“Happy to see the Indian people graduating”

By Kate Lechnir
Special to News From Indian Country July 2011

From the ten small reservation communities of the St. Croix Chippewa Indians of Wisconsin emerge six more graduates from the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwa Community College earlier this year. These Native American students join 60 others who have received their degrees on the St. Croix reservation at the LCOOCC – St. Croix Outreach Site.

“I am happy to see the Indian people graduate from college – getting their education to improve themselves and help out the Indian people as much as they can,” said Ralph Pewaush, head of the Native American Studies department at the   LCOOCC St. Croix Outreach Site. “It will be a lot easier for them to get employment,” continued Pewaush.  “There is so much to be done in our tribes to improve the conditions in which we live.  The knowledge that they have gained will help to do this.”

 Front row: Linnia Garbow, Penny Bearheart, Dorothy Chenal. 
Back row:  Brenda Swett, Melissa Fowler and Doris Emery.
Phyllis Y. Lowe is the St. Croix Tribal Education Director and teaches a tribal cultures class for the college.  “This site is so unique that our enrollment grows each year,” reported Ms. Lowe. “The people feel comfortable coming here.  It is such a privilege having our native elders teaching our students, and the site coordinator gives good academic guidance and support to each of them.” Ms. Lowe spoke about the positive impact of her tribal cultures class: “My class encourages the students to seek out their own identity and implement their traditional values into their daily lives.  We are proud that we have this college site here, close to home, for our students.”

Doris M. Emery – Associate of Arts Native American Studies – Language 

At the age of 80, Doris  Emery is the oldest graduate of Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwa Community College. As an elder-in-residence, Ms. Emery set a new bar of academic excellence… straight ‘A’s’ during her semesters at the St. Croix Outreach Site.

“I was brought up speaking my language.  At the age of 22, I moved to Chicago and worked for Bell System. I lived there for 16 years,” recounted Emery. “During that time, I lost my ability to speak my language, but somehow or another, I could still understand.” In 1967, Ms. Emery was transferred back to Wisconsin by the Bell System, and then she moved back to the Sand Lake reservation in 1970. Emery continued, “The old ones were still speaking the language, but the young ones were not. I could listen and speak Chippewa a little bit – but not all the words.” 

In the fall of 2007, Ms. Emery signed up for classes to learn the Ojibwe (Chippewa)  language. She kept coming every semester to take language and philosophy classes from Ralph Pewaush.  “It was social for me at the St. Croix Outreach site, but mostly, I was here to learn.  Ralph is an Indian’s Indian.  There is no pretense about him,” stated Emery. “He has respect for the people and the land around him, and embodies those characteristics of what Indian men should have. He is very spiritual.  He takes his commitments as a drum keeper very seriously ….and he likes to laugh! He taught well, I thought.” Emery explained,

Ms. Emery commented further on the LCOOCC St. Croix Outreach Site: “As an elder-in-residence, I felt happy to go to the college here.  It was a fun, warm, caring place to come to. I recommend other elders to take classes at the school.  It is so convenient, and offers a variety of classes.

Penny L. Bearheart – Associate of Arts, Liberal Arts

Penny Bearheart started school in August of 2009. “At that time,” recounted Bearheart, “I had just over one year of sobriety.”  She started by taking just a few classes that would help her in her current position as the assistant clerk of court for the St. Croix tribe. “I wanted to further my education and get my degree, so I picked up the pace and started to take a full course load.  It has been an incredible challenge to go to school full time and to work full time,” admitted Bearheart.

“Going to school helped me stay focused and it gave me a really strong goal to reach---I can’t believe I did it!” Bearheart spoke more about graduating from LCO college: “I feel empowered now with greater skills, knowledge and abilities.  I feel hopeful and confident in what I will be able to contribute---and that’s a great feeling. I also feel that my liberal arts degree from LCO has prepared me if I decide to continue my education.”

Ms. Bearheart offered the following advice to students thinking about college: “If you are serious about getting your degree, then all the work is worth it because you end up with so much to show for it..” Bearheart added, “I wouldn’t have been able to go to school if classes weren’t held right on the St. Croix reservation..”

Four students received Associate of Applied Science degrees in Casino Operations Management. LCOOCC established the degree program in 2007 to meet the pressing needs of tribal communities to manage their gaming enterprises.

