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The Learning Path of Patty Loew


The Learning Path of Patty Loew

University of Wisconsin professor allows intuition and cultural protocol  to guide her research.

By Mark Anthony Rolo

Three years ago, while researching archival photographs and records for a documentary on American Indian war veterans, Dr. Patty Loew stumbled upon a long forgotten film about her Ojibwe grandfather’s World War I unit. Though it was a remarkable find, the truth is, for Loew, it was just another in a series of events that have guided both her professional and personal path.

The 1916 Fort Douglas training camp footage of the National Guard’s Third Wisconsin Infantry was buried in the basement stacks of the Wisconsin Historical Society. Stored in an unmarked canister, Loew says it looked as if it had never been run through a projector. Watching the film raised even more questions for her about her beloved grandfather.
“I realized that I have had this lingering question for the past 20 years,” says Loew. “My grandfather was not even a citizen. Native Americans were not legally allowed to vote until 1924. I’ve always tried to imagine what it was like for him to take an oath to defend the Constitution when he was not even protected under it.”

Starting her professional life as a successful broadcast journalist, Loew is now an associate professor in the department of life sciences communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She uses a curriculum of written and oral testimonies from tribal elders and leaders to demonstrate how science and myth are congruous to American Indians. She says, through both careers, her professional pursuits and personal growth have often been intertwined.

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

Since finding the film of her grandfather’s military unit, Loew says she has been discovering how deep her roots are with her extended Ojibwe family. “I was very close to my grandfather,” she says. “But over the past year, people have been giving me things, an envelope of negatives, still photos and a diary that my grandfather kept while fighting in all seven of the biggest battles of World War I.”

This journey towards making spiritual, cultural and family connections is not an uncommon path for many American Indians who grew up apart from their tribal communities. Though Loew is a member of the Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Ojibwe, she and her brother, Michael, were born and raised on the north side of Milwaukee. Growing up in
post-World War II America, Loew says they lived like many urban families of that era. “We didn’t know how poor we were.”

Even though her grandfather, Edward DeNomie, lived with the family for many of those early years, Loew says the “Indian relatives” always seemed like a world away.

Years later, while reporting on Wisconsin’s biggest news story of the late 1980s — the violent protests surrounding tribes’ determination to exercise their spearfishing and hunting treaty rights — Loew would realize how vastly different her own experiences as an urban American Indian were from those of her relatives on the reservations.

“I never experienced the blatant racism they did. There was racism in the city, but not as direct and hostile as there is against reservation communities,” she says.

Covering the treaty rights battle in northern Wisconsin would establish Loew as one of the most respected journalists in the state. She would win the Native American Journalists Association’s top broadcast award for her report, “Indian Treaty Rights and Sovereignty.”

But for Loew, the work was never just about the accolades. Since her early days as a radio and television reporter in La Crosse, Wis., she has always felt a responsibility for getting the story right when it comes to American Indian people and communities. Much of that obligation stems from the fact that Loew has carried the professional burden of being both a woman and an “ethnic” journalist in a field that has historically been dominated by White men. Learning how to navigate around the sting of White male privilege continues to be one of her survival strategies.

“I choose my time. I frame my issues in a way that’s direct, not confrontational. And I’ve always been able to argue well — politely,” she says. “I was humiliated only once. At a sponsor’s reception, my boss introduced me as their ‘cute little news gal.’”

Surviving those early years would serve Loew well when she came to Madison in the late 1970s. Within the next decade she would earn her way to the anchor’s desk at the ABC affiliate, WKOW-TV. The station would consistently find itself at the top of the ratings, and Loew would become one of the most popular on-air personalities in the city.

But the comfort of a career on cruise control has never been a ride that held appeal for Loew. When the treaty rights issue became national news, she insisted on being on the front lines. Knowing she would be accused of lacking objectivity because of her Ojibwe ties, she chose to run her stories by the most critical editor in the newsroom. It wasn’t enough. Because the state was so polarized over the issue, Loew received hate mail. Some questioned whether she was engaging in advocacy journalism, noting that her reports increasingly focused on educating the public about what sovereignty meant to tribes and the U.S. government.

Once again, Loew recognized that she was entering new territory. It was apparent to her that ignorance was one of the biggest causes of the racial violence the state’s American Indians were experiencing. But in order to understand the complex federal laws regarding American Indians, Loew was drawn to academia. She enrolled in a graduate program at the University of Wisconsin.

“Spearfishing revealed the racial problems we have in Wisconsin,” she says. “The most important victory that the Ojibwe won didn’t have anything to do with fish. It was in revealing how little people knew about Wisconsin history. People didn’t understand Indian sovereignty, treaty rights.”

In 1991, the state chose not to appeal a federal court’s ruling that the American Indian tribes of Wisconsin had the right to fish and hunt based on treaties signed in the last century. The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction also mandated that students be taught tribal history. For Loew, what began as one reporter’s investigation into a complex public issue ended up becoming a doctoral thesis, “The Chippewa and Their Newspapers in the ‘UnProgressive Era.’”

Loew’s first book, Indian Nations of Wisconsin: Histories of Endurance and Renewal, was the result of nearly 100 interviews with tribal elders and educators. Scholars have praised her skill in accessing the “hidden transcript” — oral stories of origin and survival that are largely unknown to mainstream society. And in 2003, the Wisconsin Historical Society Press published Loew’s companion social studies text for children, Native People of Wisconsin. Along with a teacher’s guide, the textbook is used to teach 15,000 children in the state.

In looking back on her research, Loew is convinced that had she not been Ojibwe she would never have been able to document history from a tribal perspective. She says thinking outside of the box and understanding cultural protocols have been crucial to her work.

“I know this might sound like New Age to some people, but I have this different way of knowing,” she says. “I am analytical, but I also value being intuitive and empathetic. There are different ways of knowing — aids in research in coming to answers. You can’t footnote that.”

Bringing a nontraditional perspective to the academy is what diversity is truly about, says Loew. “My major complaint about diversity efforts in higher education is that we say we want it, but what most administrators want are just different colors. That’s not diversity. We can’t fully be there as a society until we get true diversity of thought.”

These days, Loew is busy balancing a multifaceted career and motherhood. In addition to her academic position, the mother of two sons also hosts a weekly public affairs program on Wisconsin Public Television and is finalizing the edits on her American Indian war veterans’ documentary, “Way of the Warrior,” which will air on PBS in February 2007.

Loew confesses that she decided to open the documentary with a segment on her grandfather.

“Believe me, I never intended to tell my grandfather’s story, but everywhere I turned, he kept popping up,” she says. “Clearly, he has been telling me that he wanted to be in this film.”

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