Chief Joseph (Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekt, Nez Perce) themed custom skateboard deck by Native artist Steven Paul Judd, taking a place of honor in my dining room at home. I received this gift from a beloved teacher and mentor, Mrs. Rosa Winfree, after she passed on last year. Mrs. Rosa directed the Indian Education program in the public school system where I was raised, and she was a national leader in Native education.
The gift was part of a giveaway, a traditional activity emphasizing generosity, unselfishness, and open-handedness. Mrs. Rosa planned the giveaway herself during her last days, and it was hosted by her children following a memorial service for their mom. Mrs. Rosa's daughter, Lori, told me that the skateboard deck represented youth, and her mom gave it to me because I speak for the young people. Mrs. Rosa spent her life advocating for young people, and I'm honored to have opportunities to continue this work as one small part of her giant legacy.
You can read more about Mrs. Rosa's work below, in a remembrance that I gave at her memorial service.
Our first interactions with Mrs. Rosa came soon after my parents enrolled me in Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools. The urban school district was unfamiliar territory to my parents, whose own experiences had been segregated Indian schools. In Mrs. Rosa, my family found a powerful advocate. In her role as the school district’s Indian Education coordinator, she ensured that Native children were treated fairly and respectfully in a system where we were often the only such children in our schools. Instead of feeling cast adrift in the state’s largest school district, Native students and their families knew that Mrs. Rosa Revels Winfree kept an eye on us.
In addition to an advocate, Mrs. Rosa was a gifted educator. I will never forget her classroom visits and special presentations in the schools I attended. She told clear, powerful stories about who Native people are, where we come from, and where we are going. In my early grades, her stories and lessons explained things about me to my teachers and peers in ways that I could not. In a way, she helped to validate my fragile identity as a Native person in a classroom full of students who only knew “Indians” from television and movies. She organized field trips and volunteer opportunities for Indian Education students and families, many of which were aimed at cultural enrichment and exchanges among tribes. As I grew older, Mrs. Rosa’s lessons turned to leadership, higher education, and maintaining cultural values in the wider world. Many of those lessons have stuck with me through my entire life.
Although she was a fierce advocate and a talented educator, Mrs. Rosa Revels Winfree was, above all, a loving encourager. She knew how to draw out the full potential of young people. She held her Indian Education students to high standards, yes, but she guided us toward those standards with love and encouragement. Whether it was college, career, or simply being a kind and respectful person, Mrs. Rosa encouraged us to do our best. She made us want to do our best for our loved ones and for ourselves.
In recent years, I have seen less of Mrs. Rosa, maybe only two or three times per year. No matter where we were or what the occasion, Mrs. Rosa would grab me by both hands, look me in the eyes, and say, “I love you, Ryan.” I knew that she meant those words with all of her heart. I also knew that when she spoke those words to me, she meant them equally to the hundreds of Indian Education students that she advocated for, taught, and encouraged over the course of many years. Indeed, Mrs. Rosa Revels Winfree touched many thousands of lives through her work beyond our local Indian Education program, and we will always be grateful for her love, her care, and her encouragement.