Native Elder “Grandma Agnes” Gets Honorary Doctorate at 96

Mrs. Agnes Dill (Isleta/Laguna)

By Anthony Fleg of the Native Health Initiative

At the University of New Mexico’ spring commencement this Saturday, many graduates will grasp their degree with a sigh of relief, thinking of how long a road it has been.

None of them quite knows the road like Mrs. Agnes Dill, however.

Mrs. Dill (Isleta/Laguna), born in 1913, will be receiving an honorary doctorate degree at UNM’s graduation for her tireless dedication to the issues around the access to education for American Indian women.

As a founding member for multiple organizations, including the North American Indian Women’s Association, Mrs. Dill has led a life of service and dedication to empowering women.

Whereas UNM currently has close to 1,500 American Indian students, Mrs. Dill attended UNM at a time when only 14 were enrolled.

“And we did not have scholarships in those days, so the Native students lived down at the Albuquerque Indian School (12th and Menaul) because we could not afford to stay on campus with the other students,” she remembers.

It is fitting that Mrs. Dill, a lifelong educator herself, will receive this honor in the name of the University she once attended, one month shy of her 97th birthday.

When asked how she feels about the award, Mrs. Dill closes her eyes and shakes her head.

“I really never expected something like this to happen, but I am proud of all of the work we have been able to do over the years to better the conditions in our Indian communities.”

Mrs. Dill will be escorted during the graduation ceremony by Dr. Melvina McCabe (Navajo), a family doctor at UNM who coordinates the Geriatric Center’s Council of Elders that Agnes has served on for the past years.

The Native Health Initiative nominated Mrs. Dill for the honorary degree after seeing her continued work to serve; NHI has asked Mrs. Dill and her sisters to speak to a variety of health professions students to give a perspective on American Indian health and culture.

“We felt that this was a moment where Grandma Agnes, a woman who represents the Indigenous wisdom and knowledge that is too often unrecognized by Universities, needed to be honored,” says NHI Coordinator Shannon Fleg (Navajo).

Shannon had quite a task to compile a resume spanning 80 years of advocacy, as Mrs. Dill was not a person to keep track of her accomplishments.

Saturday’s ceremony has already had ripple effects, Shannon says.

“Since we have begun to spread the news about Mrs. Agnes, leaders and elders in our local Indigenous communities are saying to us – wait until next year, because we have someone to nominate as well!”

For more information on the Native Health Initiative, visit or contact Shannon Fleg at