Marilyn Miller (Photo by Mary Hanlon)

It is important to Marilyn Miller that her children understand, maintain and participate in their Native American culture. “It’s up to us to protect our cultural integrity,” she said. “We have to stand up and quit playing the victim role. We must become more active and initiate getting the services we need.”

Miller, 47, whose Chippewa name is Wabanongakwe, has been coming to events at the American Indian Center in Uptown for 35 years. On June 13, she was there to see her daughter, Alicia Marie Soto, 23, participate in the center’s annual Native American Graduation Award Ceremony and Powwow. This year, the event honored 64 of Chicago’s Native American graduates from elementary school, high school, trade school and college. Soto, who graduated this summer from the University of Illinois at Chicago with a degree in education, was one of four graduates who spoke that evening.

Miller is petite and speaks softly, but her own commitment shouldn’t be underestimated. In 1987 she became the first Native American to earn a bachelor’s degree in business from Loyola University Chicago, she said. She followed that up with a master’s degree in education from the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“I was a wife and mother raising a family and working part- and full-time jobs to get my education,” she said. “I believe that education is the key to economic freedom. Previously [American Indians] did not make the connection between education and economic status, but today we see there’s a strong connection.”

In 1988 Miller was named executive director of the American Indian Center. In addition to the center, Miller has worked with the American Indian Health Services of Chicago and the Anawim Center, another Native American cultural center; both are in Uptown.

She is now the assistant to the director of operations at the Institute for Research on Race and Public Policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago, as well as its coordinator for Native American initiatives. She’s also working on developing a charter school for American Indian children in Chicago. At a June powwow, Miller surveyed Native American parents about their interest in establishing the school.

Miller has three children. Her two daughters, Alicia and 20-year-old Kelli, live with her in Chicago’s Irving Park neighborhood on the Northwest Side, while her son, Edward, 17, lives on the Grand Traverse Band reservation in northern Michigan with his dad.

Miller also has a 3-year-old granddaughter named Anjeni, the Chippewa word for Angel.

While the Indian community is “not quite there yet,” Miller is encouraged about its future. “It’s rewarding to see second- and third-generation Indians enjoy the in-house powwows, the elders’ luncheon and monthly bingos” and other community events, she said.

“Our cohesiveness lies in our socialization,” Miller added. “We come together as a group in celebrating, to share and honor our traditions.”