Age-Old Traditions, New Media

There is no better place to begin this story than on an August morning in the remote reaches of the Bad River Ojibwe Reservation, afloat on Lake Superior’s shining Chequamegon Bay beneath an expansive, cloud-filled sky.

Several flat-bottomed boats are lined up gunwale-to-gunwale, bobbing in the gentle waves. They’re filled with students—a mix of UW–Madison undergraduates and tribal youth—on a field project run through UW–Madison’s Global Health Institute. They are listening to Dana Jackson and Edith Leoso, Bad River tribal members and elders, talk about wild rice and the windswept, watery landscape around them, the sloughs and the tamarack stands, the distant islands and the shimmering headlands.

It is all ancestral home to the Ojibwe, and Jackson and Leoso bring it to life with their words. They tell the Ojibwe creation story of how their tribal forebears came to the land so many years ago from the east, seeking, as they had been told in visions, a place where “the food grows on top of the water.” They speak of the chiefs who signed treaties to protect this homeland and of the warriors who fought to protect it and of the threats that come with modern times.

The students, armed with video cameras and recorders, soak it all up. The land seems to take on new depth and meaning, peopled now with the ghosts and the place names and shrouded in the mystery and the magic of the old stories.

It’s an ideal classroom for the CALS professor who is the guiding hand behind this floating, open-air lecture session.

Patty Loew, a professor of life sciences communication, has brought these students here to share with them the lives and the culture of a people she knows well.

Loew is a tribal member of the Bad River Ojibwe. She can trace her family back to ancestors who were among the tribal leaders signing the tribe’s historic treaties in the 1800s. When she looks out upon the waters of Lake Superior and the winding sloughs of the reservation, she sees her own family’s history. These places are as special to her as to any other member of the Bad River community.

Two years ago, in a column in the Wisconsin State Journal about the importance of this place to the Ojibwe, Loew wrote, “You won’t see any stained glass or church spires in the Bad River or Kakagon Sloughs, but those wetlands are as holy to us as any temple or cathedral.”

A noted television journalist and the author of several acclaimed books on Wisconsin’s Native Americans as well as an accomplished scholar, Loew could easily be resting on her many successes.

Instead, she is deeply involved in a number of teaching and media projects that are not only bringing the stories of Wisconsin’s Native Americans to life, but also are providing new ways for those stories to be shared by tribal members themselves. Since 2007, she has led efforts to teach tribal teenagers digital storytelling and technology skills. Working with colleagues as well as tribal leaders, she has helped young people create documentaries sharing Native American issues and culture. In a 2012 project, for example, eight St. Croix Ojibwe students created a tribal history told through the life stories of five St. Croix elders.

In this work Loew has also partnered with the UW–Madison Global Health Institute. She’s currently in the midst of a project—the one that has us floating on Chequamegon Bay—in which global health students from a wide range of majors work alongside tribal youth to bring the power of digital media to bear on reservation health issues such as nutrition and childhood obesity. The Bad River reservation has some of the highest diabetes and cardiovascular disease rates in the United States, according to a 2008 Wisconsin Nutrition and Growth Study.

Loew’s projects can already boast some impressive successes. In 2013, three 14-year-old Bad River participants in her tribal youth media workshops produced a documentary, Protect Our Future, that detailed the potential environmental threats posed by a proposed iron mine in the Penokee Range above the Bad River reservation.

The video was an award-winning hit. It played to large audiences at film festivals throughout the Great Lakes region and was screened at the Arizona State University Human Rights Festival. The teens were on hand to introduce their film, which they also shared at the nearby Salt River Tribal High School.

The project followed a unique blueprint developed by Loew that melds traditional knowledge from tribal elders and leaders with the use of digital media skills now being deployed by tribal youth.
It is, in effect, an artful and sensitive blending of the old and new. Loew, not one to think small, says she sees the work in the context of a larger and more powerful dream. Oblivious to the breeze and splashing water from Lake Superior, she speaks from her seat in one of the boats as it motors through the reservation’s famed Kakagon Sloughs. In between her answers to questions, she patiently works with students as they learn how to use video cameras. She helps one of them frame a shot and assists another who is figuring out how to program a video card.

