Stacie Sheldon believes Native people have an invisibility problem. “We’re often an afterthought or put into the ‘other’ category,” says the Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) descendant. She is working hard to change that. As cofounder of Ojibwe.net, Sheldon draws on her background as a user experience researcher and designer to bring Anishinaabemowin—the language of Michigan and the Great Lakes watershed—to a wider audience.
“I think our language and our culture are exceptionally beautiful,” says Sheldon, who belongs to the Crane Clan. “You don’t have to learn the language, but maybe you just learn that there are places in Michigan that come from this language. We have a lot to offer this place, this land.”
The website includes free lessons, stories, and songs for all ages, and highlights community-led projects. It is constantly evolving, Sheldon says, according to the needs of the community, from recordings of fluent speakers to lesson plans for teachers to an interactive map of the Anishinaabe diaspora to supplemental material for fans of Angeline Boulley’s best-selling young-adult thriller, Firekeeper’s Daughter.
Forty-six and single, Sheldon grew up in Cheboygan with a cow pasture in her backyard, a forest in her front yard, and the railroad tracks to Mackinaw City nearby. The third of four sisters, her dad was a mechanic and her mom cleaned hotel rooms.
“I never felt like I fit in,” she remembers. “I wore moccasins with white socks—I didn’t care what people thought.” Even though she was “raised pretty minimally with my culture,” she says, “everyone in town knew I was Native.”
As a kid, “I existed in my dream state,” she says. Inspired by a Kellogg’s cereal box, in sixth grade she decided she’d become a triathlete. She’d run five miles into town to meet her dad at work, and she’d bike with her mom. (She never completed a triathlon but did run a marathon at age forty-two.)
Her weekly allowance went to Trixie Belden books, the series about an adventurous girl detective who lived in a rural area. Nancy Drew was “too perfect,” she says, and “never seemed to make mistakes.”
She first visited Ann Arbor with a Future Problem Solvers of America delegation from her high school. “To me, this was the big city. There were skyscrapers!” she laughs.
With her mom’s encouragement, Sheldon became a first-generation student at Michigan State. “I did so poorly I almost got kicked out,” she says. “I didn’t know how to study or ask for help.” Invited into a support program for struggling students, she thrived and got her degree in literature.
“I’ve spent my whole life seeing the difference between myself and others,” she says, “kind of being on the borders of different experiences, and [studying] literature served that well.”
A college job building websites for professors led to other programming jobs. She followed her fiancé to Ann Arbor in 1998 for the tech boom (the couple divorced after a short marriage but have remained friends). Preferring the “people part of technology,” she moved into the user experience field, including almost a decade with Ford’s ad agency.
Sheldon met her main collaborator on Ojibwe.net, Margaret Noodin, when she took Noodin’s Native literature class at EMU in 2006. Noodin, now at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, calls Sheldon “a brilliant student and lifelong learnerwho’s able to create a space for other learners.”
Sheldon learned Anishinaabemowin, and the pair traveled around Michigan to attend events. They started the website to archive and share what they were doing to save the language.
Ann Arbor is “in the bubble,” she says, and she hasn’t experienced negative reactions to her Native background here. But Sheldon recalls other harrowing moments. She says she was spat on at an Ypsilanti school board meeting in 2006 when she supported changing the Braves mascot name (Ypsi’s teams are now the Grizzlies). And once, while driving in the Bay Mills Indian Community in the UP, she was run off the road. She was with her then-boyfriend, who, she says, “looks very Native.”
The driver got out of his car and screamed at them that tribal casinos were “ripping off poor, white people.”
She’d always kept her work and personal life separate, but says that after George Floyd’s murder, she “felt a shift” in the approach to diversity in the workplace. “The climate had changed, and it felt less scary” to share her identity at work, she says.
After being laid off at the start of the pandemic, she decided for the first time to include more of her Native projects in her resume, including Ojibwe.net and her recently published bilingual children’s book, The Adventures of Nimkii. Colorfully illustrated and written in both Anishinaabemowin and English, it follows Stacie’s nature-loving German shepherd through the seasons.
She was recruited for a job with the consulting firm Slalom Detroit, where she was recently invited to speak about indigenous culture during the company’s quarterly meeting. To Sheldon’s delight, the company secretly ordered 300 Nimkii books, which her co-workers revealed during the virtual meeting.
A former Big Sister who’s still close to her Little Sister, Sheldon is a strong supporter of Native youth. “I feel like if our young people can be excited about our language and they can see it as something beautiful they have access to, that will encourage them to grow themselves instead of destroying themselves,” she says.
She often walks Nimkii in her west-side neighborhood and maintains a front-yard vegetable garden, sharing zucchini and tomatoes with neighbors. She appreciates Ann Arbor’s commitment to the environment and sense of community. “When my neighbors have gatherings, anyone who walks by is welcome,” she says.
A music lover, Sheldon has a passion for classic rock and takes weekly voice, piano, and guitar lessons. She owns both a Fender Stratocaster and a hand drum for traditional Ojibwe singing and drumming.
More than fifteen years after starting Ojibwe.net, Sheldon and Noodin continue to meet at least weekly about the website, which Noodin calls a “labor of love.” Says Sheldon, “thinking about how to understand each other is never time ill spent.”