Why I Work at the American Indian College Fund

May 11, 2009 | Archives, Blog

Non-Native American Indian College Fund staffer Dina Horwedel, Public Education Director, shares why she is passionate about the Fund’s mission.

In Italy there is saying, la dolce vita, which means “the sweet life.” For Italians this means food, friendship, laughter, and love. But in 1900, my Italian great-grandfather, who was 19 years old, stepped on board the Stella Bruz and headed for America in search of the sweet life that had eluded him in Calabria, Italy, which had been his home for his 19 years.

Growing up in poverty, my great-grandfather had never attended school, never learned to read or write in his own language, and labored as a “dirt farmer” in the parched soil of southern Italy. With no future in sight, he set out for America for a better life for himself and his family.
My grandfather migrated west to Ohio after passing through Ellis Island, and settled in Ohio, where he met another Italian, married, and raised a family through the Great Depression.

Although he had a job working as a laborer on the railroad, things were tight with seven children.
Although he never learned to read or write, my grandfather was wise. He used to tell me as a little girl, “Go to school, don’t be a dumba-bell like me!” And so, I did. While in school I learned that I loved telling stories, just like my great-grandpa, but with the gift of an education, I could write those stories down on paper. From an early age I started writing stories, newspaper articles, and books. When I was in third grade a teacher asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I responded, “an author.”

I graduated from high school and became the first person in my family to earn a college degree, and then first person to go on and graduate from law school. To this day I earn my living through my writing. My husband, in a nod to my ancestry and my passion for storytelling, gave me a handcrafted pen from Florence, called La Dolce Vita. Because of my grandfather’s sacrifice in coming to America, I am able to have the sweet life. I often joke that I am “living la dolce vita in the land of Velveeta.”

To my great-grandfather, America was a land of promise and opportunity. He passed on six months shy of 100 years old in 1987. I think my grandfather would have been surprised if not shocked to learn that for the original Americans, America was not a place of opportunity.

Many American Indians live in poverty. According to U.S. Census Bureau figures, nearly 26% percent of all American Indians and Alaska Natives live below the poverty line, contrasted with a national poverty rate of 12.4%. The gap is even larger for people living on reservations with limited economic opportunities, with 51% of the population living below the poverty line. And even though the nation’s poverty rate dropped from 11.8% in 1999 to 11.3 % in 2000 (the lowest in 21 years), American Indian’s and Alaska Native’s poverty rate did not drop.

In addition, the educational opportunities my great-grandfather my great-grandfather urged me to take advantage of are scarce amongst American Indian populations. In 2000, the proportion of people aged 25 and over who had completed high school or more education comprised 11 percent of the American Indian and Alaska Native population.

It isn’t just my great-grandfather that would have been shocked: it wasn’t until law school, when I was studying Indian law, when I learned about the political, social, health, economic, and educational inequities that American Indians have endured for centuries. I think about how lucky I am to have had a wise great-grandfather that wanted a better life for me, and I know the grandmothers and grandfathers of American Indians want and wanted the same, but the circumstances were much different.

That is why I am proud to work for the American Indian College Fund. I am not American Indian, although I am native in that I was born in this country because of my great-grandfather. My personal mission is to have my work help American Indians get a piece of la dolce vita—the sweet life—that education brings and that every person deserves, so that they, too can share and preserve their stories.

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