Soul Sessions Podcast: Chief Anu Amen-Rá
On this Native American Heritage Day, we talk with Chief Anu Amen-Rá, the Sartorial Tobacconist, and season four host of Dirty Napkins.
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How do you take a family story that starts in hardship, saddled with oppression, and reclaim it - financially and spiritually - while reverently honoring your past? Today's conversation is a window into just that.
Hey, it's Paul Wolf with a front row seat to conversations on culture from Jackson, Mississippi. We call our podcast Soul Sessions. It's the people, places, and events that make the City With Soul shine. Today on this Native American Heritage Day, my colleague Yolanda Clay-Moore talks with Chief Anu-Seti Amen-Rá, the Sartorial Tobacconist, and season four host of Dirty Napkins, to learn how one man shares his family legacy while finding a career in doing something he truly loves.
I'm so happy that I have the opportunity to talk to a Anu today, and he has a career that you don't find in your typical, bring-your-dad-to-school day. You're a tobacconist. Tell me how you came about that?
Interesting story. My family, when we talk about Mississippi a lot, we always kind of talk about traditional things. Our family has been sharecropping tobacco between here and the Carolinas for over a hundred years. It's my family on my mother's side are Choctaw; my family on my father's side are Creek. Tobacco has been used for medicine and spiritual practices for us for a very long time.
Right around the fifties, late sixties, some of our family had enough of that where they wanted to start distributing to some of the big tobacco companies and small amounts. It's just as common in my family as having salt and pepper around the house. I didn't find a connection to it, smoking, of course, until I went off into the military. I got introduced to the cigar where I could smoke it on my own and I had to watch my grandpa, my mom or uncles or something participate, and I fell in love with the social element of it, so why not take it on as a profession?
So once I came off of active duty in the service, the next thing for me was like, "Hey, well, what will I attempt to do?" Now I'm master's level educated and I got a chance to work in corporate America and finance, and I did law enforcement, those things, trying to kind of find my way and nothing really spoke to me other than tobacco. It was just a thing for me. It's a good story in a state like Mississippi where agriculture is a huge thing.
So I went to try to find out who works in these things in the professional setting, and that's where I found that there are positions for people who do this for a living. Think about being a tobacconist, I want people to kind of think about it as a hospitality position. So of course it's service-oriented. You pairing it with food, beverages, over special occasions, which is very much hospitality.
Your Facebook profile has Chief Anu-Seti Amen-Rá. Did I badger that?
No, you said it perfect.
Okay. Is that because of your Indian descent?
Yes, ma'am and we still hold titles in our family's hierarchy. It's like, "Okay, everybody has a big mommy in their family who's the matriarch of the family or grandpa who's the matriarch of the family." In our family, it still works that way, but what ends up happening is at some age, people will consider it this power of attorney over a conservatorship over some elders and things where our elders appoint someone to essentially speak on their behalf almost like a living will or a representative of the will.
The chieftaincy position is given to represent the elders in this case of our families. And the reason why I wear it in my name publicly is trying to preserve some of our stories that sometimes we don't hear about too often in school. So my grandmother was really particular about me adorning the title in public settings that it is showcased that we have preserved some of our core tenants, but it has been a daunting thing.
I know that you recently took on the role of hosts for Dirty Napkins, so tell us about that journey.
I love hospitality. Mississippi is the hospitality state. I think we get praised very often for our overt kindness to others, to the point where people are shocked that we are as kind as we are. But how that has manifested, particularly coming out of our communities is the jobs that we facilitate. So for me, I was on Dirty Napkins in season three as a guest, and I had a great experience. The team at Dirty Napkins are my childhood friends, and it was a turning point in my business as I was beginning to expand and trying to walk in my purpose or my design for my business.
And after the season, I was approached. I was like, "Hey man, how would you feel about becoming a host of Dirty Napkins?" And they asked me to do it. I thought about it, prayed about it, got a chance to talk with some of my mentors about the situation, and they thought it was a good move to kind of highlight what I was trying to highlight and particularly cover Jackson, my home in a way that I felt would be unique.
I didn't understand it at the time, but then after I looked at the opportunity, we started hearing things, of course, with the media and Prime, and it came and left. And then we began to see the coverage of Mississippi in a way that I thought didn't do such a historic place justice. So I was like, "Okay, now I got a chip on my shoulder," And it's like I'll be determined to show people the talent, the community that Jackson has developed, how we have overcome so much adversity as a state.
So Dirty Napkins gave me an opportunity to highlight the fact that, "Hey, you can be from Mississippi, the South. We do have paved roads, we do enjoy things, we do have great experiences," and be able to showcase that regardless of race, color, creed, that type of thing. And that's what Dirty Napkins has allowed me to do.
The previous seasons have been primarily about interviewing your favorite people at your favorite restaurants, but I think that food is influenced by places, experiences outside of the restaurant, so this season we are not only including favorite restaurants, but places as well.
I know that you mentioned that you're from Jackson, and I know this position as a tobacconist has carried you all over the country, maybe even across seas, I don't know, but you still kept your roots here in Jackson, so talk about that just a little bit.
My grandmother, she's always kind of breathed that thing to me. Wherever there's a community, there's an economy, and my grandmother told me to give her my word that when I did travel the world, that I came back and planted seeds at home to ensure that someone else would have the same magical moments I've had here 50 years from now.
So when I started my business, I was very determined to build the first five years of my business at home. I wanted to make it a case study that I could build an international brand out of Mississippi. And I started off with nothing. I spent every dime I've had, and I actually went bankrupt in 2018 just trying to travel. I traveled to Cuba to learn how to make cigars. I went 27 times. I spent time in the Dominican Republic. I spent everything I could to try to make sure that I could learn and have that pedigree, but also how was I going to get the money back in Mississippi?
Mississippi is so rich in history, it's really nothing, you don't have to juice it up, kind of one of those things. If you just get educated on it, it's so much of it around that you can just put it back out there to the world just in a modern fashion. So even when I introduce myself on public platforms. I tell everybody, "I'm Chief Anu-Seti Amen-Rá hailing from the northside of Jackson, Presidential Hills to be exact," to let people know exactly where I came from, and that's the only reason I've been able to thrive.
Community first has provided me the ability to take care of my family, doing what I love, but to also preserve my family's history and what we've done, and also introduce new people to this as a profession, but also to make them think about, "Hey, what is it that their family did and how can they recurn that up and grab that for themselves?" And that's the thing that's probably been the biggest thing for me and how I looked at starting my business is just, "Hey, if I can build a community around this, then I can make a living."
And that's what I did. I started off with one shop having my cigars in, and that was at the Country Squire where I'm a tobacconist. Turned it into 32 countries, 15 states. I've rolled cigars for two presidents. I've traveled all around the world doing this, so super excited.
Absolutely fascinating. My thanks to Yolanda and our guest Chief Anu-Seti Amen-Rá. We'll put links to his socials in our show notes so that you can keep up with his latest adventures. Soul Sessions is produced by Visit Jackson, the destination organization for Mississippi's capital city.
Our executive producers are Jonathan Pettus and Dr. Rickey Thigpen, and I'm our managing editor. You can learn more about our mission and everything that we do at visitjackson.com. I'm Paul Wolf, and you've been listening to Soul Sessions.