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Byline: Megan Twohey
Apr. 8--MENOMINEE INDIAN RESERVATION -- Leon Fowler drives his beat-up Mustang over the winding roads of the Menominee Reservation. The roads are paved with memories. His mother died on them. He was 8. She was drunk. He spent much of his 20s behind the wheel. He would down bottles of liquor until his eyes were bleary, until his body was numb. Now Fowler is 32. He has a burly build and black hair. He is driving in a new direction. Fourteen years ago, his aunt founded a college on the reservation. She wanted to offer the Menominee a path out of poverty. More than 1,000 students -- waitresses, security guards, bus drivers -- signed up, hungry for a brighter future. Eventually, Fowler enrolled. He left behind his minimum-wage job to see if he could do better. "It's like I could drink and do drugs, or I can check out this education," he says as he drives past sagging houses with trash-strewn lawns. He is on his way to class. -- Cold rain cuts through the canopy of trees covering the Menominee Reservation. Leon Fowler's aunt, Verna Fowler, is standing in the auditorium of Menominee High School, peering out at a sea of faces. The students, in jeans and hooded sweat shirts, are slumped in their chairs. The mood is as uplifting as the weather. Fowler, a stocky woman with cropped hair, is talking about how the reservation is the poorest county in Wisconsin. Half the children are from families living below the poverty level. Alcoholism is rampant. So is diabetes. The average life expectancy -- 57 years -- is similar to that of war-ravaged Sudan. "Poverty," Fowler tells the students, "has plagued our community."
It wasn't always like this. Menominee Indians, an Algonquian-speaking …