The Bowans. Overcoming Indian stereotypes and personal tragedy, a family prevails
YOU can spend five minutes or five months with the Bowans and find no loose weave in their family fiber. But this unity took work. Their 19 years of marriage has been no smooth trail. It has been strewn repeatedly with economic and educational snares -- and a crushing tragedy.Skip to next paragraph
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Ron Bowan and his wife, Marguerite, are members of the northern Wisconsin Menominee tribe. Together with their three children -- Ron Jr., 13; Renee, 9; and Patti, 8 -- they shatter the stereotype of beleaguered urban Indians who can't put family life together in a city setting.
Chicago dwellers since 1980, the Bowans aren't jarred by the pace of the metropolitan metronome, a tempo that fractures many families -- Indian or otherwise -- who've grown up amid forests and open spaces.
At a time when warning signs flash that many American families are splintering, the Bowans have managed to solder their bonds. Now, the five gather in their living room where photographs -- dozens of them -- cover a whole wall. There are family portraits and snapshots displaying reservation days, tribal dances, canoeing on the lake, hunting for deer to stock the winter larder, and Mr. Bowan's grandfather, James Frechette, who served the Menominees as a tribal leader for 35 years.
The pictures aren't there to show the family is Indian. The pictures are there to show ``family,'' which is Indian.
The young Bowans point out who's who in the photo gallery and deftly integrate themselves into the conversation. Patti slips away to put on her Indian costume. She takes ballet, but is also into Indian dancing. Stepping softly as a cat's paw, she executes the gentle routine of the female Indian dancer, then the more aggressive male version. Agility is Renee's forte, too, but she channels it into gymnastics. And Ron Jr. swims. A high school freshman, he has long limbs that look loosely hinged to a lean frame. It's a physique that must cut through the water well because he has reaped a raft of ribbons for backstroke.
The Bowans live in a brick two-flat, spruced up with striped awnings and trim that's white. Mrs. Bowan elects to be a homemaker who tends two neighbor children during the day to bring in extra funds. Her husband works 12 blocks away. He's climbed to the post of director of information and assistance at Native American Educational Studies (NAES), a well-grounded college for Indians founded in 1974 and located on Chicago's North Side.
Mrs. Bowan's territory is the six-room apartment. ``There's nowhere else I want to be when they all go off in the morning, and there's nowhere else I want to be when they all come home,'' she says. She cooks, sews, cleans, does needlepoint to sell at bazaars for extra income, and bakes (she admits, though, that her superior frybread recipe is Oneida, not Menominee). But most important, Mrs. Bowan filters the family values into the days' moments and into the home's corners.
Turn the calendar back to the '60s and you'll find a very different picture; one shattered by tragedy.
Even though both were born and raised on the wooded Menominee reservation in northern Wisconsin, Ron and Marguerite didn't meet until their mid teens. Later, when Bowan enrolled at the University of Wisconsin, he lasted only a year and a half, leaving to become assistant manager of a variety store in a small Wisconsin town. He needed a job to marry Marguerite, who was still on the reservation.
In rapid succession, they had four little girls. Their budget was always tight, and they sometimes recycled bottles to buy baby formula, Mrs. Bowan remembers. But in January 1972, they had spare cash, enough to finance a drive back to the reservation. The winter was raw with the woods veneered in white, and the temperature frozen at 30 below for more than a week. But the family made the trek anyway because all the relatives were gathering.
A bowling party on the reservation's edge launched the weekend. Everyone went except Mrs. Bowan's father, who stayed home to babysit with the couple's four girls. The five of them went to sleep early that evening. And they never awakened.
The Bowans returned to find all five asphyxiated by carbon monoxide from a faulty heating system. A few month's earlier, a heating company had installed the new furnace, one unsuited to a mobile home.