Byline: Susan Dibble Daily Herald Staff Writer
Rita Reynolds had been married a year when her husband was looking through a photo album and remarked that her father looked Native American.
"That's because he is," she shot back. "Is that a problem?"
"He started to laugh and said, 'No, my dad is too,' " she recalled. "I guess that was the start of our journey to find out more about ourselves."
Reynolds has come a long way since then. She now coordinates the Memorial Day weekend powwow at Aurora University and speaks on Native American topics.
She tackles issues such as why Native Americans so often drop out of higher education, the problems with sports teams having Native American mascots and the pros and cons of American Indian- owned casinos. She also addresses powwows and the spirituality of dance in Native American culture.
But Reynolds wasn't always able to speak knowledgeably about Native Americans. Her father was Dakota, but her parents divorced when she was young and she was raised by her Italian mother. Growing up in Kenosha, Wis., she knew little about the other side of her heritage.
Reynolds did know that her paternal grandfather had been separated from his family when he was young and sent to boarding school, a common practice at the time. The experience never left him, she said.
"He was definitely not proud to be Native American and I needed to find out why because I was proud of him," she said.
She has taken that journey to find pride in her heritage with her husband, Terry, who was raised by his Swedish mother after his Native American father died when he was 8. The couple, who live in Shabbona, sometimes share the speaker's platform.
"We're probably both just as proud of our white side as our Native American side, but our Native American side needs more help," Reynolds said.
Quest for heritage
Busy with raising her seven children and working full-time, Reynolds did not begin exploring her Native American background in earnest until her children entered their teens.
At the time, she was working as the business manager of the graduate school at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb. Her boss, who was not Native American, encouraged her to find out more about her heritage.
"I didn't understand myself very well. I needed to find out who I was and what I was doing," she said.
Reynolds helped start the powwow at NIU and coordinated it for a dozen years until she retired from the graduate school. Now finishing work on a graduate degree in counseling from Northern, she teaches career counseling and placement.
After she completes her degree in December, she does not intend to counsel full time. But she wants to be available to offer help as needed.
She notes, for instance, a call went out for counselors in Red Lake, Minn., where this spring a 16-year-old living on a reservation killed nine people, including his grandfather, before turning the gun on himself. Next year, she said, she probably will be in Red Lake.
"Counseling Native Americans is something I've taken to heart. Our value systems are so different," she said.
Reynolds also wants to write on topics near to her heart. She is working on two articles, one about Native Americans and higher education, and another on Native American resiliency, or why some young people succeed and some do not.
Her desire to help young people succeed is grounded in some bleak statistics. Native Americans between the ages of 15 and 24 have a suicide rate of 15 percent, far higher than any other group, she said.
Part of the hopelessness is born of poverty, lack of opportunity and a way of life that is at odds with mainstream culture, Reynolds said.
The difference in cultures is a major reason many Native Americans don't complete college, she said. Separated from their families and left without a support system, many simply drop out. …