Remarkable Woman: Dorene Wiese
Through education, she seeks to preserve American Indian culture, language and traditions
"I wanted to show that there are good American Indians, that we have good families, we have music and dance and art," says Remarkable Woman Dorene Wiese. "It would help our children so they would see a different view of who we were as a people." (William DeShazer, Chicago Tribune / March 3, 2012)
She was one of seven American Indians in the state of Minnesota to ever graduate high school in 1967. She went on to get her bachelor's degree and even her doctorate so she could convince other American Indians that it's important to get an education. After all, she said, it's the only way her people can thrive in the United States.
Now living in Chicago, Wiese, a member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe, is the president of the American Indian Association of Illinois. She created a small liberal arts college program affiliated with Eastern Illinois University that focuses on general education and language classes for American Indians.
She also sponsors preservation, culture and native language growth projects throughout Chicago so that urban American Indians can remember their heritage while living in the city.
"American Indians have been ignored," Wiese said. She's hoping to change that.
Q: Why do American Indians have such a high education dropout rate in America?
A: American education was forced upon us. Also, there's very little in textbooks and in classrooms that teaches about our people. There aren't any teachers in the Chicago Public Schools who are role models for our children. So we have the lowest college completion rate and the highest high school dropout rate in America. More than half don't even have a GED or a high school diploma, and there are no programs to help young American Indians get back in school if they do drop out.
Q: How did you manage to become an exception to those statistics?
A: I had a lot of help from American Indian people in our community. I relied on elders and other people who mentored me.
Q: What about the rest of your family?
A: I have two sisters and one brother. They were all high school dropouts. They all had to go back and get their GED, and they took some courses in community college. I left Minneapolis and came to Chicago when I was 18, and it was easier for me because I got out. There was a lot of racism against American Indians in Minneapolis at that time.
Q: Did you live on a reservation?
A: My reservation is in Minnesota, and it's called White Earth. It's around 3,000 people. Most people don't know that most cities have more Indians than reservations. In Chicago, we have more than 30,000 American Indian people. That's one of the things we stress — that urban communities have needs, and all the funding has been directed toward reservation communities where the smallest number of American Indians live.
Q: What did you want to be when you were 13?
A: I wanted to be a photographer and filmmaker. I wanted to change the role model and images of American Indians. The images were all negative — that all American Indians were poor and dirty and stupid and alcoholics. I wanted to change that. I wanted to show that there are good American Indians, that we have good families, we have music and dance and art. It would help our children so they would see a different view of who we were as a people.
Q: Do you have any children?
A: Yes, I have one child, Katherine, who is 25. She graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana, and she was an honors student. She is working in an international shipping company as an assistant manager.
Q: I assume she felt a lot of pressure to complete her education?
A: She always knew she'd go to college. That was always a given. When I was younger, I saved money toward her college education. I worked with her constantly to make sure she was doing well in school.
Q: What's your favorite restaurant in Chicago?
A: We don't have any American Indian restaurants, so I'd have to say our college program breakfast.
Q: What do you like to do when you're not working?
A: I practice singing and dancing. I perform with a group, and I practice singing American Indian songs.
Q: Where do you live?
A: I live in Portage Park. I love that it's a diverse community, and it has a lot of community services — grocery stores, dry cleaners and parks. It's a real Chicago community. It's also the third largest American Indian community now in Chicago.
Q: What's the future of American Indians in Chicago?
A: I think it's very positive. If we get people to embrace how important education is for our students and all the parents and all the children — it's important in terms of people being able to find work and find housing and support themselves. I am very hopeful.