“My ultimate goal,” Loew says as she works, “is to help Bad River become the media center for Indian Country. We want to combine really strong media skills with a really strong sense of culture.”

Loew’s work has drawn praise from many quarters, from tribal leaders to academic colleagues.

Joe Rose is an elder with the Bad River Ojibwe and has watched young tribal members embrace Loew’s teachings. He describes the pride that the video Protect Our Future brought to the reservation.
“We were fighting against the mine then,” Rose recalls. “That was a very serious threat to us. We were very concerned about our wild rice. That was exceptional work that Patty did with the young people. She taught them how to use the media, how to do the photography and the interviewing. They even did the music. And it was all done by students, only 14 or 15 years old.”

Don Stanley, a CALS faculty associate in the Department of Life Sciences Communication who specializes in social media, has worked alongside Loew on the reservation, served as her co-investigator, and, Loew says, sparked the original idea for much of their tribal youth media work.

There are few better examples of the Wisconsin Idea in action, Stanley says, when it comes to sharing the department’s communication expertise and scholarship with a broader audience.

And, in this case, that sharing is with a community that few can reach as effectively as Loew. Loew has the ability to connect in a special way, Stanley notes, because of her deep tribal roots and connections. People know her and see her knowledge and respect for tribal life and culture. That understanding and empathy is not always common among academics.

“A lot of time in academia, we don’t understand that,” Stanley says. “Researchers come in, extract what they want and leave. But people you are working with relate on a scale that is much more real and visceral when they’re dealing with somebody who gets it.”

And Loew gets it.

“She’s got incredible street cred,” Stanley says of Loew’s work on the reservation. “It’s a blast traveling with her up there. Everybody is a family member. Everybody is ‘Hey, Patty!’ and big hugs. I also think that because she doesn’t take herself so seriously, she’s really approachable.”

Indeed, Loew is quick to laugh, and a talker. She will enthuse equally about her work or a Green Bay Packer game (she is a devoted fan). She evokes laughter from her students when, passing by a reservation boat flying a Packer pennant, she says, casually, “Oh, look. The tribal flag!”

Loew is quick to point out an important caveat when it comes to her work with the Bad River community as it relates to the Wisconsin Idea. This is not about just transferring knowledge from the campus to the reservation, she says. In fact, she prefers the phrase “knowledge exchange.”

The tribes, Loew says, are a rich and unrecognized source of information about the natural world. The elders and others on the reservation have much to share, and that traditional knowledge can inform and extend science and natural resource management in the non-Indian world, notes Loew.

In the Ojibwe, Loew sees a people who have valuable lessons for us in how to combine culture with a respect for the natural workings of the planet.

“Over the past 25 years, I’ve seen a real need for scientific information that has cultural relevance,” Loew says. “Native communities may be poor in an economic sense but they are rich in natural resources. And the culture is attached to those resources in a way that can’t be separated.

“So it’s a two-way street,” Loew continues. “We don’t necessarily have the scientific capacity. But what we do have is storytellers and people who know and embrace the culture.”

Loew did not come to these understandings suddenly. They are the result of a slow and gradual awakening on her part to her own Native American heritage and a lifetime spent learning the communication skills that would one day allow her to bring the power of story to bear on sharing the history and culture and struggles of not only the Ojibwe but all of Wisconsin’s tribes.

Loew’s path has led her to a very professorial office in Hiram Smith Hall on the UW–Madison campus, home to the Department of Life Sciences Communication (LSC) and just a stone’s skip from Lake Mendota.
But Loew, as her colleagues will point out, seems to have trouble staying in that comfortable office. Everyone who works with her in Hiram Smith Hall has had the pleasant experience of meeting a wide-eyed Loew in the hallway and being greeted by the phrase “Hey! I have an idea I wanted to try out on you.”

It is more than a charming aspect of her character. It is how she works, bringing to life the cherished Wisconsin ideal of “sifting and winnowing.”

