Growing up in a Milwaukee housing project, Patty Loew didn’t meet many other Native American people. A member of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe, Loew would occasionally spend summers on a reservation with relatives, but it wasn’t until her late teens that she started developing a connection to her Native identity.
“In the ’60s, everything was just exploding — with civil rights, women’s rights and the Red Power movement taking center stage,” Loew says. “It was then that I started really seeking out other Native people — and when my lifelong education on Native history really began.”
Loew studied journalism at the University of Wisconsin–LaCrosse and would later be hired as a news anchor by the ABC affiliate in Madison, where she worked for 16 years. While anchoring the 5, 6 and 10 p.m. news, Loew decided to enroll in a Native studies course at UW–Madison. There she met Ada Deer, the instructor for the class and a Menominee tribal leader who later became assistant secretary of Indian Affairs for the U.S. Department of the Interior and head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs under President Bill Clinton. At Deer’s urging, Loew enrolled in graduate school, while continuing as a news anchor and hosting a weekly news and public affairs program for PBS Wisconsin until 2011.
“I didn’t know it at the time, but Ada would become a great mentor to me — encouraging me to pursue a master’s degree, and later also a PhD, documenting the stories of Native people along the way.”
Loew has written several books on the Native people of Wisconsin, including a social studies text for elementary school students. In 2017, she accepted a teaching position at Medill and each fall takes her students to the Oneida Reservation near Green Bay, Wis., to help with the white corn harvest. This winter she’ll take her graduate students to the Pacific Northwest, where they’ll explore how Indian nations there are adapting to and mitigating climate change. Each summer she coordinates a tribal youth media workshop on the Bad River Reservation, where tribal teens investigate environmental issues, integrating science and traditional ecological knowledge.
“One thing I learned from Ada Deer about being an instructor is to be generous with my time,” she says. “Native people talk a lot about the Seventh Generation principle, which asks us to think about the decisions we make in terms of their impact on seven generations into the future. When I think about change, I think not just in terms of what I need to do in my lifetime but what I need to do to nurture the people who come after me.”
Another way that Loew is leading change at Northwestern is through her role as co-director of the Center for Native American and Indigenous Research. CNAIR is a community of scholars devoted to teaching, research and outreach in collaboration with tribal communities.
Loew, who was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences last April, describes the mission of CNAIR as two-fold: to work together with tribal communities in a way that helps promote self-determination, and to honor the histories of the Indigenous people who lived on the land that is now Evanston and the Northwestern campus. She recently worked with teams of students to develop two versions of an Indigenous tour of Northwestern. Undergraduates in her media history class researched and contributed media to a virtual tour using StoryMap, an app developed by the Knight Lab at Northwestern. A team of graduate students in the School of Communications’ Sound Arts and Industries Program created the soundscape for a GPS-guided walking tour.
“Patty is a mino-anishinaabekwe — the word for ‘good woman’ in Ojibwe,” says Pam Silas, associate director of community outreach and engagement at CNAIR. “In Native communities, that’s one of the most important titles you can have.” Silas and Loew met 15 years ago through their work with the American Indian Science and Engineering Society.
“Patty and I have traveled around the country together, and everywhere we go, we run into someone who says, ‘If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t be where I am.’ Giving back is Patty’s way of inspiring change.”