mahal once stood. Photo: Paul Schmelzer.

On the third night of unrest over the police killing of George Floyd, Gandhi Mahal burned to the ground, and the words of the Minneapolis restaurant’s owner, Ruhel Islam—shared on Facebook by his 19-year-old daughter, Hafsa—shot around the globe: “Let my building burn. Justice needs to be served: put those officers in jail.” For those of us who frequented Islam’s business, located a block from the Minneapolis police station where Floyd’s killers worked, they were powerful, if unsurprising: for 12 years, justice—social and environmental—was as compelling a draw for Gandhi Mahal customers as Islam’s award-winning cuisine. But for the rest of the world, the moral clarity of his call struck a resonant note. Quickly, the post went viral, sparking more than 33,000 shares, 40,000 reactions, and 3,100 comments, expressing love, thanks, and pledges of support—and drawing the attention of media outlets worldwide, from the New York Times, CNN, and the Boston Globe to London’s Daily Mail, The Times of India, and the Dhaka Tribune.

Flowers blanket the ground in front of Peyton Scott Russell’s portrait of George Floyd outside Cup Foods, the site where Minneapolis police killed Floyd. Photo: Paul Schmelzer.

Now that the dust—and ashes—has settled and the media has turned its attention elsewhere, it’s time for Islam, and Minneapolis, to begin rebuilding. A month after his restaurant was destroyed, we met at Bullthistle Gardens, one of the many backyard gardens that supplied produce to Gandhi Mahal, to discuss that night in May, the future of his creative community-building, and how he aims to expand his mission of fostering change through food at a new Gandhi Mahal.

Bringing Peace by Pleasing the Palate

It’s an understatement to say that 2008 was a momentous year for Ruhel Islam. He became a US citizen, eight years after arriving here, and, after running Little Taj Mahal in the food court of the Dinky Dome on the University of Minnesota campus for several years, he opened Gandhi Mahal, with his brother Jamil, in a building just off Lake Street. The mission was simple, if wildly ambitious: “bringing peace by pleasing the palate.”

Ruhel Islam at Bullthistle Gardens, one of the many backyard neighborhood farms that sourced produce for Gandhi Mahal. Photo: Paul Schmelzer.

More than a marketing slogan, the phrase has been activated at Gandhi Mahal in the dozen years since. Tough enough for any restaurant to achieve, that “pleasing palates” part of the mission has been delivered on through and through: the menu’s mix of Indian and Bangladeshi dishes earned Gandhi Mahal a visit from Guy Fieri and numerous local best-Indian-restaurant honors (my family’s favorite: the lamb rogan josh).

But its cuisine is only part of the story of peacefulness towards people and planet. “From the beginning,” he says, “my mission has been to lead by example. It’s what I’ve always done.” That aim has guided an array of endeavors that seek justice in their own right while also spotlighting practices Islam hopes are more widely adopted.

David Gray, a longtime friend of Islam’s and himself an influential node in Minneapolis’s small-scale agriculture scene, says he’d often ask Islam, “How local are you?” The answer: “52 steps”—thanks to an aquaponics system installed in Gandhi Mahal’s basement in 2014, the first restaurant-based system of its kind in Minnesota, where the restaurant raised tilapia and grew tomatoes, lettuce, and herbs. The 7,000-square-foot building’s rooftop was home to both a solar array and a bee yard that provided the restaurant honey (plans to raise quail on the roof hadn’t come to fruition by the time Islam’s building burned).

Ruhel Islam with tilapia raised in Gandhi Mahal’s aquaponics garden. Photo: David Gray, Bullthistle Gardens.

Even the vegetables grown off site had a staggeringly low number of food miles—anywhere from a hundred yards to an hour’s drive away. Some came from a community garden planted down the block or from farmers selling at the Midtown Farmers Market across the street, while other produce was sourced from the Gandhi Mahal Interfaith Garden, a collaboration between the restaurant and Minnesota Interfaith Power & Light (MNIPL), All Saints Episcopal Indian Mission, and New City Church. And, more surprisingly, Islam filled out his ingredient list through produce grown in a dozen or so extremely small-scale farms dotted across south Minneapolis.

Gray first met Islam at the farmer’s market a dozen years ago when he was selling produce from eQuality, an organic farm in nearby Buffalo staffed by people with developmental disabilities. Islam would push a giant food cart—the kind you’d haul lumber on at a big box store—and go from vendor to vendor, making sure to buy something at each stall. “My booth was last, and when he got to me, that cart was loaded,” he remembers. “And sometimes he’d apologize. ‘I’m sorry, friend, but I have everything I need.’ And I said, ‘As long as you just stop and say hi, that’s all I care about.'” They struck up a friendship, with Gray advising on various aspects of the restaurant, including the aquaponics system. Since leaving eQuality nearly two years ago, Gray has been running Bullthistle Gardens out of his bungalow two miles south of Gandhi Mahal, his basement filled with grow lights and his backyard home to a giant greenhouse.