Loew is an idea factory. In recent months, her friends and co-workers have listened and watched as Loew has worried about the many employees who will be out of work when Oscar Mayer’s Madison factory closes. Perhaps, she muses as she talks with her colleagues, there is a way one of her video classes can help provide video resumes.

More often than not, those ideas become reality.

“She’s phenomenal at taking ideas and making them come to fruition,” says Stanley.

Professor and LSC department chair Dominique Brossard says Loew heightens the department’s effectiveness at giving students a more global perspective on the intersections of culture and science in the natural world. Her courses in ethnic studies and Native American issues and the media are very popular, she notes.

And with her extensive background in television and video production, Loew is a key player in achieving another of the department’s goals—providing foundational communication skills to students.
“She’s uniquely positioned to do this kind of thing,” Brossard says.

Loew has traveled a long road to reach this stage in her career. She grew up on Milwaukee’s north side, little aware of her Native American background and the important role it would play as her life unfolded.

“I didn’t know I was Indian until I was 13,” Loew recalls. “I was just a kid growing up in a housing project in Milwaukee.”

Looking back, Loew believes her mother, who was born on a reservation, and her grandfather, who lived with the family, were trying to shield her from the discrimination frequently faced by Native Americans. Her grandfather, Edward DeNomie, was raised in the Tomah Indian Boarding School. Life in such schools was harsh, and children were often punished severely for speaking their native language or clinging to other aspects of their culture.

Even so, Loew heard and relished the stories of her ancestors. And by the late 1960s, she had become well aware not only of her rich cultural heritage but also the ugliness of racial prejudice. She recalls a growing sense of outrage, especially in the 1970s as Native American rights became a prominent news story.

Loew pursued a career in broadcast journalism. She earned a degree from UW–La Crosse and started her broadcasting career working in the city as a TV and radio reporter.

Eventually Loew moved to Madison, where she worked her way up to the anchor’s desk at the ABC affiliate, WKOW–TV. Her awareness of Native American culture and her desire to tell the stories of Wisconsin’s tribes grew. In the 1980s, she earned awards and gained respect throughout the state for her coverage of the fierce legal battle and sometimes ugly boat-landing confrontations as the Ojibwe fought to reestablish off-reservation hunting and fishing rights that had been included in the treaties.

Loew would go on to make dozens of documentaries telling the stories and covering the struggles of Wisconsin’s Native American communities. After moving on to Wisconsin Public Television, she made reporting on the tribes a regular part of her job as host of the show Weekend.

In a 2006 interview in the magazine Diverse: Issues in Higher Education, Loew described the important connection between her rediscovered culture and her professional life.

“As a journalist, a researcher, you have questions,” Loew said. “You realize you are struggling for answers about yourself. So you want to be open, to make connections to people. You find yourself being very relational, and that’s very Native.”

That willingness to be up-front about her debt to her past, and to be outspoken about the indignities that Native Americans have had to endure, have sometimes landed her in interesting, if not difficult, positions.

After she gave a talk about some of the more unpleasant truths of the first Thanksgiving, she earned the ire of none other than radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh. He accused Loew of being part of a “multicultural curriculum which is designed to get as many little kids as possible to question the decency and goodness of their own country.”

Few of Loew’s documentaries received more attention than Way of the Warrior, an exploration of the role of Native American soldiers in the U.S. military that aired on PBS in 2007. During her research, she stumbled across a film about her grandfather’s World War I outfit. Her quiet Ojibwe grandfather, it turned out, had fought in seven of WWI’s major battles as part of the 32nd Red Arrow Division.

Later, in another serendipitous discovery, she would find his diary. She describes how touched she was and how she is still so taken by the idea of Edward DeNomie raising his hand to take the oath and enlist in the U.S. Army—even though he had been denied citizenship in the country for which he was willing to give his life. Native Americans were not granted citizenship in the United States until 1924.

The popular, eye-opening documentary told the stories of many such Native American soldiers. And, later, after earning her master’s and doctoral degrees in journalism and joining the Department of Life Sciences Communication, Loew would continue telling the stories of Wisconsin’s tribes and of her own people at Bad River. She’s written several popular books, including Indian Nations of Wisconsin: Histories of Endurance and Renewal—which has been adapted for children and is now widely used in public schools—and, most recently, Seventh Generation Earth Ethics, a collection of biographies about 12 Native Americans who were key figures in environmental and cultural sustainability.

