The Bowans. Overcoming Indian stereotypes and personal tragedy, a family prevails

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

When recounting it now, Bowan says of himself and his wife, ``We just held to each other. We became very, very close.''

``And we made it through,'' she says.

``We leaned on our families and friends a lot,'' Bowan explains, telling that his employer transferred him to a town close to the reservation so the couple could be near relatives. ``We didn't change our lifestyle to deal with it. We didn't go to any group sessions and we didn't drink heavily to handle it.''

He speaks his next words with simple directness. And coming from him, the oft-repeated phrase takes on a depth beyond deep: ``We picked up our life and started over.''

What Menominee nuggets do the Bowans pass down to their children?

Mostly traditional values, the parents agree. ``Being Indian is how you think, and how you feel in your heart, not how you look or where you live,'' Bowan explains.

Respect for elders is a trait threaded through many cultures, including the traditional Menominee, and it's demanded by the Bowans. ``That doesn't mean the children can't disagree,'' Mrs. Bowan says. ``It's how they disagree.''

Respect for surroundings also rates high on the parents' priority list. This means you don't throw a candy wrapper on the pavement or paint graffiti, or kill a deer unless you need it for food.

Another item on the list is cooperation. It goes back to early days among all Indians, a quality necessary for tribal survival, and today it's firmly rooted with these five. Bowan cites his family's cooperation when he returned to Truman College and NAES for his undergraduate degree. Income only trickled in from his part-time jobs, so the family trimmed all frills, often eating panckaes four nights in a row to pare expenses further. Now the cooperation tables are turned; Bowan gets up at 4:30 to drive Ron Jr. to swimming practice, and he's making a bustle and roach (headdress) so he'll have a dance costume along with Patty.

``The American public is fairly ignorant about the native American,'' says Bowan. ``That's primarily because the only exposure they've had to the Indian is Hollywood. He's shown either as a savage or a drunken Indian, or the depiction is so romanticized that it's unreal.'' And according to Bowan, the Indian image gets another lopsided jolt from the news media. ``They seem to like to dwell on our failures,'' he laments.

Bowan is now in the business of trying to erase these stereotypes. In his capacity at NAES, he lectures to schools and city groups on the American Indian, and he edits a native American newspaper, circulated to 700 recipients around the country. He's also heavily involved in Chicago American Indian Community Organization (CAICO) which represents all the city's Indian groups. Proudly, he speaks of two CAICO coups: a training and technical assistance program for small Indian businesses, and one of the first Indian owned and operated credit unions in an urban area.

For sure the days of the wigwam and wild rice are long gone for all Menominees. And for some, like the Bowans, the days of reservation living and logging (a prime opportunity for the tribe, which owns some of the richest forest in their part of the world) are long gone, too. In carving out their lifestyle, they heeded the words of grandfather Frechette who earned his college degree at age 17 from St. Norbert College in West DePere, Wisconsin. The tribal leader's wisdom, paraphrased by Bowan: ``We can't forget who we are. We can't forget our heritage or culture, but we have to adapt to survive.''

The couple says, ``adapting'' won't make Indian identity melt away into the melee of the metropolis. According to the Bowans, the native American will hang onto his heritage even amid the wilds of the highrise. ``No matter where you put 'em, they'll find each other and carry on their culture.''

It's always easy for the Bowans to summon up Menominee memories: bumping down a two-rut road to swim in the lake; fishing at dawn and cutting firewood; the crash of trees felled by Indian loggers, the crackle of fallen leaves fried crisp by an autumn sun. And night skies salted with stars instead of neon reflections.

``We'll go home before long,'' says Mrs. Bowan.

``We go home several times a year,'' her husband adds. Then the very urban Indian explains, ``No matter where we live, `home' is always the reservation.''

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