by Regina Brink
Many of us think we know a lot about the indigenous people of America. We have learned from our history books, television programs, and mass media what we need to know, right? Most likely, the answer to this question is that we have not learned enough, and many of the things we think we know are inaccurate. I had the pleasure of interviewing DeAnna Noriega from the Missouri Council of the Blind and asked her about her ancestry. She said her mother was a member of the group we know as the Chippewa but who call themselves the Ojibwe. She knows her father descended from the Apache peoples, but she is not sure which branch, so does not know their indigenous name.
DeAnna has been active in the American Council of the Blind since 1980 when Kim Charlson, then president of the Oregon Council of the Blind, began to mentor her after she attended a state convention. Before this, DeAnna and her husband were in the Peace Corps, placed in Western Samoa to establish a school for the blind, and active in her local church with older blind people. DeAnna was educated in public schools in Michigan, Texas, and California, where her mother resisted the pressure to send her to a residential school, finally relocating to make sure she could stay at home. Many Americans do not realize our indigenous population was subjected to forced residential schooling, where these children were punished for practicing their ancestral customs, religion, language, and other aspects of their cultural identity, educated away from their families and community and compelled to “assimilate.” Many indigenous children were abused, never saw their parents again, or both. This is why DeAnna’s mother was so strong about her staying at home to go to school and why DeAnna is glad she did.
DeAnna graduated from the University of Stanislaw in California and got her first guide dog just before she began college. The very first affiliate she joined was the Guide Dog Users of Oregon. Since then, wherever she has lived, she has been a part of her local chapter and various affiliates around the country, and served in leadership as a board member, officer, and president of several organizations in ACB. She continues to participate in her local community at food banks, libraries, and street fairs with her husband, who now uses a wheelchair. They both use these venues to further the awareness of disability and blindness.
She has lived through some contentious situations in the American Council of the Blind, including when the executive director and the president of ACB were at odds with one another. In each instance, DeAnna has sought to be a peacemaker and consensus builder. She values all people, regardless of their visual acuity, other disabilities, or choices concerning mobility and daily living. She supports literacy, including spearheading one of the first programs where braille books were made available for blind children and children of blind parents to keep. She would like to see ACB reach out in both directions, to older people going blind and the families of young people and blind children, mitigating the isolation many blind people live within both groups. People with visual disabilities need mentors and peer support, with attention toward reaching people from diverse cultures and backgrounds. Her favorite quotation is from Lily Tomlin: “I always thought somebody ought to do something about that, but then I realized I was somebody.” This is the message she wants to send to all of us.