Native Daughter, Native Dreams
by Nick Schinker
Denise Kiona Henning's arrival in Omaha culminated the move of her life. From a small community college in Iowa to 15,000-student UNO. From single mother to a new marriage. From her home in Oklahoma, where as a Cherokee/Choctaw Indian she had spent the first 29 years of her life, to the largest metropolitan area in Nebraska.
It was not an easy move to make.
Her mind was packed with the trials of her youth—the poverty that accompanied her parents' work as laborers, and the frustrations of struggling in poorly-equipped schools alongside other Native American children. Her fears, though, were tempered by the sacrifice of her ancestors, whose perseverance against impossible odds had sparked in her a dream of building a doorway in the walls that had been placed around Indian people for so long.
Her incredible drive, her eagerness to learn every aspect of the educational process, and her ability to see things differently were recognized immediately at UNO, where in 1993 she became the first student to graduate with a minor in Native American Studies.
Those qualities still serve Henning, who today is vice president of Academics at First Nations University of Canada in Regina, Saskatchewan.
"Denise is an extraordinarily fine model for Native American people throughout North America," says UNO Professor of Philosophy and Religion Dale Stover. "She is a great example of how to use education to empower oneself. Indeed, how to truly make it happen."
For Henning, it all started back in Oklahoma when she was singing in a rock-and-roll band.
Music long had been a part of her life, as evidenced by the names of her three daughters from her first marriage: Harmony, Melody and Symphony.
While singing one night, Henning was approached by someone from Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa. They talked of opportunities for minorities. Henning applied for and received a one-year scholarship to study music and communications at Simpson. After earning 4.0 grades—and meeting future husband John Henning—she left Iowa for Omaha to attended UNO and to get married.
Professor Stover taught one of her first courses, in the fall of 1990. "She was a woman in her 30s with no academic background who had gone back to school," Stover recalls. "She came across as a very hard-working student, but what immediately struck me was her intrinsic intelligence. I think her identity as a Cherokee woman was so deeply rooted that it made her very straightforward and uncomplicated about her ethnicity."
Henning says Stover and others at UNO made a huge impact in the course of her life. "One of the biggest issues for me and others like me is self esteem and the belief that you can achieve," she says. "From my very first class at UNO, people cared about me. And they were willing to reach out and tell me so." She calls Stover "the first mentor of many." He prodded her by saying he believed in her. "My suspicions of him as a white man made me think, ‘Yeah, right,'" Henning says. "But he was willing to stand up and say, ‘You have so much to offer.'"
Stover once told her he could see her as a doctorate student. She says she laughed out loud. Five years later, Henning earned her master's degree from UNO. In 1998, she earned her Ph.D. from New Mexico State University in educational management and development with an emphasis in educational anthropology. Looking back, she says, Stover's words seem more like genuine encouragement than prophecy. "This was a person who believed in me until I could learn to do it for myself."
Soon, she began to listen. And learn. "I discovered in my first semester that I really was smart, I really could do things, and that I had potential I didn't know was there. It was an awakening."
While she can name many people at UNO who influenced her life, Professor Stover was a key. "I think what he sees is potential," she says, explaining his gift. "Instead of making them a victim of their potential, he helps people reach their potential."
She says Stover and others at UNO, including then-Chancellor Del Weber and his executive assistant, Barbara Maroney, changed her preconception of college professors and administrators. "Before UNO, I saw them as being the sole owners of knowledge. But they helped me see that I was responsible for what I learned."
Stover says that among her many talents, Henning has a knack for persuasion. "By the fall of 1991, she had persuaded the Native American student organization to request the faculty to begin a program in Native American Studies," he says, "which was subsequently launched in the fall of 1992. As a graduate student, she persuaded Chancellor Weber to place her in his office as his first and probably only graduate assistant."
Henning proved to be an invaluable resource, both to the UNO administration and to Stover, who served as the first coordinator of the Native American Studies program.
"Even though she was a student, she functioned as a peer," he says. "She could see how things worked, and she has this imaginative gift of seeing how we could do things differently. She would always be the one to suggest the next step."
That gift helped her when she interned as a coordinator for the MASTER Success Program in UNO's Multicultural Affairs Office. It helped her become instrumental in the founding of American Indian Studies programs at UNO and later at New Mexico State University. It helped her when she served as Executive Director of Intercultural Programs at Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa.
And it will help in her new position at First Nations University. The 28-year-old college has 2,000 students on campus and another 500 enrolled in distance or community-based education delivery. Ninety-eight percent are indigenous aboriginal people.
"This institution is unique to the world," she says. "It is setting the standard for indigenous post-secondary education through its mission ‘to enhance the quality of life and to preserve, protect and interpret the history, languages, culture and artistic heritage of the First Nations.'
"I am committed to increasing the awareness of, and the support for, the higher educational goals of indigenous students."
Stover says Henning, 45, has the skills to do it.
"When she was at UNO, every Native American student on campus knew who she was. She had that kind of impact. Now, at First Nations University, the projects she directs will have a resonance in Native American studies here in the U.S. and throughout North America."
Henning says administrators and faculty at First Nations educate by reinforcing the values and knowledge of Native American traditions, and increasing the understanding of how those traditions coincide with the values of the dominant culture. In turn, the university hopes to significantly increase awareness of Native American issues.
Her goal is simple. And personal.
"I see a future where our people won't have to go to school and feel what I felt. Our institution does that, and we're doing it from our own perspective. Our students can walk proudly knowing who they are."
As they do, they are walking though a doorway that once was just a dream.
About First Nations University
More info at www.firstnationsuniversity.ca
• Created In May 1976 as the Saskatchewan Indian Federated College (SIFC through an agreement between the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations and the University of Regina).
• First opened doors in fall 1976 with nine students and six programs.
• More than 2,500 students have graduated since then. Today, one-quarter of students come from outside Saskatchewan and represent every province and territory in Canada.
• Three campuses: Regina, Saskatoon, Prince Albert.
• Ten academic departments and/or schools.
• Since 1983, more than 25 agreements signed with indigenous peoples' institutions in Canada, South and Central America, and Asia. Other agreements have been signed with academic institutions in Siberia, Inner Mongolia, and Tanzania.
Nick Schinker is a contributor to the UNO Alum, the magazine of the UNO Alumni Association. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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