Earlier this month, two Ho-Chunk tribal members were named Distinguished
Alumni of Tomah High School, in honor of everything they have accomplished
since their graduation.
"These are individuals who have really risen," said Tomah School
District Superintendent Cindy Zahrte.
The two tribal members to receive the honor were Eileen Decorah
and Karen Lincoln Michel. They would join nine other alumni in becoming
Tomah's first group of Distinguished Alumni.
"We had 17 applications," Zahrte said. "And all of them were
Decorah was the first Ho-Chunk tribal member to become a physician's
assistant for the Nation, and helped secure funding for her tribe's
medical clinics. She graduated from Tomah in 1967, and earned her
bachelor of science from UW-La Crosse.
She later participated in the physician's assistant program
at the University of New Mexico. Friends and colleagues said she
was extremely passionate about her work.
"I remember her as a student who was dedicated and confident,"
said former classmate Geri Shangreaux. "She had great qualities
as a student, and she carried it through in her profession."
Decorah passed away at the beginning of March. But to acknowledge
her lifelong contributions, a classroom in the Ho-Chunk clinic in
Black River Falls was recently dedicated in her memory.
"It's people like her who make this world a better place," said
Family members accepted the honor on her behalf.
The other tribal member made the return trip to her alma mater
to accept the honor herself.
Karen Lincoln Michel has been a longtime leader in Native American
journalism, and currently serves as the editor of Madison Magazine.
She graduated from Tomah High School in 1976, before earning a master's
degree in journalism from Marquette University.
"I'm really glad that the high school is taking the time to
recognize some of its graduates," Michel said. "I think, a lot of
times, we take our high-school education for granted. So it's great
to look back, and see people who walked through these doors and
what they've gone on to do."
The journalist was humble about her accomplishments, but has
done some great things herself.
As a past president of both the Native American Journalists
Association and UNITY: Journalists of Color, Michel has made a name
for herself in the field. She was recently appointed president of
the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism's board of directors.
"I really didn't expect anything like this," Michel said.
Along with the other alumni, she was asked to take part in a
video archive project for the school. They each sat down for a one-on-one
interview, where they told their story to the camera.
According to the superintendent, the stories were meant to serve
as inspiration to other students. During her interview, Michel talked
about the things that motivated her to become a journalist.
"The point of view we have as Native people is really outside
of the mainstream," Michel said. "So very early on, I sort of felt
like an outsider even in school. And there was always this
lack of attention to Native issues. It seemed like we weren't covered
in the media, or when we were, there was a lot of misinformation
The observations inspired her to be a voice for Native Americans
and other underserved people. She said they deserve to be heard,
just like the rest of the population.
After telling their stories, she and the other alumni shared
some advice for future graduates.
"(Success) is really a collective thing," Michel said. "It starts
with your own family, and the values that they instill in you."
She credited her family with helping her on the road to success.
She said that none of her accomplishments would have been possible
without their support, or the support she received from others.
"There's too many people to thank," Michel said.
A wall with pictures of all the Distinguished Alumni was revealed
in an unveiling ceremony, prior to Tomah's homecoming celebration.
The school's superintendent said it will be a permanent fixture
in the high school for as long as it remains open.
"I think our students need to see the names and faces of individuals
who have gone before them," Zahrte said. "It really creates a sense
of pride in our community."
Nominations for the Distinguished Alumni program have been made
available on the school district's website.