He’s impressed by the genius of supplying a restaurant using veggies grown in the backyards of neighbors. “Ruhel identified people that had space in their yards for gardens, and he funded it. He said, ‘I’ll give you seeds, everything you need.’ He even had staff that would oversee it and help them. And at harvest time, they’d bring it back and he’d buy it from them,” Gray explains. “He did simple math. You come out way ahead: you get local food at a good price, but it’s from the community.” (Islam, an early member of the Homegrown Minneapolis Food Council, was instrumental in getting city regulations changed to allow for market gardens and urban farms within the city.)

Islam looks at cilantro flowers, grown at Bullthistle Gardens to be harvested for coriander for his restaurant. Photo: Paul Schmelzer.

These values of connection and cultivating community extend beyond agriculture as well. Ruhel and Hafsa have been involved with Black Lives Matter, protesting the police killings of Jamar Clark and Philando Castile, and the elder Islam visited Standing Rock during the protests in opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline. Gandhi Mahal has been hiring ex-offenders since 2012, thanks to a partnership with Volunteers of America. In 2018, he and Hafsa, who are Muslim, took a relief trip to Bangladesh in support of the NGO Sports for Hope and Independence Bangladesh and visited with Rohingya refugees, delivering letters from Minneapolis schoolkids to children there.

Fittingly, following the uprising over George Floyd’s killing, Islam took to Facebook in a pledge to continue doing what he long has, making space—and food—for people in his community:

…It is crucial in this moment to have dialogue to continue the healing process and create hearts and minds that are focused and finding a new way forward together. You tell me what table you will be meeting to have this dialogue and I will cook for you. We are not only feeding your stomach but also your soul.

A Rohingya boy in a Gandhi Mahal sport jersey. Photo courtesy Ruhel Islam.

May 29, 2020

Feeding is what Islam and his family were doing the night Gandhi Mahal burned. Business was slow the evening of May 29 due to roads being blockaded by police and the restaurant’s proximity to the Third Precinct station, Hafsa recalls. Then riot police moved on demonstrators and began throwing teargas canisters and firing rubber bullets. A street medic ran into the restaurant and asked if she could bring in a demonstrator who’d been tear-gassed. Islam agreed, offering space in the Climate Hub, an adjacent storefront that was home to local climate advocacy groups. With no medical training, Hafsa joined in, helping one woman get undressed (and redressed in dry clothes, including a Gandhi Mahal 10th-anniversary T-shirt unearthed from the basement by her dad) and assisting others as their contact lenses were removed, eyes washed with milk, and wounds from rubber bullets cleaned.

Minnehaha Lake Wine & Spirits, across the street from Gandhi Mahal, was one of many businesses destroyed in the uprising following George Floyd’s murder. Photo: Paul Schmelzer.

Meanwhile, in the kitchen, staff prepared rice and dal, an Indian lentil soup, to share with medics and demonstrators. “When people had a hard time in the village over in Bangladesh, they’d send dal and rice to everyone because it’s very simple to make,” Hafsa says, “but it’s also very nutritious and gives you everything you need.” Around 1 a.m., Ruhel Islam headed to the home he shares in south Minneapolis with his wife and their four children. The next morning, Hafsa reported online that the restaurant was gone. She vowed: “Gandhi Mahal may have felt the flames last night, but our fiery drive to help protect and stand with our community will never die! “

Islam’s immediate response to that news: “We can rebuild. The main mission is not about burning buildings; the mission is justice.” But then things sunk in. “This is a labor of love. Thirteen years of building so many small pieces from all around the world, from my Bangladesh village. My grandfather’s picture was there,” he tells me. “My children grew up there. I found my home here.”

The Islam family at Hafsa’s high school graduation in 2019: Hanifa, Humaira, Ruhel, Hafsa, Hamza, and Sultana. Photo courtesy Ruhel Islam.

“I felt so many things,” he adds. “But I felt overwhelming support and love: I felt that right away. That’s why my pain was very little.”

With news reports investigating the role of white supremacists and other extremists in violence and property destruction, I asked him how he felt about those who burned his restaurant. “It doesn’t matter who did this, but why this happened is what matters to me,” he says. “I blame no one. This is a sacrifice of another building; it’s not a life.”

He’s heartened by the response online to his words and the fact that they reverberated around the world and to his village in Bangladesh, where as a darker-skinned child he felt the sting of colorism. “I felt that pain. It’s a different kind of pain [from what Black Americans experience],” he acknowledges, but one that has reinforced his longstanding solidarity with Black Lives Matter and other anti-racist movements. “As Brother King said, ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.'”

A mural on the boarded-up window of Moon Palace Books on Minnehaha Avenue, near Gandhi Mahal. Photo: Paul Schmelzer.

One bit of praise from back home was especially bittersweet. Islam’s 85-year-old uncle, Faizur Rahman, called in late June, a few days before our meeting. “He told me, ‘I’m happy because you spoke out. This is what we are! I’m so proud looking at you in the New York Times.'” Then he advised, “Don’t take too long to rebuild. Rebuild it quickly because people are watching you. We are all watching you. Our prayers are with you—and a lot of people who did not get justice, their prayers are all with you, too.” Then Islam’s uncle blessed him.

