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Six honored for their societal contributions at first-ever awards

Sarah Cummins

11/27/2001 12:00:00 AM

Advocates for the growth and betterment of Native American individuals and communities were recently recognized for their contributions and successes.

Honorees from one Wisconsin and three Michigan Tribes, were recognized at the SBC Ameritech Native American Excellence Awards on Nov. 8 at the Soaring Eagle Casino & Resort. The recipients, included the late Arnold (Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe) and Margaret Sowmick; Geraldine M. (Cameron) Parish (Bay Mills Indian Community); Bonnie Ekdahl (Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe); Joseph "Buddy" C. Raphael (Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians) and George Martin (Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Chippewa).

"We don't hold up one another often enough," explained Gail Torreano, president SBC Ameritech, about the importance of recognizing each other for accomplishments. "Our kids need that."

Ten years ago, Ameritech started an African American Excellence Awards program. Over the years, the company realized that with 16,000 employees and 14,000 retirees, the composition of their group had to be much more diverse, according to Torreano.

"Our customer base and employees come from a much broader background," she said.

Recently, a program was enacted for Hispanic Americans, and this year marks the first program honoring Native Americans. It was produced by Central Michigan University Public Television.

Arnold and Margaret Sowmick were honored posthumously for Civic Leadership. Along with serving on the Saginaw Chippewa Tribal Council for 30 years, Arnold Sowmick, a Korean War veteran, spent eight years as chief of the Tribe. He and Margaret Sowmick were active members of various Native American and community organizations. Margaret did extensive work in education, including the Johnson O'Malloy Education Program for American Indian Children. She was the mother of five and was a consistent support and partner to her husband, according to their son, Joseph Sowmick, who accepted the award on their behalf.

"Mom and Dad talked a lot about stewardship and the importance of working for the community," he explained. "I've seen a lot of accomplishments they achieved over 10 years ago still coming in today."

During Arnold Sowmick's time as chief, the Tribe's unemployment rate dropped from 65 to 20 percent. Programs were also developed in support of education, the elderly, housing, preventing substance abuse and developing economically.

The Health and Human Services Award was bestowed on Parish. She has been an advocate for Native American children for 33 years. She began her career as a teacher's aid and later became the first education director at Bay Mills. Parish's commitment to children and education has not been limited to the Native American community. She has served on the Brimley Area Public School Board and the Child Welfare Committee. While serving on the Tribe's Executive Council, Parish helped the community set up programming for Social Services. She is currently a member and chairperson of the Statewide Board of Directors of the Michigan Indian Child Welfare Agency, according to information from SBC Ameritech.

"I just really believe in the talent of the community and that's how I do my work," said Arts Award recipient Ekdahl. "I just coordinate the projects, and I always try to design them, so it allows for the community to have input. That's why the end result is always so good because it comes from them.

"I have a lot of faith in the community. Even though, we have had hard times, we've survived through a lot of things. It shows that there is a strength in the community, a resiliency."

She was honored for her contributions to Native American arts. Ekdahl has been part of the Saginaw Chippewa's Ziibiwing Cultural Society since its inception in 1993. In 1995, she became director of the organization, created to protect the art and history of the Great Lakes people. The society has been instrumental in repatriation efforts, hosting juried art shows and protecting historical items and documents.

Currently, plans are underway for the Ziibiwing Center which will not only house the Tribe's historical records but will tell the Tribal history through a variety of displays, presentations and artwork.

Because of Ekdahl's efforts advocating for a cultural arts specialist, the Soaring Eagle Casino & Resort was designed and decorated while keeping Anishinabe themes in mind.

"I want to thank everyone who thought of me, because I don't think of myself in that way, so it was a surprise," explained Ekdahl. "I especially appreciate all the people who have worked with me and all the Councils who have supported these projects and ideas. There are so many levels of coordination involved in these projects, so really they take a group effort."

The Economic Development Award went to Raphael. As a Native person from Peshawbestown, Raphael said he believes the standard of living for his community's people could be raised by increasing employment, according to information from SBC Ameritech.

Raphael has served on the Tribal Council of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians and has been their chairman for 16 years. He helped increase employment by establishing the first Tribal casino in Michigan, which in turn made the Grand Traverse Band the largest employer in the county, according to information from SBC Ameritech. As other Tribes have established casinos, Raphael has helped them train members of their staffs.

Martin was recognized for his contributions to Native American cultural education. Martin has been involved in Native American culturally oriented projects at the University of Michigan, Frederik Meijer Gardens, Van Andel Museum in Grand Rapids, Michigan State University's Folk Life Museum, Nokomis Learning Center in Lansing and the Seventh Generation Anishinabek Leadership Youth Retreat in Ann Arbor, according to information from SBC Ameritech. Martin has also been a regular presenter at the annual Career Expo sponsored by the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe.

Martin is certified to teach Ojibwe through the Bay Mills Anishinaabemowin Language Instructors Institute and often serves as head veteran dancer at powwows. He is a First Degree Mide in the Three-Fires Lodge of the Midewiwin Society and a member of the Rabbit River Singers and Dancers, who often conduct presentations at schools and universities.

To further the celebration of November as Native American Month, an SBC Ameritech grant was given to CMU Public Television to underwrite all of November's programming in recognition of indigenous people. The grant also provided for 90-second vignettes that were broadcast on the 2001 award recipients.