Sobriety, resilience help DeLille find her path
Roxanne DeLille overcame addiction and put herself through college. Now, she is the dean of indigenous and academic affairs at Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College.
“I looked in the mirror and couldn't see me,” Roxanne DeLille said softly.
The petite woman sits in a chair in her office at Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College. Her dark hair has gone mostly gray and is pulled back into a neat ponytail. Her distinctive voice can be heard clearly around a corner or across a room, as can her laugh. Her brown eyes look off into the distance as she talks of her past and challenges she has overcome.
She introduces herself as Bashqwaa’idaamoqwe first, then Roxanne DeLille.
DeLille, 65, is currently the dean of indigenous and academic affairs at FDLTCC and has been for the last three years.
The position was created as a part of the college's World Indigenous Nations Higher Education Consortium accreditation.
Before that, she taught communications classes at FDLTCC for 21 years.
Anna Fellegy is the college's vice president of academic affairs and has worked with DeLille since they began as faculty members.
“My first impression of Roxanne was that she was a force, which was correct,” Fellegy said.
But DeLille's path to get to that point was plagued with obstacles.
“I was the oldest of 10 kids from an alcoholic family,” DeLille said.
DeLille's mother was a member of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa in Wisconsin. Her father was not Native American. The family lived in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, but she spent a lot of time on the reservation visiting relatives as a child.
She participated in cultural events with family members while growing up, but said she did not become spiritual until years later.
“Being Anishinabe was always a part of my identity,” DeLille said.
When DeLille became a teenager, she begged her parents to send her to Flandreau Indian School, a public boarding school in South Dakota. There she met students from tribes all over the U.S., some of which she had never heard of before. She stayed until she was 16 years old.
After she left the boarding school, she floated around for a while eventually landing in Minneapolis.
When she was 17 years old she met her future husband, Donald DeLille, at Summerfest in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. They married within a few months.
“He was the love of my life,” DeLille said.
Her husband was in the military, and DeLille accompanied him to Thailand for a year.
They came back to the U.S., and she had her first child when she was 18 years old. Several years later, a second child followed. The family settled in Minneapolis. After eight years of marriage, DeLille unexpectedly became a widow.
She supported her young children by working as a beautician.
“I figured out how to make it work,” DeLille said.
DeLille began drinking alcohol and using drugs during her teenage years and continued into her early 30s.
When she looked in the mirror and realized she didn't recognize herself, she knew it was time to take action.
She put herself through a traditional treatment program complete with meetings at Abbott Northwestern Hospital in the Twin Cities and began the next chapter of her life. She felt that continuing to attend meetings after treatment was important for her success in the first year.
“There were very hard, very challenging steps,” DeLille said.
Many times she said she asked her mentors, "Why me?" They responded with, "If not you, then who?"
DeLille has been sober over 30 years now.
“I liked it when I realized I have been sober longer than I used,” DeLille said.
She was working at a Catholic Charities organization in Minneapolis, which was a drop-in center for the homeless, when she met a man named Porky White. White was an elder and a spiritual teacher from Leech Lake. He often played cards with homeless people. He wanted to let them know someone loved and cared about them.
One day he asked DeLille her name. She said, Roxanne. He said "No, who resides within that vessel?" referring to her body. DeLille was confused. Over the years, she said White helped her understand her cultural roots and grow spiritually.
She soon knew the answer to the question White asked her.
“Bashqwaa’idaamoqwe is who resides within this vessel, within this body,” DeLille said. “This is who I am.”
Soon she began to put herself through college. Her kids were teenagers. She was trying to figure out what life meant to her.
DeLille started taking courses at FDLTCC, then attended the University of Minnesota-Duluth, before finishing her studies at the University of Minnesota. She attained her degree in speech communications.
After she graduated, she searched for a job.
She was not having any luck when she ran into Jack Briggs, the president of FDLTCC at the time, at a family function.
Briggs approached DeLille and asked what she was up to. She told him she was looking for a job, and he urged her to teach a class at the college.
“I was good at it,” DeLille said. “I feel good working here — I make a difference.”
She was going to quit teaching to finish graduate school, but Briggs offered to have the college pay for her to finish as long as she agreed to commit to teaching at FDLTCC for five years. She did.
“The creator makes decisions,” DeLille said. “I just get to act on it.”
Fellergy describes DeLille as inspirational.
“She breathes positivity and willingness into people,” Fellergy said. “She creates a drive in people to achieve, to see beyond, reach further, endure longer.”
Many years later she was asked to fill the Indigenous and Academic Affairs position.
Fellergy described DeLille as someone who demands a lot of herself and works hard "on every level of the human dimension."
“I don't think I can measure her impact on the college (and )students in physical terms,” Fellergy said. "She reaches into people's hearts and minds and they are moved. The impact of that is simply far, far reaching."
DeLille said life is interesting, and she never knows what it will offer.
“I am actively engaged in this process, in this thing called life,” she said.