ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – Agnes Dill has received her fair share of accolades for her 70 plus years of work in Indian country. But none quite as prestigious as the honorary doctorate degree bestowed to her by the University of New Mexico on graduation day in Albuquerque, May 15.
“I received this honor, but I don’t believe I received it for myself, it’s for all North American Indian people.”
Dill, who turns 97 June 23, briefly attended UNM when only a handful of Native students were enrolled. She then transferred to Highlands University New Mexico, where she earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in education in 1937. Prior to graduation, and what likely served as a precursor to future endeavors and a demonstration of her versatility, to her surprise, she had earned enough credits to graduate with degrees in both English and history.
From there, she embarked on a career in teaching at BIA schools in Oklahoma for more than a decade. During her spare time she took arts and craft classes that later led to a job as an art teacher, a job that she hesitated taking, but the supervisor who hired her believed she would do an excellent job. It boosted her confidence and once again demonstrated her versatility.
In her early 30s, she left teaching when she married Clarence Dill. The couple owned and operated the Fort Cherokee Indian Museum and Trading Post in Vinita, Okla. for 17 years.
When her husband developed emphysema, the couple decided to move to her homeland, Isleta Pueblo, in 1965. While Dill cared for her ailing husband, she involved herself in tribal affairs and also returned to education as a substitute teacher at a local elementary school. Five years later, Clarence passed away.
“He was such a wonderful man and we had a great marriage,” she said.
Despite the tragedy, she picked herself up and went to bat for women and American Indian rights. She was one of the founding members of the North American Indian Women’s Association, formed in 1971, and became the president in 1973.
In fact, the 1970s were a busy time for Dill, Isleta/Laguna Pueblo, and serving Native causes became second nature. When President Gerald Ford appointed her to the National Advisory Council on Women’s Education in 1975, she reached new heights and realized she was capable of helping Native people on both a local and national level.
She traveled the country to set up job and talent banks to encourage Native women to seek careers deemed non-traditional during the ’70s, in fields such as medicine, law and business. “Anything a man was doing, I tried to get women to do.”
She served on the board of Indian Pueblo Marketing, Inc., the entity that promotes and funds the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center.
It was a great time in Dill’s life and her resume continued to expand during the ’80s and ’90s. She served on the National Advisory Committee as a delegate to the White House Conference on Aging, worked on promoting opportunities for Pueblo youth, and served as the president of New Mexico chapter of NAIWA and director of New Mexico Indian Council on Aging.
These were just a few of her accomplishments during this period of her life. Today, the only thing that slows her down is Macular degeneration, a condition of the eye that damages the center of the macula, located in the retina. Due to this condition, she can no longer see fine details, and misses reading books and newspapers.
But she gets around, as her point of view and experiences are valued in the community. The Chamiza Foundation of Sante Fe, N.M. made her one of their lifetime directors, and she is an active member of the Council of Elders at the UNM Geriatric Education Center.
Over the years she has served as a guest speaker at numerous events across the country as a tireless advocate for Native causes. “I’ve done so much in the community, for tribal affairs, education and health,” she said. “I can go on and on.”
Shannon Fleg, coordinator of the Native Health Initiative, nominated Dill for the honorary doctorate based on her lifetime of outstanding service. “We felt that this was a moment where Grandma Agnes, a woman who represents the indigenous wisdom
and knowledge that is too often unrecognized by universities, needed to be honored.”
On behalf of NHI, Dill has spoken to UNM health majors on the topics of Native health and culture.
Dill never had children of her own, but has made a family out of friends and supporters. And she never remarried after her husband’s death. “I guess I am still a dill, a dill pickle,” she quipped.
What’s next for Dill, who has lived through two world wars, the Great Depression and lived to see the birth of modern technology? Despite her visual impediment, she feels great physically, mentally and spiritually, and plans to continue volunteering when possible, and of course, visit with good friends and her younger siblings.
“I just love people, and that’s why I have worked so much with people during my life.”