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Making Higher Education a Family Effort and Priority

Juanita Plenty Holes, Ute Mountain Ute tribal council member, and her family have made higher education a priority.
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Juanita Plenty Holes is driven to succeed despite obstacles when it comes to education.

She insists that if she can make it, other women can.

At the end of February she left her home near Towaoc, a small community in southwestern Colorado and—even though she’s a nervous flyer—headed for a National Indian Education Association legislative summit in Washington, D.C. as one of two tribal council representatives from her Ute Mountain Ute Tribe.

It doesn’t seem so long ago to her that as a new student she was driving the hour from her home to Fort Lewis College (FLC) in Durango several times a week despite having five children, being a single parent, working a job, and juggling her schedule so other family members could also attend school.

“We’re here—we’ll help you with the little guys,” her two oldest sons said of the three younger children when she voiced reservations about whether they could all handle her going back to college.

After she started classes, no excuses were accepted, she recalls: “Things would come up, and I’d wonder whether I should go that day. Waylon [the oldest, now 28] would say, ‘Go to school. You go to class. You can do that—whatever it is—later.’”

Plenty Holes, 50, had earned an Associate of Arts degree in business administration from Haskell Indian Nations University [then Haskell Indian Junior College] in 1982 and in 2004, she received a certificate in accounting at San Juan Basin Technical College, now Southwest Colorado Community College. But what she really wanted was a four-year degree, and her interest was piqued when Waylon, enrolled in FLC in 2004 and suggested she attend with him.

She followed her son’s advice as soon as before- and after-school arrangements were figured out. Waylon and Jesse, 27, both of whom are Ute Mountain Ute and Oglala Lakota, planned with her the details of care for Joseph, now 16, and Elijah, now 14, both in high school, and Danita, now 13, in middle school. Following the older family members’ example, they’re already thinking of college.

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The higher education effort worked out and, in the end, she and Waylon got their bachelors’ degrees from FLC a year apart in 2008-09. She had managed to continue full-time work as the tribe’s director of employment and training and later became director of grants and contracts. Waylon is director of the Weenuche Smoke Signals newspaper.

Then, when the present tribal chairman left his council seat to run for the chairman position, she decided to attempt another long-held goal—seeking a tribal council position. She was elected to serve the remainder of his tribal council term and then was elected a second time.

In a way, her academic career—and her goals—started when she was a child and her youngest uncle “really helped me develop reading skills.” She and her cousins would trade comic books, but “he didn’t speak English so I would read it to him. So without reading, he helped me learn to read.” She fully understands the Ute language and is learning to speak it as fluently as her mother and other relatives.

Plenty Holes knows she can relate to others with similar upbringings. She remembers her mother’s beadwork, her small house with its wood-burning stove and the smell of tree willows she used in making baskets.

But because her mother was a single parent and “had an alcohol problem,” her aunt, who had stopped drinking and lived next door, became her “second mom.”

“If I’d stayed with my mom, who knows how I could have grown up,” she recalls. “Living with my aunt helped because it got me to school. If parents are always drinking, there’s no one to cook for the kids, and do other things.”

Later, Plenty Holes “realized what alcohol was doing to [her] family” and said, “ I told myself I wouldn’t go down that road. I couldn’t believe I thought that way, but it was good.”

“Have goals in life,” she repeatedly urges youngsters, and she stresses education. “Our ancestors physically fought for us to be who we are now. We’re still carrying on that fight, but with education and knowledge.”