Two tribal members recognized in Tomah’s first class of Distinguished Alumni

By Tim Wohlers

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 certainly appropriate.” 
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 Zahrte. 
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 or inaccuracies.” 
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.