When Lorena Kihega DeRoin was born near the Otoe-Missouria Indian Agency in Noble County, Oklahoma in 1915, her parents could never have imagined the changes their tiny daughter would live to see in her lifetime.
On February 9, Lorena celebrates her 100th birthday. As the oldest member of the Otoe-Missouria Tribe located in Red Rock, she is loved, respected and cherished by her tribe.
In her long years, Lorena has lived through the historical changes of the 20th century that saw women received the right to vote, Native Americans recognized as American citizens, the country enduring two World Wars and the civil rights turmoil of the 1960s.
Born to George and Sarah Grace Hudson Kihega, Lorena was one of seven children who were raised on a farm 12 miles west of the tribal agency. Following her father’s line, she is a member of the Pigeon Clan.
Lorena remembers helping her family work the farm. Though the work was hard, she still takes great pride in referring to herself as an “old country girl.”
Lorena also remembers her parents trying to teach her and her brothers and sisters the ways of the Otoe-Missouria people. She says that the Otoe-Missouria language was spoken in the home, but that she retained little of the old language.
“Sometimes they ask me, Lorena can you talk your Otoe language? No. I think I can understand some,” Lorena says. “But I was taught. Coming up, our dad and mother, it was the first thing they wanted us to learn. They tried to teach us. But it was up to us. We couldn’t say those words—those Indian words. I can understand, but making sentences and talking—I can’t.”
Lorena married Milburn DeRoin and the couple had two children—Milburn and Melba. When her husband was killed in an accident in 1951, she was left a widow with two children to support on her own. Although she had always worked, she was now the sole breadwinner for her family.
Lorena says she started her career as a nurse’s aide, but decided to pursue her LPN. She says when she first started looking for work in the medical profession she had to overcome stereotypes about Native Americans to get her foot in the door.
“At that time when they hired me, they said are you going to work?’” Lorena remembers. “I looked at them and said why yes, that’s why I came to ask for a job. Do you know what they said? The reason why was that Indians won’t work. They only work so long. And it made me mad! What? I didn’t know that. I always worked all my life. They said we hire Indian women, they show up, but then they won’t work anymore. They make their excuses. I said, well, I need a job! I’ll work! I’m a nurse’s aide and I’m soon going to be an LPN. I’m taking correspondence courses out of Oklahoma City. Well, we’ll hire you and we want you to work. And I showed them that Indians can work if they want to. It’s up to us.”
Lorena worked at the Tulsa Osteopathic Hospital and the Grandview Osteopathic Hospital in Ponca City. She says the key to her success was education.
“I had to raise my daughter and son on my own,” Lorena says. “I didn’t remarry. I didn’t want a stepdad for my children. It’s a good thing I was educated. I did that on my own.”
After working as an LPN for a number of years, Lorena went to work for Chilocco Indian School as a matron in the dormitory. She had a kind, but firm hand that guided many a young person along their way. Lorena’s great nephew (grandson in the Indian way) and current Otoe-Missouria Tribal Council Member Wesley Hudson remembers Lorena’s days as a matron.
“She used to get onto us all the time. ‘You best behave!’ she would tell us,” he imitates with a laugh.
After retiring from Chilocco Indian School, Lorena went to work for the Otoe-Missouria Tribe. She worked for the elders program for 32 years before again retiring at the age of 98. Lorena says that her job at the Title VI Elder program was perfect for her.
“I like to be around people. It makes you feel good and it makes you feel alive. I love working with old people,” she jokes with a wide smile.
In addition to having several successful careers and raising her children as a widow, Lorena also volunteers in her community.
Lorena has been an active member of the American War Mothers Otoe Indian Chapter #14 since 1962. The American War Mothers is a perpetual patriotic, 501(c) 4 non-profit, non-political, non-sectarian, non-partisan organization whose members are mothers of children who have served or are serving in the Armed Services during a time of conflict. Lorena’s son Milburn “Logan” DeRoin is a Navy veteran.
In addition to serving her local chapter in a number of elected positions, Lorena was also elected as the president of the National Chapter of American War Mothers in Washington D.C. She was the first Native American woman to hold that position.
As president of the American War Mothers, she served as Mistress of Ceremonies for three separate years on Mothers Day at Arlington National Cemetery and laid the Wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
In 2001, the 107th Congress recognized Lorena for her dedication to the American War Mothers. Oklahoma Senator Jim Inhofe saluted Lorena’s service on the floor of the U.S. Senate and with the following words acknowledged her commitment to service:
“Mrs. DeRoin’s contributions to our community and our country are an example of true servant leadership. Oklahoma is fortunate to count Lorena DeRoin as one of our own.”
Today, at nearly 100 years old, Lorena continues to serve in the American War Mothers Otoe Indian Chapter #14 as their chaplain and attends events when her health allows.
In 2010, Lorena was honored at the Oklahoma AARP Indian Elders Awards. She was recognized for her dedication to the American War Mothers and for her service to the community.
After retiring for the second time from her position at the Otoe-Missouria Title VI Program, Lorena went to live with her son and his wife in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma. Today she enjoys shopping, bingo, daily prayer and attending tribal events.
“Elders are taught to move around and help themselves now,” Lorena says. “Before they just sat. I always praise God for helping me and keeping me on this earth.”
A dinner and hand game will be held for Lorena on Saturday, February 7 at the Otoe-Missouria Cultural Building. The meal will be served at noon. The event is open to the public with a special invitation to veterans and American War Mothers.
When Lorena celebrates her 100th birthday on February 9, she will join an exclusive club of centenarians who have witnessed great changes in world history and created a little history of their own along the way.
Heather Payne works in the public information office of the Otoe-Missouria Indian Agency.