What Rahman didn’t tell his nephew was that he’d contracted COVID-19, and two days after that phone call he passed away, one of the nearly 3,100 Bangladeshi victims of the pandemic so far.

Food and an Uncertain Future

In planning to rebuild—a process Islam says could take four or five years—Gandhi Mahal’s owner takes his uncle’s words to heart: people are watching, giving Islam the opportunity to leverage that attention to promote his family’s values around sustainability and community. He’s convened a group of restaurant staff, neighbors, architects and designers, community elders, and others to work collaboratively on a rebuilding plan that could put a structure up to six stories tall on the restaurant’s former footprint. His dream for the design: “addressing every single issue we have in our life. One of the main goals I want to achieve is a fully fed community. And everyone means every part of our community: people, plants, trees, bugs, birds, animals.”

But the start has been slow. Islam is partnering with MIGIZI, the Native youth center next door, to share demolition costs, but two months after the restaurant’s destruction such work hasn’t yet begun. The City of Minneapolis, Hafsa reported on Facebook on July 25, is making demolition permits conditional upon tax payments, an additional burden for business owners, many not fully insured, who she says may have to pay between $100,000 and $200,000 to move rubble and prepare for rebuilding. (Following publication of this piece, a city representative shared that state law requires collection of property taxes before demolition permits can be approved.) Just today, July 31, Islam signed a lease that will reopen the restaurant on the site of the former Chef Shack restaurant on the corner of Franklin and 31st avenues during construction. He notes that a food truck will likely be part of the temporary solution while the new space is being developed.

Graffiti mural on the exterior of Arbeiter Brewing, just across the street from where Gandhi Mahal stood. Photo: Paul Schmelzer.

With the new building, Islam’s aims are to “come back strong.” He promises to continue sustainability efforts from the past and incorporate new ones: he’ll again build a zero-waste operation that utilizes solar panels, aquaponics, and a rooftop bee colony, but he also hopes for a LEED-certified building that has room to raise chickens and goats on-site. He’s interested in exploring sustainable materials like compressed earth blocks and passive solar, and he plans to design with future pandemics in mind. “COVID is going to be a long-term problem,” he says. “I’m thinking about when it comes back in one, two, or 30 years.”

One idea is to combine sustainability and physical distancing: “Tables will probably have planters between them or an aquaponics bed,” he says. “If you like spicy food, maybe you can just reach over and grab a chili or salad greens.”

Peppers grown during winter in Gandhi Mahal’s basement aquaponics garden. Photo courtesy Ruhel Islam

He’d also like to incorporate community housing. “My thinking is, by calling it affordable housing, you’re dividing people,” so he’s interested in multi-generational, intercultural housing instead, with affordability as a key value.

Over time, chances are Islam’s plans will be scaled back, whittled down by pragmatic factors from city permitting delays and the intricacies of municipal ordinances to funding hurdles and the nuts-and-bolts realities of translating a vision in his mind into a bricks-and-mortar facility. But it’s this vision that drew me to Islam for The Ostracon: he acknowledges the power of art but doesn’t identify as an artist, yet he lives like one. He interrogates the world around him, investigating what can be different. He brings into view ideas he wants his community to know matter. He experiments, reworks, tries again. And he models for the rest of us that other, more just, futures are possible.

He envisions Bangladesh. He wants a village. He wants a true, sustainable way of living.

As Gray puts it, “He sees how powerful food is, culturally speaking.”

He’s compelled by Islam’s vision, too: “He envisions Bangladesh,” he says. “He wants a village. He wants a true, sustainable way of living. If you could walk to Uptown and there were fruit trees you could pick from, vegetables growing everywhere, raised boxes, people growing things on the rooftops, just a complete free-for-all based around food—that’s what he sees.”

While Islam’s plans sound positively utopian—a six-story, zero-waste complex that houses community members affordably, raises bees and fish and vegetables, while also serving as a hub for social justice activism?—I have hope he can do it.

Ruhel Islam in front of the rain tree he planted at his childhood primary school, 2018. Photo: Bob York, courtesy Ruhal Islam.

Passing the site of Gandhi Mahal recently, I spotted a small white plastic square affixed to the chain link barrier surrounding the pit of rubble and burnt metal. Apparently a sign used when the restaurant had donated catering services for community events, it depicted a black tree, its thick branches extending wide to each side, along with the words “Special Thanks to Gandhi Mahal.” In marker, someone had drawn a heart and wrote, “We love you!”

The tree at the center of Gandhi Mahal’s logo, a rain tree, is based on one outside his primary school in Bahar Mordan, a village in the city of Sylhet in northeast Bangladesh. As a child there, Islam followed the lead of his father, who’d won a gold medal for leading a tree-planting campaign in the community, and rallied his brothers and classmates to join him in planting the tree. More than three decades later, it still stands there today, larger and stronger, a testament to a leader whose vision grew something tiny into something much, much bigger.