Marquette University Confers Honorary Degree on Karen Lincoln Michel

By Ardith Van Riper

     On Thursday, Feb. 9, Karen Lincoln Michel received a Doctor of Humane Letters from Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin during their annual Mission Week.  Karen Lincoln Michel is an enrolled Ho-Chunk Nation tribal member who built a remarkable career as a writer and reporter, editor, publisher, and currently serves as president of ICT, formerly Indian Country Today.   Marquette University, a Catholic, Jesuit university, bestowed the highest honor they as a university can.

     Michel graduated from Marquette University in 1989 with her master’s degree in journalism.  She is CEO of IndiJ Public Media, a nonprofit news organization that covers the Indigenous world.  Karen is based in Wisconsin and leads the business operations of the company, which owns ICT.  ICT is located in Phoenix, Arizona.

     The ceremony incorporated Ho-Chunk culture.  The processional began with honor songs by the Thundercloud Singers, Joel Thundercloud, Jon Thundercloud, Josh Thundercloud, Andy Thundercloud, and Moses Cleveland.  Members of the Sanford WhiteEagle Legion Post 556, Joe White Eagle, Marcus White Eagle, and Marlon White Eagle, posted the colors. 

     The Vice President of Inclusive Excellence Dr. Chris Navia was the master of ceremonies.  Rev. James Pribek and Elder in Residence from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Vernon G. Altiman provided a blessing for the event.

     Marquette University alumni Alexander Liberato provided a land and water acknowledgment.

     Marquette University President Michael R. Lovell provided the conferral of the honorary degree.  Alumni Sandra Whitehead and Marquette Director of Public Affairs and Special Assistant for Native American Affairs Jacqueline Fontaine Schram nominated Karen Lincoln Michel with the help of Michel’s husband, Roberto Michel.

     Karen Lincoln Michel provided the keynote address.  “The best way that I can describe how I felt when I learned that I’ve been selected to receive this honorary doctorate degree, is like being stopped in my tracks by a bolt of lightning striking in front of me with fiery and force.  That happened to me in real life.”

     She said Carole Blackhawk, who was in attendance, gave permission to mention the late Julia Blackhawk.  Julia’s life ended when the I-35 Bridge collapsed into the Mississippi River in Minneapolis in 2007.  Michel shared her driving alone at night through a colossal thunderstorm.  The wind whipped so hard, it made the rain come down sideways.  There was lighting in all directions.  One landed less than fifty yards ahead of her and she could have sworn she felt the ground shake.  She stopped the car and saw something above her.  It was like a cloud spinning.  She feared it was a funnel cloud and thought ‘this is it for me.’

     However, it turned out to be smoke from the lightning bolt strike.  She felt like for the longest time her heart was pounding and her hands were trembling.  She kept driving and got through the storm.

     “I didn’t quite know what just happed but it was stunning as much as it was exhilarating.  I knew it was an experience that would stay with me always and give me strength and power but also gratitude and humility.  That’s how I feel again being awarded this doctorate degree of humane letters.”

     Karen Lincoln named a few influential people who she links with Marquette University, Dr. Sharon Murphy, Dr. James Scott, Dr. Robert Griffin, Sandra Whitehead, Jacqueline Schram, and Roberto Michel.

     Lincoln Michel brought up her parents and growing up with faith.

     Karen then explained her journalism journey.  She began at the La Crosse Tribune, then became a staff writer for The Dallas Morning News.  She is the former executive editor of The Daily Advertiser, former assistant managing editor of the Green Bay Press-Gazette, and former publisher and editor of Madison Magazine.   Karen also written as a freelancer for The New York Times Syndicate and her works appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Columbia Journalism Review, Native America, and American Indian.

     Michel mentioned her good friend and colleague Mark Trahant.  He trekked from Arizona to witness and share in the activities surrounding the conferral.  She then provided a brief history of ICT and her current position with them.

     Karen Lincoln Michel concluded her keynote with gratitude.  Then the Thundercloud Singers rendered an honor song.  There was a brief question-and-answer period.  The ceremony ended with the retirement of the colors and processional.

     Ho-Chunk artist Stephanie Swallow designed and created the blue and gold applique for Michel’s ceremonial stole.  Phammie Littlesun and Roger Snake gifted Karen the eagle plumes.  The jewelry she wore was crafted or gifted by her sisters Janice, Mary Ann, the late Helene, and the late LaVonne.

     “I received the royal treatment during my entire visit and I will always carry in my heart the genuine kindness and respect that was extended to me. I look at this honor as something to be shared with my Ho-Chunk people. I was taught that we cannot claim sole credit for things the Creator enables us to do. We are always helped and supported by our family, relatives and friends. So in receiving this honorary degree, we all partake in this blessing. Wa'íniginapšana,” stated Karen Lincoln Michel.