I ask Agnes Dill about the honorary doctorate she'll have received from the University of New Mexico at the Saturday, May 15 commencement. "I guess I'm getting honored for a bunch of things I did," she says. Her extensive list of achievements is the culmination of many years of work. “It’s so long, and I don't know how to tell you," she says. Dill will turn 97 on June 23.
She was born in 1913 and attended college in the '30s. "I was the first Indian woman, Native American if you like, that entered the university as a full-time student." She always loved school, she says. She was 8 years old and in the second grade when she decided to be a teacher. "I had a teacher who I thought knew everything in this world. She was a Laguna Indian named Susie Rayos Marmon." Albuquerque Public Schools named a Westside elementary after Marmon, who devoted her life to educating Native American children. "I watched her. I asked a lot of questions, and she's always answering them."
"We have a lot of women Indian lawyers now, and they work in forestry or as surveyors. Many are educated. So now I think I had a little part in getting these women educated."
Dill's father was a Laguna railroad worker, and her mother was from Isleta Pueblo. Dill attended the Albuquerque Indian School in 1922 and spent nine years there before graduating. "To me, it was wonderful because there were so many tribes of Indians there. I'm always interested in people and their lives and everything."
The first Indian boarding school was founded in Pennsylvania by Richard Henry Pratt in 1879. In an effort to assimilate Native Americans, students wore uniforms, endured extensive disciplining tactics and were forbidden to speak their languages. "There is lots of criticism of Indian schools," Dill says, "but mostly from people who never even went there. I have mostly a positive attitude about it," she says. "If it wasn't for that, we wouldn't be where we are."
Her parents sacrificed to send all of their six children to college, she says. "In those days, there were no scholarships or grants." Dill and most of her siblings became teachers. Upon college graduation, Dill took a position at an Indian school in Oklahoma. She taught at four different schools there under the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs. She quit teaching and got married. Her husband, Clarence Dill, passed away after they returned to New Mexico in 1965.
Agnes Dill began work toward helping Native women in her 50s. She joined up with the North American Indian Women's Association in 1970 when it was formed, attended the first conference a year later and started a local chapter in Isleta Pueblo. She was elected president of the national organization on her 60th birthday. "I knew our Indian women were not getting educated and employed like they should," she says. So she traveled to Washington to lobby, speaking to educators, labor departments and before Congress. "We have a lot of women Indian lawyers now, and they work in forestry or as surveyors. Many are educated," she says. "So now I think I had a little part in getting these women educated."
She accomplished a great deal for New Mexico women, she acknowledges, representing the state at national conferences. She's also been appointed to state, national and tribal organizations. But she doesn't equate what she does with feminism. "I don't know what you mean by ‘feminist.’ I believe in everybody. I don't call myself a feminist." She began working for women because they weren't getting decent employment or wages, she says. "Our Indians were worse off than anybody else."
She never dreamed she would receive recognition in the form of an honorary doctorate. "I have a lot of honors, but to me, this is a big honor," she says. "I am not the only person honored. I feel there are many other people that I've worked with that really helped me to do the things I've done. I don't think I've done anything alone."
Dill’s still active. Though macular degeneration impairs her eyesight, she says, she can still walk around. "I don't have a cane yet." Dill says she was born too soon— there's still so much to be done. Championing education and working for Native American women, she adds, was her destiny. "We are all born with something for us to do within our lifetime."