Dorothy L. Chenal – Associate of Applied Science, Casino Operations Management – Certificate in Hospitality and Tourism

“It’s nice to see job openings that I more than qualify for,” said Dorothy Chenal. “It’s encouraging to me that I have the skills to succeed in the workplace.” Ms. Chenal is also a graduate of the LCOOCC Business Administration and Small Business Management programs. “I especially wanted to expand on my business knowledge by taking the Casino Operations program.  It really added a great deal to my business background,” noted Chenal.

Ms. Chenal spoke specifically about the Casino Management program: “It teaches about every facet of the casino.  When we went to the casinos to learn how to play all of the games, I had a better understanding of the business.”

Melissa Fowler—Associate of Applied Science Casino Operations Management

Melissa Fowler was one of the first to sign up for the new casino degree program offering at LCOOCC. “I welcomed the opportunity to go to college while working at the casino,” responded Fowler. “I started coming to college because I felt like I was in a rut.  I wanted something more in my life.” Ms. Fowler started to work for the Turtle Lake Casino right out of high school in a department known as EVS—an entry level position. “At that time,” recounted Fowler, “I just thought of it as a job.  I didn’t think of it as a career.” She then transferred to slots, table games, and then worked her way up to assistant slot supervisor. Today, Ms. Fowler is the assistant to the Director of Gaming. 

“College has totally changed me,” noted Fowler.  “It changes the way you think about things.  It teaches you to think critically—to come to your own conclusions. Certainly, I learned a great deal about casino management, but learning to think critically was the most important skill that I developed.”

“Once I signed up for the LCO  College’s Casino Operations Management program, I started to learn the history of gaming and its important impact on Native peoples’ lives,” said Fowler. “So far, gaming is one of the only successful economic engines for tribes to provide for their people.  It gives them sovereignty, education, housing and jobs.”

Linnia Mosay Garbow—Associate of Applied Science Casino Operations Management

“When I first heard about the opportunity to get my degree in Casino Operations Management, I knew it was something I wanted to do,” said Linnia Garbow. “I had been working for the St. Croix tribal casinos for eight years at the time, and I remember thinking that getting a college degree in casino operations was what I needed in order to acquire a management position.”  Ms. Garbow continued, “I had the minimal skills like typing and basic computer knowledge and now, having graduated from the LCO program,  I have a lot more skills for facilitating the operations of a casino.”

Ms. Garbow continued, “I now know accounting, finances, gaming regulations and laws, food and beverage management, hospitality, security, table games, handling of currency, business communications and principles of management. With these skills, I feel that I can properly operate any aspect of a gaming facility.  It’s an empowering feeling.”

Garbow offered the following advice: “If you are thinking about attending any college, I would do it.  Don’t think about the challenges, because there will be many.  Think instead about what you are going to accomplish when you’re finished.”  Garbow continued, “I would recommend attending LCOOCC—St. Croix Outreach Site because it has a family oriented atmosphere..”

Garbow recounted, “Thinking back, I’m glad I followed through and graduated from college - it was quite an accomplishment.  I did it for my mom, my family and for myself. In the future, I may be able to help the St. Croix tribe.”

Brenda Lynn Swett—Associate of Applied Science Casino Operations Management

“Having been born into poverty and racism, I lacked the self-esteem to job search and to go to college,” began Brenda Swett. “I was never told to get good grades in school so that I could go to college.  If I knew then what I know now, I would have studied so very hard. There are many college scholarships available to graduating Native American high school students with a grade point average of 3.7 or higher.”

“I have a bachelor’s degree now in Business Administration Management, but there was no emphasis on gaming or casino operations. That’s why I signed up for the LCO Casino Operations Management degree program,” noted Ms. Swett. “Because our tribe owns three casinos, I wanted to be prepared to work at the casinos if necessary.”

Swett reiterated the importance of the college’s location right on St. Croix reservation land: “I liked the convenience of the LCO College being right here in the community and that the Council will let you take time off of work to attend class.  I would like to see more students utilizing this site.  I am a proponent of education, and I believe we need as many people in our tribe to be educated so that we can compete successfully in the future.  I wish all of our graduating high school seniors would come to the LCO St. Croix Outreach site for their first two years of college..”

“We are proud to see so many Native Americans graduating from college,” observed Ralph Pewaush. “It is an historic achievement.”