“Uncouth Ruth from Duluth” she loved to call herself to the delight of my young sons. We all knew that nothing could have been more from the truth.
For decades, Ruth M Myers, known as the “grandmother of American Indian Education in Minnesota” was the driving force and voice for American Indian children and their families. Though she died in 2001, Ruth left a legacy that might well serve as the model for Governor Dayton and the educators who are struggling with the same issues today. Her spirit, ideas, courage, and unstinting commitment to American Indian learners set a standard to be emulated. Her spirit can infuse and thus help shape today’s efforts.
Ruth was not a professional educator but a concerned parent, citizen and a proud member of the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. Ruth was sent at an early age to an Indian boarding school, a sad fact that shaped her life and fueled her fervor. Though she spoke little of those sad experiences, it was easy to feel her pain and the ways in which she harnessed that pain to inspire positive change.
Her accomplishments are legendary. An elected member of the Duluth School Board, Ruth was appointed by the Governor as the first American Indian member of the Minnesota State Board of Education. Though at times she chaired that Board, she always ruled it by her presence and her persistence.
At the University of Minnesota Duluth where she worked for many years, she remains a legend. She is credited with starting sixteen of seventeen UMD programs for American Indian students. Colleagues there recall that, in 1973, she saw a notice in the newspaper that the UMD Medical School was developing a program for American Indians and, in the process, was organizing a committee of community members. She knocked on the office door of the Dean of the Medical School and asked, “What Indians do you have on that committee?” The rest is history….
Ruth’s position at UMD before retirement was Co-Director of the Center of American Indian and Minority Health at the School of Medicine. There she tended not only to recruitment and academic coaching but to life’s details; she regularly stopped at a legendary purveyor of low-cost fresh produce every time she had a meeting in St. Paul – which was often. Often I think of how proud Ruth would be of the students to whom she offered a gentle helping hand at the most unexpected moment.
Not one to bow to academic measures, Ruth was truly pleased when UMD named the Ruth Myers Endowed Chair in American Indian Education; though she cared little about the honor she knew it would convey status and support on her beloved program. She was also touched deeply when the Fond du Lac Community College Library was named for her; that library continues to reflect her influence in many ways. Ruth understood well the power of the record; she often expressed a conviction that American Indian students should be encouraged to pursue professions in museums, libraries and archives so they could correct, complete and basically set the historic record straight.
Though the list of honors for Ruth is nearly infinite, possibly the most inclusive is the Minnesota Indian Education Association Elder of the Year – it says it all.
My introduction to Ruth was as a member of the State Board of Education. On the first day, she reminded me that I was as much a member as any of the older and, I presumed, wiser members. She also declared that, from that day forward, I was to watch out for women’s issues so she could concentrate on American Indian and other minority students. Ruth was the mistress of gentle delegation.
Though her accomplishments as a member and Chair of the State Board of Education are inestimable, a few stand out in my clear memory of those days:
- Ruth advocated unceasingly for review of the image of American Indians in textbooks, library materials, the core curriculum.
- She fought for preservation of American Indian languages in the schools.
- She insisted that every Minnesota student must know something about Indian culture.
- She regaled education professionals about their indifference to the nutritional needs and dietary threats (e.g. milk products) for American Indian youth.
- Ever open to change, Ruth examined every proposed rule from the perspective of how it would affect Indian kids and their families.
- And she would frequently point to the American Indian origins of the U of M Morris campus – and the rights of American Indian students who should be encouraged to exercise their inalienable right to attend UM-Morris.
Often a body of writing conveys the thoughts of an academic who wants to have a voice in the future. For Ruth, the voice was so strong, the commitment so staunch, the vision so clear and the passion so fervent that it is her voice that speaks to those who will but hear. My hope is that this includes those who are shaping the future of American Indian Education in Minnesota. As with other great leaders, the vision outlives the individual and must inspire those who would seek to accomplish similar goals – if they will just listen.
My heart rejoiced just recently when I learned that the Duluth School Board has approved changing the name of the Grant Elementary School to Myers-Wilkins Elementary in honor of Ruth Myers and Marjorie Wilkins, an African American advocate. The Board also approved naming the new auditorium at East High School as the Myers-Wilkins Auditorium. It was an unprecedented battle and a true victory that would please Ruth especially because the honor is shared. It is a reminder that the voice of Ruth Myers lives. Her vision and relentless commitment should set a tone and a pace for what comes of the recent first-ever Summit on American Indian Education.