Sitting in the stern of one of the boats winding through the reservation sloughs, Loew reflects on her storytelling past and connects it with the ancient tradition of the Ojibwe and other native cultures.

“We are oral storytellers,” Loew says. But she is lending a new twist to the revered tradition. By adapting digital media to the old stories, the power of their message is amplified and made more accessible, especially important when it comes to lessons regarding nutrition and health among tribal members.

For example, some of the young tribal videographers have scoured the reservation collecting information from elders about age-old gardening and cooking skills. They hope to use that information at some point, Loew explains, to create “teen cuisine” cooking shows focused on healthy eating.

It makes so much sense to combine the old and the new, Loew says. After all, she adds, by the year 2020, 80 percent of content on the World Wide Web is expected to be video.

“These are new tools to help us be who we are, to help us capture the essence of who we are,” says Loew. “It’s a way to preserve our stories and a really unique approach to documenting life on the reservation at this particular time in history.”

Students from the Global Health Institute class, traveling with Loew on weeklong field trips, have worked side by side with tribal youth to gather information for the health and nutrition project and to create videos.

Cali McAtee, a CALS biology major who went with Loew to Bad River in August, wrote in her journal about not only establishing close relationships with tribal young people, but also of gaining valuable insight into another culture. She recalls in her writings the feeling of traveling through a sea of rice at the edge of Lake Superior.

“I have seen a lot of wild rice in my life, but from far away. I probably assumed it was a field because you can’t really see the water in between,” wrote McAtee. “I liked hearing about the importance of rice to the Ojibwe because I don’t think I necessarily have anything as important or meaningful in my life as rice is to theirs.”

Loew has felt the power of story in her own life and in her own search for connections. Researching one of her books, Loew found herself reading the classic book Kitchi-Gami: Life Among the Lake Superior Ojibway, by Johann Georg Kohl. In the book she came across a story in which Kohl brings to life a meeting he had with a tribal elder.

That elder was none other than Loew’s great-great-grandfather, Loon’s Foot. Kohl wrote how, during his conversation with the old man, Loon’s Foot stepped back into his lodge and came out with a smoky, stained birchbark scroll. Unrolling it and speaking in French, Loon’s Foot showed Kohl the story of his family told on the scroll and the dots and lines that denoted the passing years and decades. The story reached back to the year 1142.

“Here I was just reading Kohl, and then holy smokes!” Loew recalls. “Not bad for an oral culture.”

Loew firmly believes it is possible to capture that same kind of magic today with new approaches to traditional storytelling.

Don Stanley has watched as Loew has found a way to navigate between two worlds—the quickly receding years of the elders and the fast-paced, media-rich present of the tribal young—to create a new way to tell and preserve story and tradition, and then apply their lessons to modern-day problems.

As an example, Stanley describes how, as part of the nutrition project, he has seen Loew work with Native middle school students, teaching them how to videotape an elder speaking about traditional foods and health. While Loew is helping the teens develop communication skills, she knows full well that she is also preserving the knowledge of that tribal elder for future generations.

No less an expert on Ojibwe tradition than tribal elder Joe Rose admires and respects Loew’s ability to bridge old and new worlds. He says that with the passing of the generation that experienced the assimilation policies of the boarding schools, it’s important that the young be able to hear the elders’ voices—to see their faces, lined and carrying the weight of the years, but still alive with the resilience and strength and wisdom of their ancient heritage.

“It is very important, since we do come from an oral culture,” Rose says of Loew’s task. “But you’ve heard the expression that a picture is worth a thousand words? Well, there’s truth in that, too.”
As for Loew, she says that the girl growing up in the Milwaukee projects has found her place.

“I’m doing what I was supposed to do,” Loew says. “I’m incredibly grateful that Don and I have found such a dedicated, caring community—our students, our volunteers, the Bad River kids and their families—with whom to pursue this work. They’re the ones who make it possible.”